A woman has been on a self-imposed medical exile in Spain for three years because authorities in her home country of Ireland have refused to cover the cost of
Alicia Maher lives with chronic pain caused by a shattered tail bone and has a history of other serious health problems including Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and a burst large intestine that still requires her to have a colostomy bag.
She was prescribed a series of powerful medications, including Panadol, Tramadol, Palexia and four monthly injections into the coccyx. In 2015, she developed sciatica, leading to an increase in her medications to include Lyrica and amitriptyline, for a total of 30 tablets a day taken over the next three years.
“I was totally wiped out,”
Soon, she began to worry about the side effects of the medications she was taking, including impacts on her breathing and eating habits. The drugs also had a profound effect on Maher’s quality of life.
“I would get up and take 10 tablets and fall straight back to sleep, and take the next 10 tablets and back to sleep,” she said. “I was rarely awake.”
Medical Cannabis Unbelievably Effective
In 2018, a friend who was using cannabis to treat chronic in the United States suggested she try it. He mailed her a vape pen, and she tried cannabis for the first time at the age of 34.
“My doctor didn’t know and I was still taking 30 tablets a day so it was a risk but it was a last resort,” she remembers. “There was no point living my life on the couch.”
After trying the vape pen, Maher discovered that cannabis had an almost immediate effect on her condition.
“I could not believe the pain was going away. That night, I didn’t bother taking my night-time amitriptyline or Lyrica and I went off to sleep,” she explained. “The next morning, then, I woke up with the same pain again and I tried the vape again, and again it got rid of the pain.”
Maher described the experience as a “gentle” easing of the pain, without feeling “weird.”
She continued to use vapes from the U.S., weaning herself off the more powerful pharmaceuticals at the same time. But when getting the vapes from abroad became more difficult, she started buying marijuana from the illicit market.
“Luckily, most of the time, it worked as well as the vaping but then there were sometimes that I got it, I knew that I shouldn’t smoke it because it looked terrible,” said Maher.
Health System Refuses To Cover Cost of Medical Cannabis
Maher has a prescription to use medicinal cannabis to treat her condition, but administrators refuse to cover the charge because her pain is not covered under Ireland’s medical cannabis program. Without coverage, Maher is unable to afford the medicine that she needs. The cost for her medicinal cannabis, more than €1,000 (just over $1,000) each month, exceeds the amount she would receive on a disability pension.
Together, Maher and her husband Gerry move to Alicante, Spain on the Mediterranean coast in 2019, and the couple have been living there ever since. In their new home, they have access to Spain’s cannabis clubs, where Maher can obtain the medicine she needs affordably.
“I don’t think anyone should have to move abroad to access a medication that is working for them. It should be simple,” said Maher. “There is the Medical Cannabis Access Programme but I don’t qualify for that.”
While Maher is in Spain to access her medicine, she has had to leave her parents and extended family, all of whom she misses on a daily basis. In addition to her mother and father, her siblings, nieces and nephews have remained at home in Ireland.
“It is absolutely shocking that families are broken up over this,” she said.
“There is a big difference in my nephews and nieces when I don’t see them for two and a half years,” Maher added. “They were different people when I saw them when I came over recently.”
Maher and her husband have lived in Spain for three years so she can afford the medicine she needs. They are hopeful that the public health system in Ireland will soon expand its coverage for medical cannabis, but until then the couple will remain in medical exile.