April 20 2016 01:52 PM

Michigan patients find relief in medical marijuana

Editor’s note: This article uses first names only for all subjects because of the complicated legal situation surrounding medical marijuana.

We all know the stereotypes. Those “medical marijuana” shops — the air quotes implied by the tone of voice — are full of stoners feigning medical conditions as an excuse to get high.

But that’s not the case for Harriet, who uses marijuana to treat her fibromyalgia. She turned to medical marijuana in desperation after prescription drugs failed to help her condition.

“I tried a lot of prescription meds,” she said. “One made me want to kill myself; another one made me want to kill other people. I couldn’t handle it.”

Harriet, who has been a marijuana user for over 30 years, started smoking recreationally, but eventually realized that marijuana helped with her depression and anxiety. More recently, she started to experiment with different strains and products to address her fibromyalgia.

“I’ve been educating myself,” she said.

She has settled into a routine that includes smoking marijuana, as well as taking it in edible form. She also uses extracts such as RSO — short for Rick Simpson Oil, an essential oil made from marijuana plants — and CBD oil, a marijuana extract. Products like CBD (cannabidiol) oil allow patients to avoid THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is responsible for marijuana’s psychoactive effects.

For Harriet, having access to dispensaries is a huge improvement over getting marijuana from dealers.

“The safety is the probably the biggest thing,” she said. “And everybody seems to have more knowledge.”

Jim, a 54-year-old marijuana user from Milwaukee, Wisc., agrees that dispensaries are a much safer option for marijuana users.

“When it’s not legal, you don’t have choices. You get whatever your guy has,” he said. “And when you go to meet up at his apartment, there’s a good chance there’s a gun under the couch. It’s unsafe on so many levels when it’s not legal.”

Jim describes the marijuana laws in most of Wisconsin as “draconian,” but said that the fines for possession in Milwaukee are so low that it is practically decriminalized. Jim runs a travel agency that arranges trips to locations where marijuana use is legal. The trips include dispensary visits, tours of marijuana farms and other cannabiscentric perks. The most popular destination is Jamaica, but he also arranges domestic trips to Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, where recreational pot is legal. (Michigan is not yet a prime marijuana tourism destination, he said, because of the hurdles associated with getting a Michigan Medical Marihuana Program card.) He harbors a bit of jealousy for states where dispensaries are legal.

“The ability to go into a place that’s well lit and clean and talk to someone who is knowledgeable — that’s huge,” he said. “You have a much better chance of getting what you paid for, and it won’t be tainted or cut with something else.”

While he uses marijuana mainly for recreational purposes, Jim believes that marijuana has helped him sidestep some potential medical issues.

“My father died of heart failure, and my family has a history of diabetes and fibromyalgia,” he said. “I have none of those problems. I know there’s still more research to be done, but, anecdotally, I believe cannabis has fended off those problems for me.”

Another major benefit of dispensaries, he said, is a larger array of options. Marijuana breeders have created hundreds of strains, each with different effects and benefits. There is also a wide variety of marijuana extracts, oils, topical salves and edible products, giving users a variety of ways to treat their medical conditions without having to light a joint or take a hit from a bong.

“It’s so much different in those legal states,” Jim said. “Most people don’t have that kind of access. You don’t have any choices.”

For Jessica, a 24-year-old medical marijuana user from Battle Creek, those options are important. She smoked marijuana in high school, but never liked the effects.

“I would freak out,” she said. “I had complete paranoia.”

A few years ago, Jessica started getting recurring headaches that were so severe she couldn’t work.

“I tried a bunch of prescriptions, but nothing was helping,” she said.

At the suggestion of her boyfriend, she tried medical marijuana.

“It doesn’t stop the headaches, but it dulls the pain enough so I can function,” she said.

Access to dispensaries has given Jessica a chance to find a strain that better suits her needs. The two main strain families — indica and sativa — have contrasting effects. Indica strains generally produce a relaxing, sedated feeling, while sativa strains tend to produce an energetic, cerebral high. Hybrid strains, which combine the two, tend to fall somewhere between. Jessica finds that indica strains work best to treat her headaches, especially at night.

“Sometimes the pain was so bad at night it would wake me up,” she said. “Now I can sleep through the night. I don’t even take Aleve anymore.”

Some of these strains have names that date back to the hippies of the ‘60s and ‘70s. She giggled a little when she ad mitted that her favorite strain is named Granny Panties.

“I find it humorous, but at least I can pronounce it,” she said. “I couldn’t pronounce half the prescription drugs I was on before.”

Skepticism of traditional medicine runs deep in the medical marijuana community. Some see “big pharma” and the “medical industrial complex” as a monopolistic force that doesn’t want to see medical marijuana take a cut of its lucrative business. Others chalk up traditional medicine’s resistance to medical marijuana to cultural stigma or simple ignorance of its benefits.

Eric, who suffers from a combination of chronic back pain, PTSD and heart disease, reached his breaking point about three years ago. He was taking 16 prescription medications on a daily basis, including pills and inhalers.

“I was on ungodly amounts of pain pills,” he said. “I realized there was something wrong.”

When Eric moved to Michigan from Ohio a few years ago, he turned to medical marijuana out of desperation. He first used it to help with his PTSD and anxiety, but soon found it had other benefits. His total cholesterol dropped from 386 to 172, and he didn’t need the array of pain pills he was taking.

“I didn’t need the meds anymore. I don’t even use my inhalers anymore,” he said. “But the first thing the doctor did was try to put me back on the meds.”

Eric’s daily routine is to smoke a combination of marijuana bud and wax, a concentrated, honey-like marijuana extract. He also ingests RSO.

He now takes two low-dosage pain pills in addition to his marijuana regimen and still carries an emergency inhaler.

Lisa, 33 of Taylor, uses marijuana to treat fibromyalgia, depression and anxiety. She picked up medical marijuana for similar reasons.

“I was on 22 medications,” she said. “Now I’m down to one medication. I feel normal again.”

Lisa, who is on disability, describes her last job as “totally corporate America,” with a hypocritical policy on medications. Her employer barred marijuana use, but didn’t object when she took 22 prescription drugs.

“They had no problem with me taking a bunch of pills,” she said.

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