Results from Toronto marijuana study in 1972 still not public

Results from Toronto marijuana study in 1972 still not public

e under the best medical supervision available with the best pot available, kind of, doing something illegal legally.” The idea and the money also appealed to Lorna Zaback, 23, Purdy’s roommate outside the hospital. Like Purdy, Zaback had also graduated from Ryerson’s fashion program. She had been working for Eaton’s, designing bridal headpieces when she discovered she didn’t want a career in fashion after all. “The bridal department at Eaton’s, the fashion industry as a whole I saw as very misogynistic,” Zaback says. “At the time . . . I didn’t even believe in marriage. It was difficult for me to feel like I belonged there with my burgeoning feminist politics.” Zaback hoped to earn enough money from the experiment to travel to British Columbia to check out its alternative culture. The study called for single women, but Marcia Smith, 25, snuck in anyhow. Newly married and living in Cabbagetown, she wanted to help finance the sign-painting company her husband hoped to start. For Maria Welyhorskyj, it came in the wake of a series of odd jobs all over the world. The young woman from Espanola, Ont., had bought jewelry in Ethiopia and then resold to tourist shops in Kenya, canned fish in Israel and sorted mail in England. She promised her parents that after nearly four years abroad, she’d be home for Christmas. The experiment gave her something to do in the new year. “My mom was upset,” Welyhorskyj says. “She thought that I needed to go into a marijuana experiment like I needed a hole in my head.” The women were quickly split into two groups located in two different areas of the hospital. Half of them — the experimental group — were required to smoke increasingly potent doses of marijuana twice a night, while the other half — the control group — did not. Both sides could purchase as many relatively mild joints as they wanted for 50 cents apiece at a store that also sold alcohol, junk food, toiletries, cigarettes, magazines and two shades of pantyhose — ginger beige and café pecan. And then they got to work. A key element of the study was its micro-economy. The women were required to cover the cost of their existence, except for their bed and water, for 98 days. Whatever money they earned and did not spend on food, clothing or entertainment, they could keep. A $250 bonus awaited those who stuck with the experiment until the end. Those who quit early would lose the extra payout and up to 75 per cent of their savings. They made their living on a primitive-looking wooden device, a Guatemalan back-strap loom, which they used to weave colourful, fuzzy, woollen belts with knotted tassels. For every belt that passed inspection — it had to contain at least two colours and measure 132 centimetres in length —— the women received $2.50. “I thought I was going in there to make my fortune,” Purdy recalls. It took me eight hours to do my first one.” After a few days of practice, it got easier. But Purdy soon realized the mandatory nightly double doses of high-grade marijuana could seriously cut into her profits if she wasn’t careful. So Purdy and many of the other young women adjusted their production schedules knowing they’d be out of commission after 8 p.m. “I wasn’t in there to make friends,” says Zaback. “I’m not sure anyone else was either. We were kind of on a mission. We were there to do a job and that’s what we did. In the face of being, you know, impaired most of the time.” Purdy started her day at 4 a.m. She would pull on a leotard, do a few stretches and then head to the nurse’s station for a glass of orange juice and her weigh-in. She then worked flat-out through the day, breaking only to eat breakfast, lunch and a soup-and-sandwich dinner. At 7:30, she cashed in for the night, put on her nightie, grabbed her curlers and headed for the lounge. Toke time was 8:15 p.m. “People are doing each other’s hair up. We’re playing cards. We’ve got the Rolling Stones and The Who banging away on the stereo . . . “And then El Nurse comes in with — you know the thing your bill comes in on at a restaurant, on a wee tray.” Piled on the tray, like a perfectly stacked miniature cord of wood, were joints “big as your baby finger,” Purdy recalls. “And you couldn’t pass them. You were going to smoke two of those suckers. By yourself.” Several staff watched the women to make sure the joints were efficiently inhaled, right down to the nub. Nurses measured and recorded the women’s heart rate after each joint.“And you were done,” Purdy continues. “You crawl down the hall to the nurse’s station, demand two bags of barbecued potato chips, stagger into your room and read one page of your book over and over again.” For the first few weeks, the experience felt like a hedonistic retreat without the sunshine — the women weren’t allowed to go out. Because of Miles’s strict staff rule about not showing approval or disapproval of the subjects, the women had their run of the place. Brown recalls staging a mini-rebellion. “One of the nurses, Winnie, she was an older woman. We always thought she was judging us. It could have been an internal thing. We were 22 years old, smoking marijuana for the government. Every half-hour she would check in on us to see what we were doing and write it down. Because we had nowhere to go, I thought it would be fun one night to hide in a box of wool.” When Winnie came looking for Brown at bed check, the other women played dumb. Thinking Brown had somehow escaped, Winnie flew into a panic. “We let it go on for 15 to 20 minutes,” says Brown. Before the gag started, Brown and the women had worked out a signal for when Winnie was approaching the box. Brown heard her cue in a knock and leapt out like a snake in a can of peanut brittle. “I almost gave her a heart attack,” Brown says. “I had to see the psychiatrist about why I did that.” She did feel remorse afterward. In both groups, most of the women were bunked two to a room. The set-up didn’t last long, as many moved their mattresses off the bed frames and sought private spaces around the ward. Some took to storage closets. One participant bought chalk from the ward store to draw murals on the lounge walls. Another, a professional bartender, mixed drinks. Women in both groups were known to walk around naked. Living on locked, separate wards didn’t stop women from the two groups from communicating with each other or people in surrounding office buildings — like the men who were being held in the forensic psychiatry unit at the Clarke Institute, which was next door. The women wrote friendly, short messages on large placards and flashed their signs through the large windows that faced the street and an interior courtyard. The carefree vibe didn’t last long. The joints became so potent that some sought a doctor’s note to get out of their nightly obligations, saying they felt too sick to smoke. “We were asking them to take it away,” Brown says. “They knew we wanted it taken away; there was no doubt. I felt comatose. I couldn’t do anything. “It became torture,” Brown says. In the last week, the women who were left on the mandatory smoking unit refused to continue. The marijuana was provided by Health Canada. Dr. Galfrid Congreve, a junior psychologist hired by Miles whose office overlooked the legendary El Mocambo nightclub, says he believes it came from the government’s own farm in Ontario. In the early 1970s, the federal department operated a pot operation that contained more than 300 varieties. A health official at the time boasted the government’s crop yielded a potency three times stronger than what was available on the street. It was sorted to remove seeds and stems before being rolled into cigarettes. Fresh joints were prepared weekly. Somewhere past the halfway mark of the experiment, one woman quit because the marijuana and the isolation — communication with family and friends outside was permitted only by letter — were too much to bear. “The isolation, I found it very hard,” Brown recalls. “I’d be looking out the windows thinking, ‘I’d love to go out for a walk just to get out of here.’ It probably — even though I was with these nine other women — increased my loneliness.” “I saw a few people get kind of unhinged,” Purdy says. “It gradually built up in our systems so that your peripheral vision was shot. There were things flashing through the air that weren’t there. It felt like you had an iron lung. Not coughing. I just mean you felt heavy. It definitely had a build-up effect.” The isolation also took its toll on the non-smoking group. Marcia Smith’s roommate, a girl they called Misty, also quit the experiment just before it was over. “She withdrew,” Smith recalls. “She went into a cocoon. She broke down.”There were few protections in place for the young test subjects in 1972. Today, researchers who receive government funding must abide by a stricter code of conduct. “You cannot go and take people and lock them up in an artificial environment and pretend these are real-life conditions,” says Benedikt Fischer, a professor in the faculty of health sciences at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University. “The ethical standards and scrutiny has changed dramatically.” In any case, to investigate the long-term behavioural impacts of non-medicinal marijuana today, he says, most researchers would observe large groups of subjects for 10 or 20 years to see how they fare personally, professionally and physiologically. “I’m really not sure what one would expect from exposing people to 98 days of cannabis use and what one would try to answer other than why did no one get killed?” Fischer says, half-jokingly. On May 8, 1972, the women left 33 Russell St. Doreen Brown expected relief, some sense of freedom, but she felt paranoid instead. “It was very scary,” she says. “I thought, where am I going to go? What am I going to do? I was afraid to get on the subway. “I was hoping that being in there for those 98 days might give me some perspective. But if anything, for me, it magnified my problems.” She spent a few years in therapy and went to University of Toronto to study political science and history. Later, she was a jazz singer in local clubs. In her late 30s, she got pregnant and moved to Cambridge, Ont., to raise her son. This month, she turns 63. She’s still working full-time at a hearing clinic. She has a granddaughter now. Lorna Zaback fulfilled her West Coast dream. One year later, she was living in Vancouver with her boyfriend and gave birth to a baby girl. She got involved in a food co-op. Her partner started a community credit union. She’s 64 now, a retired math teacher. She lives on Vancouver Island. Sharon Purdy went from the Addiction Research Foundation straight to the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, which was at the corner of Yonge and Gould. “I handed the lady $4,004 in cash,” Purdy recalls. “Now, that didn’t all come from the experiment, but most of it did.” At $2.50 a belt, she would have produced more than 1,500 belts in 98 days. She left the city for the Stratford Festival, where she worked as a costume designer until starting her own company, creating the principal costumes for the musical Cats. She later branched out into television and movies. She lives in downtown Toronto today with her husband. At 64, she’s retired from costume design but has a small business making decorative pillows and cushions. “I always have a workroom — always,” she says. Marcia Smith, 66, who lives in Port Dover, Ont., made enough money to help her husband start his sign business. They eventually separated. Smith remarried and became Marcia MacKinnon. Today, she may be one of the only women from the study still using cannabis regularly. She takes medical marijuana, instead of morphine or OxyContin, for severe back pain. Her husband, Don, adds it to the brownies he bakes every second day. “It doesn’t take the pain away but it dulls it so it’s tolerable,” she says. “Morphine works but it really brings you down. With marijuana, you can function. You get used to being high and carrying on doing whatever you have to do.” All of the women have wondered what became of the results. Their shared experience, and the search for what the study found, brought some of them together. MacKinnon has hosted several reunions of the group. In 1982, she went to the Addiction Research Foundation to ask whether a report had been written up about the women’s experiment. She was told to write a note to leave for one of the doctors whose names she had pulled from a copy of the men’s pilot study, which was published. “I didn’t get any response,” she says. “If they didn’t take advantage of having 20 subjects under glass for three months, they’d be fools,” Purdy says. Brown notes that she made several inquiries during the ’80s and ’90s. She would have been more aggressive but feared she might lose her job if word got out that she had taken part in a marijuana experiment. At the time, she was working for a conservative employer, she says. She’s less concerned now. “I want to know, I want to know,” she says. “The dosages. What they found psychologically, physically. I feel ripped off, taken advantage of. It’s just like it didn’t happen. I feel like, yeah, you gave three months of your life for what? “Were the results that horrible that they didn’t give them to us? You wonder. I think they might have supported legalizing marijuana. That’s why they didn’t come out. I don’t know. It leaves you with a lot of questions.” Since 1998, researchers doing work with humans have been required to submit a plan to a research ethics board set up by the institution they report to. And all clinical studies that use human subjects must be registered — a measure that puts the information in the public domain so that once a trial is started, the public can follow up on its results. “From our perspective, this is publicly funded research,” says Suzanne Zimmerman, executive director of the Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research. “I think the public has a right to know how its research money is being spent.” And volunteers who take part in such experiments deserve to be kept in the loop. Zimmerman calls it a quid-pro-quo relationship. “If (the investigators) violate or don’t comply with policy document, they could be investigated and found in breach,” she adds. “Their institution could take recourse against them, and we could.” Miles died in 2009 at the age of 74, but there are still some people who can help fill in the blanks of the women-and-marijuana study. Dr. Galfrid Congreve, the junior scientist Miles recruited from England, is now back in the U.K. and retired. He says he had no idea the results were not analyzed, but is not surprised. He worked as the “on-site manager” during the experiments. He left the hospital shortly after the women did to work at another mental health care centre in Toronto. Congreve remembers little about the studies he helped conduct, but he still has an ink-and-watercolour work by one of the women in the marijuana experiment, an artist named Shelley, hanging in his bedroom. Executed after she left the foundation, it depicts poppy-like flowers with differently coloured petals. “There were mountains of data,” Congreve recalls of the women’s experiment. “We had all the data on their productivity, how much work they were doing, all the data on their spending, how much they spent and what they chose to spend it on, all the data on their activity in terms of were they listening to music, or playing table tennis, were they laughing? We had unique anecdotal data for any squabbles, disagreements. And it was absolutely massive. Not to mention the physiological data. “Obviously, if someone didn’t want it analyzed, they could have arranged for funding to be withheld. You can’t say there wasn’t political suppression, but on straight pr

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