Patients caught in the middle 0
It's been 90 days since 20 RCMP and OPP officers raided the home and medical clinic of Dr. Rob Kamermans in Coe Hill. The warrant said the doctor was possessing and trafficking drugs. Found at his office on the morning of Jan. 26, Kamermans was cuffed and taken away by the OPP. He says an officer made him pose for a picture in handcuffs outside his clinic.
When he asked why he had to be cuffed, he was told it was for the protection of the police.
"They were 20 young men with guns," Kamermans says quietly. "I am an old man."
No illegal drugs were found and no charges have been laid. Kamermans was released from questioning after a few hours on Jan. 26 and left to find his own way back home to Coe Hill.
Since the raid, the police have not backed down. They will not say much about the case and have given no indication when they might return the medical files seized in the raid.
Kamermans is a medical doctor licensed to practice in Canada and across the border in the U.S. He's soft spoken and timid, but many consider him a hero.
Along with his wife Mary, a registered nurse, Kamermans helps patients who are suffering from grave and debilitating diseases. They help people who are broken and they help the people who will probably never be fixed.
They help by approving them for the use of medical marijuana.
Health Canada recognizes that marijuana "remains an illegal and controlled substance, however, under the marijuana medical access regulations, Health Canada allows for medical access to marijuana."
On their website, they make it clear that they do not address the issue of legalizing medical marijuana for general consumption.
And this is where the patients Kamermans helps are getting stuck.
Police agencies view marijuana as a drug. End of story.
Bancroft staff sergeant Dan Rajsic was clear in his thoughts about Kamermans in an interview on March 16.
"If you deal drugs you have to expect to deal with the police," he said.
And this is why the situation is frustrating for the doctor and his patients. Health Canada allows him to participate in the national program, it allows him to assess patients and if they are approved he fills out the paperwork for their permit. This gets sent to Health Canada for processing and in eight to 10 weeks the patient can either grow their own marijuana or designate someone to grow it for them. Patients can also access dried marijuana from Health Canada.
Terminal patients will have waiting times reduced, according to notes on the Health Canada website.
Kamermans, a believer in the benefits of medical use of marijuana, said when he first started approving patients he tried to keep it quiet.
Not many doctors were participating and when he would approve someone, he would ask that they be discreet.
"We would say, you know, don't tell everyone," Kamermans said. "That didn't really work."
So word spread and more and more clients reached out to the doctor in his small clinic in Coe Hill.
At the same time patients were being approved, police agencies were asking Health Canada for access to their names. Health Canada only releases the number of approved users - not names.
This is part of the reason Kamermans believes he was targeted.
"The police came in and they took everything," Kamermans said. "They took the files and they have all of the personal details of people who we approved and the people who were waiting to be seen and they have the names of everyone who will expire."
The doctor reports being under surveillance before the raid and the surveillance notes were extensive- over 100 pages of observations and photographs of things like the doctor making credit card purchases.
Even now, with no charges laid, Kamermans says the police are never far from the clinic and he is aware of their presence.
The pressure from the police is making life difficult for both the doctor and his patients.
This is scary for those in the program. People like Mark, who doesn't want his last name used. He's in a bad spot because his files have been taken by the police. He was approved a year ago and now as part of the Health Canada program regulations, he needs a renewal.
Kamermans is wary about signing any other forms. Not only is he missing his charts, but he's still under pressure from the OPP and he's being investigated for his practices by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.
Kathryn Clarke is the senior communications coordinator for the college and she confirms Kamermans is under investigation for his medical marijuana practice.
Kamermans says the complaint that started the investigation was launched by another physician who does not support the program. When the patient disclosed to their own doctor that he or she was using medical marijuana, as approved by Dr. Kamermans, the complaint was made.
Back to Mark, who has travelled close to 500 kilometres for this clinic visit. He's a young professional with a family and he has ulcerative colitis. Ulcerative colitis is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that affects the lining of the large intestine and rectum. This painful and debilitating disease runs in Mark's family and he has had symptoms for years.
"It was getting really bad and I was having flare-ups and being hospitalized for three weeks at a time," Mark says. "There is no way to describe the pain."
He was put on narcotics for the pain and given strong drugs that he describes as being chemo-type. Nothing was really helping the disease, which can be made worse by stress.
Then his partner suggested marijuana. He thought she was crazy, but he was desperate and worried about getting worse and having to face surgery. So, he tried it.
"It was really effective," Mark says. "I started feeling better and the flare-ups went away."
Mark searched for a doctor to approve him but had no luck. Then, like many others in his situation, he heard about Kamermans and he made the long trip to see if the doctor could help.
"I was respected and listened to and helped," Mark says. "This is an awful disease and I am glad that I am not suffering anymore."
But that might not be true for this patient and for others that the doctor has been working with. With the files gone it is hard to work. The college has their investigation and no hearing date has been set and there's the ongoing presence of the OPP.
Mark is upset with the situation.
"This is a medication and it makes me feel better," he says. "I can tell you that I now have quality of life and I don't want to have to buy drugs on the black market. That's not something I want to do."
Mark is not alone. Many of Kamermans's patients don't want to stop taking the one medication that has started making their lives better, but without their forms filled-out and renewed each year, they will be forced to break the law, they say.
If they choose to become illegal users, with Kamermans's files, they fear the OPP and RCMP will target them.
Finding another doctor is not easy. The college will not release the names of the doctors participating in the program and patients are encouraged to speak with their own family physicians.
This doesn't always have a good outcome.
When Kamermans was taken into custody the investigating officer asked why all doctors don't participate in the program.
"I said to the police, then they would have to deal with the police and be treated like this," Kamermans reports.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario does not release the names of doctors who participate in the program and neither does Health Canada.
Ryan is another patient of Kamermans. He also doesn't want his name used although he's fully aware that the police now have it.
Ryan is a professional, running his own business and raising a family. He says it's hard enough to live with multiple sclerosis and when he heard that marijuana could help his disease, he asked his doctor.
"He wouldn't help," Ryan says. "And then I found the Kamermanses and they were compassionate and caring and they listened to all of my concerns and approved me and I started feeling better. I have two young kids and now I have an appetite and I can sleep and the horrible pain is under control."
"I am not depressed like I was," Ryan says. "This is a great doctor."
Ryan says his heart goes out to the man who helped him function again.
"I'm compassionate for him," Ryan says. "He's sitting there all alone having to deal with this crap. He's the one who gets the negative publicity and has to risk everything. This is allowed by Health Canada but the police are making this hard for him and hard for us."
"It is humbling to live in such extreme pain," Ryan says. "People need to understand this."
There has been negative publicity. Global Television featured the doctor in a recent documentary. Kamermans and his wife didn't want to speak to the media, on the advice of their lawyer, and they sent a letter to Global asking for their privacy. The crew came anyway and ambushed the doctor on a dirt road outside of Coe Hill. They accused him of profiting off a broken system and of acting unprofessionally.
Kamermans is eager to clarify the damaging details of that story.
He does bill OHIP for clinic visits. This is allowed. He also bills for the non-insured service of filling out medical forms. This is the same as paying your doctor for a sick note or medical file copies or anything else that is not covered by OHIP. These prices are suggested by the Ontario Medical Association.
Global accused Kamermans of taking mass sign-ups in hotel rooms. The doctor says he does run mobile clinics in different communities and he is allowed to see patients outside his office. Because the doctor is dealing with gravely ill patients, they are not all able to travel to see him. Visits outside of the clinic are not billed to OHIP.
On the income amount and the number of mobile clinics, Kamermans says Global got the numbers wrong.
Laurie Few is the executive producer of the Global show 16x9 that featured the doctor. She says in an email, "Global 16x9 stands by our story aired March 17, 2012."
Kamermans said the show on Global was unfair.
"I'm a doctor and I'm trying to help people," Kamermans says.
Sitting in his office in Coe Hill it's obvious he's upset. The office is bright and there's lots of natural wood and big windows. There is art on the walls and in the waiting room there's a homeopathy display and brochures on breastfeeding. His degrees hang on the wall.
He says he knew this was going to be hard, but he believes fully in the properties of marijuana and sees how it helps his patients.
Lori Stephenson is the office manager. She's firm but gentle with patient after patient trying to see the doctor. She explains as best she can the situation. No one is happy.
Stephenson says she thought it was crazy at first but after seeing all the people who were going to such an effort to get legal access and after seeing how it was helping, she changed her mind.
"We have seniors coming in who don't want their grandkids to know they use marijuana," she says. "These are people who don't want to break the law - they don't want to be judged."
For the past few months no one wanted to talk about what was happening. After the raid things were tense. Mary Kamermans's hands are red and peeling.
"I don't know what this is - stress," she says. "I'm nervous all the time because I think the police are coming back."
Mary Kamermans cares for the patients who come into the clinic. She's feeling victimized and she feels the weight of not being able to help her patients.
"In the states, in Michigan, where Rob can also work, their act says that the police cannot persecute a doctor for prescribing marijuana," she explains. "Health Canada put together their program and we got involved and now the police come after us and our patients and it's up to us to fight this."
And it is a fight.
Even though charges were never laid, Kamermans says officers call him a druggie. Stephenson says the OPP follow her around and Mary Kamermans says she's so uneasy in her own house after the raid and after being told by the police that they were under surveillance; she's nervous to take a shower.
"We haven't done anything wrong and I live in fear that they're going to keep coming back," she says.
Contacting the media was a big step - especially after the bad experience with Global. But last week something changed.
They got a call at the clinic from the partner of a patient. She was dealing with chronic pain and had been on high doses of narcotics for many years. Kamermans had consulted with her and she was waiting for her paperwork.
She was going to get off the narcotics and use medical marijuana to manager her illness.
On the day of the raid, her paperwork was ready to go out in the mail in an Express Post envelope. The police took it. It has never been returned.
The call that came in to the office last week was heart breaking.
"Her partner called and said not to send the forms," Kamermans said. "She went to sleep and she never woke up. I don't know for sure what happened but there are 13,000 deaths each year from accidental overdosing."
So now Kamermans is ready to talk. His patients are ready to talk and he wants to get his life back. He wants to keep working with his patients.
In a letter he sent to Global Television he writes, "here we are doing something that has the potential to help a great number and we are being persecuted for it."
"One of the areas in which I feel strongly that we can make a big difference is neurogenic pain, and the present rampant addiction to opiates," Kamermans wrote in the letter.
This is becoming an area of specialty for Kamermans as more and more of his patients are seeking assistance managing their chronic pain and disease with medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids.
Kamermans is helping patients detox without methadone, he says.
John is another patient of Kamermans and he's got a long list of medical concerns. He's got arthritis, multiple spinal disorders and digestive issues. The complicating list of ailments is helped by anti-inflammatory medications but his stomach can't take the meds.
For 10 years he's been on fentanyl - a powerful synthetic opiate analgesic similar to but more potent than morphine. He was getting nervous about the long-term risks of opiate use and in addition, he didn't think the drugs were working anymore. He wanted to try medical marijuana and he wanted to get off the fentanyl.
"So my doctor said I could go on methadone and that there was a clinic that I could try in Belleville and that was all he could do," John says. "I had heard that methadone was more addictive than morphine so I didn't want to do that so I tried stopping the drugs on my own."
John says the symptoms of withdrawal were worse than anything he has ever experienced. There are hot flashes, sweating, abdominal pain, cramping, he couldn't sleep and there were muscle spasms.
"It was like pain I'd never felt before and I couldn't sit still and I couldn't get comfortable," John says.
"The marijuana is helping," John says. "Kamermans was more helpful than any other doctor and he was honest about how hard it would be to detox but I'm getting there."
"The marijuana is working on my symptoms - it's amazing what it can do and I had no idea and I wish I had known before," John says.
John has a similar story to many of the doctor's patients. He was not a recreational drug user. He didn't want to get high and he was already struggling with how opiates made him feel. The patients that Kamermans works with all say that they went to the school assemblies and listened to their parents and the police who said this was a dangerous drug.
But when their diseases made life difficult, they did what many desperate people do. They asked friends and family, they went online and they kept finding that there might be something to this drug. The drug worked for them, but now they have to decide what to do next.
The doctor and his wife will continue to try to access their patient files and hope that the OPP will back off. They say they are not possessing or selling drugs.
"I don't even smoke the stuff," Kamermans says. "This is a gift. This is medicine."
The Kamermanses will also have to wait for their hearing at the college where they will have to respond to complaints from another doctor who they say didn't want his patient approved.
The Kamermanses continue to hope Health Canada will tighten up their guidelines and give clear directions to physicians in the programs. If there are specific criteria that need to be followed the Kamermanses will do that, they say. They just need the direction from Health Canada.
As for the patients, who are trying to live normal despite their ailments or diseases, many are living in fear because of the information the police have.
So what's a patient to do? Go without the medicine or break the law and support the black market?
Kamermans says he has been traumatized by this process. He believes he has suffered defamation of character and that the police are trying to ruin his practice and his life.
"I'm a doctor and I help people," he says. "I do not think that it is fair that we have to live in fear of retaliation from the police when we are trying to do something useful for society."
OPP sergeant Kristine Rae is handling media relations for the case and in an interview on April 20 she said that the investigation is still on going and that no charges have been laid.
Rae says she is not aware of how the case is being handled locally but did say there are thousands of pages of paper that still have to be investigated. She says patients are not the target of the investigation but confirms medical records were seized.
Rae also said she was not aware of the contents of the warrant that was used in the raid on Jan. 26.