A desperate Derry man whose son suffers from a rare incurable disease said he willingly risked prison to grow cannabis for medicinal oil to improve his child’s quality of life.
Chris McDaid and his partner, Lynda McIntyre’s 10-year-old son Cian suffers from a rare and incurable neurodegenerative disease called Ataxia telangiectasia (A-T).
A-T has many symptoms including difficulty with movement and co-ordination, a weakened immune system and an increased risk of cancer.
Many sufferers die before their 20th birthday.
Chris, who has a degree in Marine Science, carried out years of research into the medicinal uses of cannabis and has been in contact with a Canadian family, the Thompsons, who have two children who suffer from the disease which, although rare, is genetic.
The Thompson family have been able to treat their children with cannabis oil as it is legal in Canada.
They have been documenting the positive effects of medical marijuana on the children online and it was this evidence that spurred Chris to grow the type of cannabis needed to produce the oil.
Having seen the results, Chris felt he had no choice but to grow his own cannabis in a desperate bid to help his son, whose condition is worsening.
However, on October 23, 2015, An Garda Síochána searched the house where Chris was growing the marijuana at Carrigans in County Donegal.
He was arrested and pleaded guilty at Letterkenny Circuit Criminal Court to possession and cultivation of cannabis.
However, from the outset he told the Gardaí his motivation was to help his seriously-ill son.
Last Thursday, Chris was before Letterkenny court for sentencing and faced the possibility of a maximum sentence of 14 years.
He was represented by solicitor, Frank Dorrian, and barrister, Seán MacAodha.
Mr MacAodha told the court that the Gardaí had reported there were 100 plants but 85 of those were cuttings in a small tray. In actuality, there were only 14 plants.
He added that Chris was only growing the plants for medical use as he had a severely ill child and his father was dying.
The detective in court said: “I do accept he is in difficult circumstances with his child and his father was ill.”
He also admitted that he did not believe the plants were being grown for monetary gain.
Mr MacAodha said that Chris had carried out ‘detailed scientific research’ into how the cannabinoids would alleviate his son’s symptoms and presented this evidence to the court.
He also described the nature of Cian’s condition.
“The maximum life span is about 25-years-old but more likely 18-years-old,” he said.
“The child is now 10-years-old and at the last review it is looking like he has less than that; sadly, he doesn’t have long for this world.”
At this point, Chris and Lynda wept in court.
Mr MacAodha continued: “It’s very different for this family in Derry compared to the family in Canada.
“The family in Canada can avail of this treatment on prescription, unfortunately, they can’t avail of it here.”
Mr MacAodha added that Dáil Éireann had passed a bill at committee stage to make cannabis available in Ireland for medicinal use.
He said that ‘science seems to be pointing in the right direction’.
Judge Martin Nolan said that the explanation Chris had given was ‘credible’.
“Mr McDaid had found that derivatives of cannabis could help his child deal with a very, very serious and distressing problem.
“He is a man of great scientific knowledge and has been doing his own research and put great energy into helping his son.
“I believe he involved himself in this scheme to obtain cannabinoid oil to help his child, he was never in this enterprise for profit and had no intention of selling drugs on the market.
“He was involving himself for good motives.”
Judge Nolan said that, nonetheless, he had committed a crime but said that it was of a lower level.
Regarding evidence of the expansion of the operation of growing cannabis that seemed apparent within the house, Judge Nolan said that this was of no interest to Chris as he appeared to be ‘involved for his own particular reason’.
He added that Chris had no previous criminal record, had made immediate admissions, been honest and co-operative with the Gardaí and had a ‘particularly distressing family situation’.
Judge Nolan said that society would not benefit from jailing Chris and sentenced him to one year suspended for a year.
As Chris and Lynda left the court, Judge Nolan said: “Best of luck to you.”
After the sentencing, which the couple said put a huge emotional strain on the family, Chris and Lynda spoke to the Derry News about their experience.
Cian was born in New York and the couple lived there until he was 10 months old before returning back to live in Derry.
“When he started walking, we noticed there was a problem with his gait, people used to say he was like a wee drunk man,” said Chris.
Lynda said: “We had been going to the doctor loads about it but they said it would be grand and he would grow out of it but we knew something was wrong.
“Then we went to Sandy Hutton in Bridgeview House, she was a paediatrician at the time. Chris’ mother knew her; it was 6.30 in the evening and she fitted him in.
“She said she knew the minute she saw Cian. She said she had only seen it a couple of times before, once in Derry.”
Cian underwent extensive testing for nine months before he was diagnosed with A-T.
“A lot of A-T cases are misdiagnosed as cerebral palsy up until they are eight or nine but he was one of the youngest to be diagnosed, he was just two and a half,” said Lynda.
“The doctor, Fiona Stewart, came from Belfast to give us the news, she was the geneticist.
“We went that morning to meet her and on the letter it said there was a counsellor available for after the meeting and I knew then.”
The testing also involved subjecting Cian to radiation to see how many times his DNA would break.
Chris said: “Normally, there would be 10 or 11 breakages in DNA but Cian’s broke over 300 times and every time you have a DNA breakage there’s reformation of the DNA, which then causes a predisposition to cancer.
“He can’t have x-rays, MRI scans, long flights, he isn’t even supposed to be in the sun, he has to wear sunblock all the time. The symptoms are just so wide ranging.”
Every A-T sufferer has a set of symptoms particular to them and each person will be affected in different ways.
Cian’s main difficulty is with mobility.
Chris and Lynda are part of a group that lends support to A-T sufferers and their families, the A-T Society.
Within the last 14 months there have been four children under the age 16 that have died. One child, who was 9-years-old, passed away on Christmas Eve.
“Cian’s motor system is affected, if he’s walking he is imbalanced so he needs constant assistance, “ said Chris.
“He has to drink with a sippy cup or straw or squeezy bottle and he needs to eat with a spoon and have his food mashed up so it can be easy lifted when he has tremors or muscle spasms and he does get really frustrated.”
Lynda and Chris said the change in Cian’s condition after his eight birthday was sudden and drastic.
“After he turned eight it was like somebody flicked a switch,” said Lynda.
“I just thought, ‘This is it now’. It was like the time frame that they had given us for everything to happen, happened.”
Chris said it was the sudden deterioration of Cian’s condition that pushed him to take steps in growing the cannabis.
He was determined to create the medicinal oil to alleviate his son’s symptoms, giving him a better quality of life.
“That was the catalyst,” he said.
“It was always in the back of my head but I never ever felt the need because we were always comparing Cian to others when we went to A-T clinics and he was always doing the best.
“He was walking the best, his speech was the best but after his eighth birthday, it was like falling off a cliff.”
Cian had gone from being mostly independent to needing help to walk.
His balance had declined so much, he fell and knocked out his front teeth trying to walk down the hall.
Chris was in contact with the Canadian family, Rob and Ricki Thompson, whose son and daughter, Linkoln and Benny, both with A-T, were making great progress using cannabis oil.
Through finding the perfect ratio between the chemical components of cannabis, CBD and THC, the Thompson family were seeing astounding results.
“I had been in contact with Rob in January 2015 or maybe before that about what he was giving Linkoln, who is the same age as Cian,” said Chris.
“They run a Facebook page called ‘The Color of Hope’ and he has had a running blog which was going on before Benny, his daughter, was diagnosed with A-T.
“I asked him what he was doing. He started off giving Linkoln CBD oil and it didn’t have any results then in January 2015 he put up a video of him walking in the park, once they had adjusted the cannabinoids.
“The CBD wasn’t working on its own, they adjusted it to 5% of THC to 8% CBD and once they hit that the results were clear to be seen within two weeks.
“When young Linkoln was walking up the path without the treatment, he was taking both sides of it and falling over, it was hard to watch.
“He put him on the same path after receiving cannabinoid treatment for two weeks and the difference was amazing.”
After seeing the results for himself and having already spent years looking into the benefits of medical marijuana, Chris’ research intensified.
“I tried to find the perfect seed to match what they were getting and I found one as close as possible which was 5.5% THC and 8.5% CBD, so it was my plan to grow it.
“I bought the seeds around July of 2015 and didn’t know when the opportunity would arise to grow them but it did arise in the building over the border.
“This wasn’t trial and error, the Canadian family had tried and tested it, all the hard work was done bar actually getting the product itself.”
Chris said that he knew growing cannabis was illegal and the thought of it frightened him but he said that the chance to give Cian a better quality of life far outweighed the risks.
“I was scared but with Cian in my head and I knew I was doing it for the right reasons,” he said.
“I didn’t want to stand idly by and not try everything within my power to try and benefit my son’s quality of life, especially when you see it working clearly in another family where the kid is the same age as Cian.
“Why not try it? There’s no other option, all we have is palliative care so if there is something there to try other than that, why not give it a go?
“If you look at a photo of Linkoln and you look at a photo of Cian, Linkoln is on this and he is gaining weight, he looks like a normal kid but Cian is thin and it’s hard to get him to eat. It would help tremors so he could feed himself better.”
Chris said his experience having attained a degree in Marine Science gave him the ability to research on an intense level.
He said that the positive effects of using cannabinoids for a range of different medical conditions and diseases should be prompting the legalisation of the plant for medical use.
“It was a lot of reading but I found some very, very valuable information and there is a wealth of knowledge out there,” said Chris.
“Without a doubt, it should definitely be a viable option, people should be given the choice. It should be there for people to make an informed decision whether they want to use it or not.”
Chris said he had been made to feel like a criminal when his only aim was to help his seriously-ill child.
“It was a shock but I always knew there was a possibility it was going to happen; every time I went to look after the plants, every time I went in and looked at what I was doing, I was afraid.
“I was afraid of the repercussions because I knew it could have meant losing precious time with Cian but, at the same time, I thought improving his quality of life came first.
“I was caught and it was a scary process to go through.”
Chris said it was a great stress on the family for the last year and a half.
He was required to sign bail three times a week and had to seek permission before the court every time they had to attend A-T clinics in England or go on holiday.
However, Chris said hearing what the Judge had to say and the fact that he didn’t have to go to prison, losing precious time with Cian, was a great relief.
“It was the biggest relief of my life, I felt total elation,” he said.
“The two of us looked at each other and the Judge could clearly see what it meant to us.
“The percentages that were in the plants showed that it was never going to be for street use.
“When the Judge spoke to me, I actually felt proud. It’s an emotion I didn’t think I was going to have during this process, standing in front of a Judge getting sentenced for drugs, but I actually had a feeling of pride.
“The Judge knew what he was talking about, it seemed like he had previous experience in dealing with this before and, after he started speaking, it was evident he knew where I was coming from.
“I was emotionally backed into a corner because how can you stand idly by and watch your son deteriorate so fast in front of your eyes and know that there’s a possible option out there that might help him. God forbid, if anything happened to him then you would be sitting saying, ‘What if? Why didn’t I try that for him?’
“I was willing to take the chance and I did. I didn’t realise the magnitude of what they put on me. They dropped the charge of intent to supply and that charge alone carries a 10-year minimum sentence.”
Chris and Lynda said that they are hopeful for a medicinal cannabis option to be passed in the Republic of Ireland by the end of this year.
“It’s passed through the first stage unchallenged and is now at committee stage in the Dáil, if it was passed I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to avail of it, we are Irish citizens.”
Chris and Lynda said the end of the court proceedings has been a weight lifted off their shoulders.
“I woke up with a smile on my face because I know it’s all over and I can go back to some kind of normality,” said Chris.
Lynda added: “It’s the best sleep I’ve had in a long time. It still hasn’t sunk in.”
The couple said they want to see legislation changed so families like them won’t be forced to break the law in an effort to help their loved ones.
They want the stigma removed and cannabis legalised for medicinal use.
“It’s only getting to a stage where it is being thoroughly studied in the last 10 years or less,” he said.
“It’s legalised in at least 27 states in America for medicinal use, on January 19, it was legalised in Germany, it’s legal in Spain, it’s decriminalised in Portugal, it’s legal for medicinal use in Luxembourg and it’s just having a domino effect and everybody is catching on.
“There’s a stigma; it came into my head that people would think the cannabis was mine, that it would end up on the street and that I was just using Cian as an excuse.”
Lynda said: “Chris knew what he was doing was illegal but he was willing to do it and do it for Cian.
“If he was caught, he was willing to take the risk.
“He could have been put away for 14 years at most, one year with Cian to us is like 14 years.
“We only have another few years with Cian. Any time he would have had to spend away from Cian would have been devastating to us.”
Chris said: “I researched it for years and made an informed decision and I believe it was the right one and I think the Judge could see that.
“People who are trying this and already suffering from severe ailments are adding fear and stress into their life because what they’re doing is seen to be wrong.
“Nobody should be made to feel like a criminal for something that can prolong or improve the quality of life.”
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