I Depend on Medical Marijuana, and It's More Complicated Than You Think

I don’t want my daughter to see me arrested, but I also don’t want her to know me as a zombie living in a haze of pain, or a blank opioid lump.

Jan 26, 2012 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

I make an unlikely marijuana activist. To break it down: I’m retired military -- medically retired, but still.

I carried a security clearance through my military career, which means I’ve got a weirdly squeaky-clean background: no arrests, no tickets, and no major credit issues. I married an ex-military man with an even cleaner background. We have a teenaged daughter, two dogs, cats. We own a house and a small business selling hand-dyed yarn.

With long sleeves on, I look respectable. In a good suit, heels and lipstick, I look like the executive I used to be. When I head to Annapolis to testify, I’m mistaken for an attorney.

I stopped smoking marijuana after high school because I had other priorities. I was on my own, I had a baby and really, I was too broke to afford the good stuff, anyway. Once I was able to get the sort of jobs that required drug testing, why risk the security I’d fought so hard to obtain? I had a sip of whiskey when I needed to let off steam.

Flash forward about 14 years: I was medically retired from the military on a false diagnosis. It took another two years before I found doctors who would listen to my symptoms and give me what I actually needed: an MRI, an Evoked Potentials Tests series and a spinal tap.

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By the time I was finally diagnosed with Relapse-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis, I was so far gone that it took over a year of work to get my health back. For me, that work involved prescription medications, yoga, physical therapy, lifestyle choices and the careful, medical use of marijuana.  

I didn’t really expect to start using marijuana when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When more than one doctor suggested that perhaps I might want to think about that as an option “when it becomes legalized”, *wink- wink*, I didn’t give it much thought, because I had faith in pills and shots.  

I have less faith in pills and shots these days. That isn’t to say I’m not grateful for my pills and shots: I AM VERY GRATEFUL. Many of my symptoms have been eliminated by conventional medicine: dropfoot, fatigue, cognitive fog, the loss of my fine motor control, balance, seizures.

When it comes to pain, though, modern medicine is still pretty limited. When I’m faced with the migraines and neuropathic pain that come with MS, the options are pretty limited. When large amounts of Gabapentin didn’t fully do the trick, opioids were offered. I turned those down for a while, but I don’t turn them down any more. I have compromised with my doctors, and taken home the lightest opioids they offered, and now oxycontin lives with the rest of my pharmacopeia.

If I have a major relapse, I really have no other option, so yes: I will and do take opioid medications and sleep away several weeks of my life. I’ve found that’s about all opioids do for me; they make me not care about my pain, by putting me to sleep through the time the pain exists. I don’t consider that living, and I’ll do everything I can to avoid resorting to that as a “solution”-- it’s my last-ditch, nothing-else-is-working move.

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For other MS pain, marijuana in conjunction with my existing meds is a better solution. I use a tincture or a vapor, and a very small amount will take me from KILL ME KILL ME KILL ME NOW levels of pain to something I can manage. I’m not talking about sitting on the couch watching cartoons “managing” either. I’m able to be present in my life, to be with my family, to talk to my friends, to go to work and have a life like everyone else. It is like a miracle.  

Using marijuana doesn’t take me to some pain-free bliss-zone, especially if I’ve let my pain go for long enough -- and I frequently end up letting pain go for days, hoping it will leave on its own before I will use cannabis as a remedy.

There are some pretty tricky legal issues involved in making sure I’m taking as few risks as possible. I love my life and I don’t want to mess things up. I don’t want my daughter to see me arrested, but I also don’t want her to know me as a zombie living in a haze of pain, or a blank opioid lump. I do everything I can to be safe. 

I’ve spent my life playing within the rules, and now, this. It isn’t easy.

Possession is illegal, and my state doesn’t have a medical program, so I try to possess for as short a period of time as possible. I only have what I need when I need to use it. This is the greatest reason of all for legalization: People who are horribly sick have better things to think about than getting arrested over their non- addictive forms of pain relief. 

Imagine for just a second how complicated this becomes for someone who is housebound or who relies upon a caretaker.

When I decided to begin to become vocal about my choice to become an anti-420 prohibitionist1 I got in touch with the Marijuana Policy Project, who helped me get ready in time to testify for last year’s session. There was a fair amount of handholding, because I was pretty sure I was going to be instantly arrested upon uttering the words, “I use marijuana.”2

I got up in front of the Maryland State Senate to testify in support of SB 308, and later testified to the Maryland House of Representatives in support of HB 291. Both bills originally aimed to legalize physicians’ recommendation of marijuana to patients, and the use of state-regulated dispensaries in the state of Maryland. Eventually, SB 308 was downgraded to what was perceived as more achievable: a bill that would remove all criminal penalties for possession by patients who could demonstrate medical necessity in court. The bill passed and was signed into law on May 10, 2011. 

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Previously, MD law still allowed for patients charged with possession of marijuana who demonstrated “medical necessity” to be given a criminal conviction and punished with a $100 fine. It seems like a slap on the wrist, but that criminal conviction could terminate your health benefits if you lost your job for getting arrested for buying a dimebag of weed.

That won’t happen with some jobs, but there are plenty of jobs that are “supposed to” drug test and rarely bother, but would fire a worker in a heartbeat for a drug conviction: teachers, sheriffs, doctors and one city hall receptionist were the examples I met.

Who would take a risk like that? Lots of people; people you’d never, ever expect to see in a head shop, too. Chemotherapy patients, individuals who suffer from chronic pain, caretakers of the terminally ill, people with muscle spasticity: a whole crowd of demi- medical users who don’t get a card, a dispensary, or a physician’s recommendation. 

We also don’t get special referrals where we can sit down and discuss the right strains for our conditions with a health care professional. We get the Internet, and each other, and the library. If we’re lucky, we will have the space to grow our own plants, or we will have a friend who does. If we aren’t lucky -- and most of us aren’t -- we’re stuck relying on whatever is out there to purchase. That’s a risky proposition.

I don’t have the space here to get into the specifics -- and I’d probably bore the piss out of you if I started -- but medical marijuana is complicated. I’m not talking about the law: I’m talking about biochemistry and strains. This link provides an introduction to the idea, if you want more information. 

There are different variants, and each has a different medicinal value. Being forced to buy from an unknowledgeable dealer is like walking in to your local pharmacy and asking the clerk behind the counter to “Just throw together a quick bag of something good for pain, whatever you’ve got.” 

This isn’t acceptable, and that’s why I do this thing: taking out my suit, brushing off my good heels, ironing blouses. Blouses, for crying out loud. I’m an artist: I don’t wear blouses.

There at least two new bills being introduced this coming February, and I will be ready. 

I’m lucky: ridiculously, unbelievably lucky. My healthcare comes from my being medically retired from the service, so there’s no risk of my losing that by testifying about which forms of alternative medicine I pursue. When I get up in front of a room full of microphones, recording devices, cameras, and -- oh, yeah, State Senators or Delegates -- I’ll go into full-on confessional mode. I’ll tell them about my service record, my background, my family, my business in a city that desperately needs businesses and then I’ll tell them, in detail, about my disease.

And then give them that one statement, too: the big scary one, the one that matters. I’ll say it in the briefest of ways, but I’ll say it clearly, absolutely and unambiguously: I have Relapse- Remitting Multiple Sclerosis, and I use marijuana to manage my symptoms. It works, and it should be legal. I’m not the only one. Please help us.

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1 Yes, this really is the way I think of myself: I AM EXACTLY THAT INSUFFERABLE and I am not ashamed. 

2 Not even close. There was a lot of congratulation, actually. A State Senator, a woman wearing a pantsuit and pearls who was old enough to be my mother hugged me. A guard gave me a fistbump. It was all very surreal.