The opioid epidemic is in full swing, but will cannabis legalization make a difference? In California, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington DC, cannabis is COMPLETELY LEGAL!
28 states in the United States have legalized cannabis for “medical purposes.” Uruguay and Jamaica are now fully legal, Canada will be fully legal in 2018, and Mexico is nearing full legalization.
Barbara Kaiser slid to her kitchen floor and sobbed last Christmas.
The 82-year-old Green Valley woman had spent decades baking hundreds of cookies for the holidays for her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, but this year, the pain won. She simply couldn’t do it any longer.
Her arthritis and chronic neuropathy were so severe that getting out of a chair took her 15 minutes. She couldn’t stand up and needed a walker to get a few steps.
She could only sleep for two hours at a time.
“I wasn’t suicidal, but I started wondering why I was waking up every day. Why did I bother? The pain was just amazing,” Kaiser said.
After seven months, she no longer needs her walker for short distances, she’s back to baking cookies and cooking dinner, and she’s reduced her daily Oxycontin intake by one-third. She is also sleeping all night.
Marijuana for medical purposes.
“It’s incredible and I want people to know about it,” Kaiser said during a recent interview at her home. “I’m a perfect example of what it can do.”
Kaiser is one of an increasing number of Arizona seniors who are turning to medical marijuana to treat conditions such as chronic pain, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, cancer, and others.
According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, just over 132,000 Arizona residents have medical marijuana cards, with more than 18,000 in Pima County.
According to the state, approximately 22% of current card holders are 61 and older, up from approximately 13% in 2011.
Kaiser is one of 1,300 Arizona residents aged 81 and up who have a Medicare card.
At first, tentative
Kaiser, who used to be an avid hiker, developed a slew of chronic health issues over the years and survived a bout with malignant lymphoma. She’s had chemo, back surgery, knee surgery, and far too many epidural steroid injections to count.
Her doctor had urged her for years to investigate medical marijuana, but Kaiser and her husband, Walter, 88, were adamantly opposed. For starters, the federal government makes no distinction between illegal recreational marijuana and medical marijuana. Second, they were concerned about the cost.
Her quality of life had deteriorated to the point where Kaiser and her husband decided she should try medical marijuana. Walter spent several days on the Internet looking for a Tucson dispensary that could help them get a medical marijuana card.
The Kaisers found the application process to be lengthy and complicated, and they made a few mistakes, but she received her card on March 30.
“I was excited and scared,” Kaiser said. “I was very frightened about the whole thing.”
But she was ecstatic to learn that there is a medical marijuana dispensary in Sahuarita, just four miles from her house.
According to Kaiser, the staff at Hana Meds introduced her to a “medical cannabis coach” who has been assisting her in finding the right strain of marijuana to relieve her symptoms. (This is a related story.)
Hana Meds’ general manager, Dan Fernandez, said the company has about 2,000 active patients, the vast majority of whom live in the Green Valley area. Their clients are generally between the ages of 60 and 94.
Learning about it
Many of their patients, like Kaiser, are first-time users who are unaware of the various chemical compounds in marijuana, the various strains of marijuana, and the various ways it can be consumed, according to Fernandez. They are also unaware of the advantages and disadvantages of each.
David Lamb, a Hana patient consultant, stated that he and his colleagues are specially trained on cannabinoids (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). They understand which strains will produce which effects and can advise on how the product should be consumed.
According to Lamb, Hana’s patient consultants direct patients to products and ingestion methods based on their medical conditions and symptoms. They make no diagnoses.
“A good analogy would be like antibiotics, there’s hundreds of different antibiotics and each one can affect a different condition or infection differently, so certain people need certain ones to address a certain condition,” Lamb said. “Marijuana can be much the same way. There are so many different strains because they can all interact with each other even at very small or very large margins (and) react very differently depending on the patient and their needs.”
Medicinal marijuana patients can smoke joints, use a pipe, vape pens (similar to e-cigarettes), place drops under their tongue, or buy marijuana-infused edibles such as honey, brownies, gummie bears, or cookies, according to Lamb. Marijuana-infused coffee filters, soft drinks, and ice cream are available at some dispensaries.
The proper dosage
Kaiser tried marijuana-infused gummies after the drops failed to provide relief. She tried a second and then a third after the first failed to produce any results.
“By the third one, Walter had to be put me to bed,” Kaiser said with a laugh. “I said this isn’t going to work. I need to be able to work.”
Although she felt fine the next day, the third gummie made her clammy and made her head swell.
Undaunted, Kaiser returned to Hana, and Lamb introduced her to a coach, who took her marijuana and infused it with coconut oil before putting it in a capsule. Her first one was on April 27.
“I was able to give up my walker the following week,” Kaiser said. “I still use it to go shopping or if I’m going someplace where I have to walk a lot, but I don’t need it at home anymore.”
Kaiser has been experimenting with different strains of marijuana and keeping a meticulous log detailing when she takes her capsules, when she began feeling its effects, what the effects were, and how long they lasted. She inhales from her vaporizer in the same way; she takes two puffs a few times a day.
She’s already reduced her Oxycontin intake and hopes to be able to discontinue it entirely, along with her neuropathy medication, one day.
It’s critical for patients to find a reputable dispensary with knowledgeable staff to assist them, according to Lamb. Kaiser’s experience with the gummies is typical; dosages for edibles are tricky.
Lamb begins his patients with a low dose of marijuana. He’s heard of patients, especially the elderly, who never try marijuana again after a bad first experience.
“We slowly work toward the goal,” Lamb said. “We don’t try to get someone stoned off the bat because it may be way too much for them, way too potent for them and it’s going to be a frightening experience if it’s too powerful. But it’s all in your head, there’s nothing bad happening in your body.”
While some people are skeptical of marijuana’s benefits, Lamb advises people to keep an open mind.
“If you’ve got cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, different things like that, you’ve got pain, seizures and other things going on. How much of that is stress and anxiety? ” Lamb inquired. “If you can relieve stress and anxiety, dealing with pain becomes an issue that is much easier to address. What I’m getting at here is, if you could harmlessly and benignly reduce the stress and anxiety that comes with these serious illnesses, you’ve fought half the battle right there.”
Plenty of research
People should research medical marijuana dispensaries like they would any other business, according to Tom Salow, a branch chief for the licensing division of the Arizona Department of Health Services. They should discuss customer service and pricing with their friends and family.
The Department of Homeland Security inspects each dispensary twice a year to ensure they are keeping track of their inventory and labeling items correctly, but the inspection results are not public record.
There is also no state oversight of the product itself, according to Salow. Nobody checks to see if marijuana products contain the advertised levels of THC or CBD, or if dispensaries are selling patients the strain they paid for.
“We recommend people do their due diligence before making a purchase,” Salow said.
Kaiser still wakes up in pain, but “every morning I tell myself to stop and think about what my pain was like before.”
Kaiser claimed she was in pain from her neck to her toes at the time.
“I couldn’t even comb my hair, I felt useless,” she said.
Kaiser said her children have been supportive and were overjoyed to see her at a family reunion in Chicago in June.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to go back in March,” Kaiser said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to sit on a plane that long.”
She spent slightly more than $150 on marijuana last month, but it was well worth it, according to Kaiser. She hopes that one day it will be covered by insurance.
“If it’s doing me more good than Oxycontin, which is covered by insurance, then I don’t know why insurance shouldn’t pay for it,” she said.