Article by Debi Facey, High! Canada
Jonathan Zaid is a 24 year old part-time student, founder, executive director and a strong, openly gay medical cannabis advocate who has been paving the way for patients’ rights. In 2011, Jonathan helped launch the STARS project, a harm-reduction program and safe space for LGBTQ youth, out of Delisle Youth Services in Toronto. In 2014, Jonathan founded Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana (CFAMM). This non-profit organization, which is run by patients, main objective is to “enable patients to obtain fair and safe access to medical cannabis with a special focus on affordability, including private and public insurance coverage”. CFAMM has been an amazing platform for patients to gain the education, understanding, and stability within their means.
Could you tell me a little about yourself? What were you doing before starting CFAMM and your studies?
Since a young age, I have always had a keen interest in politics, community service, and animal rights. From about age 7 to 14, I volunteered on various political campaigns and in grade 8 was elected my school’s prefect of community service. Towards the end of grade 8, in April 2007, I developed a neurological illness called New Daily Persistent Headache (NDPH), that causes 24/7 head pain, insomnia, and migraines. At that point my life basically stopped – I could barely handle noise and essentially dropped out of school, stopped volunteering and playing sports, and was no longer able to socialize with friends beyond texts or online messaging. I was able to pass grade 8 and attended a special high school that could accommodate my NDPH, including one-on-one classroom environments to limit noise. During this time, I was trying every treatment option available, including countless medications, therapies, and a two-week inpatient program at the top headache neurology program in the US. I was fortunate to be accepted into good university programs and went to Laurier business school for my first year. The program at Laurier wasn’t very flexible so I decided to transfer to University of Waterloo’s Knowledge Integration program, a trans-disciplinary degree, after first year.
When it came to creating your organization, was it dificult for you to not only prove your statistics but also be respected due to your age at the time? And why CFAMM?
After hearing cannabis had helped others with my condition, I decided it would be worth trying medical cannabis as all other therapies had failed. Even though I had tried so many risky medications with severe side-effects, my physicians initially outright refused to authorize medical cannabis for me. Regardless, I decided to try using cannabis myself and found some relief from it – especially for migraines and insomnia. After finally getting authorization from a physician I still struggled with reliable supply and affordability (due to limited insurance coverage). As some of the previous medications I was on were approved through special exception under University of Waterloo’s undergraduate student union’s health plan, I decided to put through a claim for my medical cannabis. Of course, it was denied at first but after eight months of meetings and deliberation, the student union agreed it should be covered and approved it on a case-by-case basis.
Being a young person and student who uses cannabis for medical purposes comes with its own unique challenges – many people assume it’s just for fun/I am simply trying to get high and don’t respect its medical value. I launched CFAMM in an effort to bring a moderate, progressive, and collaborative voice to the medical cannabis advocacy space.
CFAMM has been established now for 3 years, how does CFAMM continue to impact the community?
CFAMM has grown tremendously since its launch in late 2014 and continues to have a focus on medical cannabis patients including advocacy, education and stigma reduction. We have strong relationships and closely collaborate with various stakeholders including government, regulators (i.e. Health Canada), industry, charities, and health care providers. Right before the launch of the task force on legalization, we started a strategic partnership with The Arthritis Society and Canadian AIDS Society to advocate for patients’ needs during legalization – including increased access, affordability, and research. We held a reception on parliament hill for MPs and later facilitated a session for a diverse group of patients to meet with the task force and share their experience and concerns. CFAMM continues to actively advocate for medical cannabis patients and will not let up until their needs are fully met. We have also launched patient advocacy initiatives with LPs, including a recently announced partnership with Aurora Cannabis to support the appeal of a potentially precedent setting Nova Scotia human rights case.
What are some of your day to day duties completed in order to successfully keep CFAMM as the foundation that it is?
Most of my work at CFAMM is split between communications, government relations, and insurance advocacy. We endeavor to have an active voice in media to de-stigmatized medical cannabis use and conducted over forty interviews last year alone. CFAMM regularly consults with Health Canada and government and we have been fortunate enough to ind our work well received within these sectors (including a few mentions in the task force report!). We continue to keep up the media work and have regular meetings with policymakers as legalization continues to progress through parliament and provincial/territorial governments.
How would you like to see CFAMM utilized once legalization July 2018 is in place?
CFAMM will remain in place to ensure the medical use of cannabis is kept distinct and patients’ needs are fully met. As things progress, CFAMM will re-focus on areas that will still need attention, such as education and research.