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New law for an old drug

They're not just names in a registry. They're your neighbors, friends, coworkers and family members. They're medical marijuana patients, and for part four of our series exploring the issues surrounding Montana's medical marijuana program, we've asked three Lake County residents to share how marijuana helps them and affects their lives. 

 

Graham

“You’re thrust into cancer, and you’re all alone. Then you’re thrust into treatment, and you’re sick,” Graham said. 

And then, just as suddenly, you're thrust into considering use of a drug you've avoided all your life. But now it's not a buddy in college who is telling you to try it. This time it's a medical doctor advising you that the drug can actually help you feel better when nothing else seems to work. 

Graham is not this 70-ish cancer patient’s real name, but he would prefer not to be identified, because he uses medical marijuana to alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy. He has cancer that has metastasized and to him, the medicinal use of marijuana is a clear positive that outweighs the controversy associated with the drug.

“(Medical marijuana) helps with chemo brain,” Graham said.

Chemo brain is Graham’s term for losing his appetite and some of his manual dexterity, as well as changes in his ambition level and ability to concentrate, not to mention nausea.

The only thing Graham can compare chemo brain to is a hangover from alcohol when he was younger — a headachey, hazy feeling. However, chemo brain does not go away with time, aspirin, lots of fluids or a big, greasy cheeseburger.

Graham hadn’t really thought about medical marijuana after he was diagnosed with cancer and was seeing oncologists to set up his chemotherapy treatment. Marijuana wasn't part of his life in the past — he graduated from college in the early '60s and wasn’t a drug culture kind of guy.

“It’s a '60s generational thing — those who did (smoke marijuana), those who didn’t,” Graham said, explaining that there was a big line in between. 

Graham and his partner did try pot with a couple of friends when they were in graduate school, but then Graham became a corporate executive. Marijuana did not mix well with that lifestyle. 

The whole topic of using medical marijuana surfaced when the fiancé of one of Graham’s good friends, a doctor, asked if he’d considered medical marijuana as a way to deal with chemo’s side effects. 

Since the fall of 2009, Graham estimates he has been approached by over a hundred people who asked about medical marijuana, if it was a good thing and “would I consider it?” 

Since a patient has to have a referral from a doctor before he or she can apply for a medical marijuana card from the State of Montana, Graham saw a doctor, received a referral and applied for his medical marijuana card. Although the application process took quite a while, Graham finally received his card and then was assigned a caregiver from whom he buys his medical marijuana. 

Graham’s caregiver is very professional about providing his medical marijuana, he said, but it still feels odd purchasing marijuana.

“It’s really an interesting feeling to feel you’re outside the law or social norms,” Graham said, although he knows what’s he’s doing is legal in Montana.

Still trying to figure out how much medical marijuana he needs, Graham takes a couple of hits each morning. 

“It’s not about getting high,” Graham said, “it’s about getting relief.”

In the same way painkillers attack severe pain by making it manageable and an aspirin or a Tylenol blunts the effects of a cold, medical marijuana “relieves the symptoms but doesn’t make me feel high,” Graham explained.

Graham said since his system is under attack by chemo drugs he seems to be more sensitive to all medicines, including medical marijuana. So, it doesn’t take much to affect him.

Frequently chemotherapy patients begin to feel lousy after treatment begins, Graham explained. They don’t eat right, and then they withdraw.

“Chemo puts so much poison in your body; it stops the growth of hair, toenails, even your intestinal lining,” Graham explained. 

For Graham, medical marijuana promotes a sense of well-being and makes him want to eat, exercise and go out and do something.

Not only has his outlook changed, so has his view of marijuana. 

“I look at medical marijuana as an herbal medicine,” he said.

Prescription drugs Graham received through his regular doctor were “a lot more harsh,” plus he got headaches from some of the drugs. 

Also the medical marijuana costs “one helluva lot less than my prescriptions,” Graham said.

Still, marijuana does have its side effects, Graham explained. 

One side effect that he hadn't counted on is “if your energy level is way down — chemo goes in waves — it can relax you enough so you can sleep,” which may or may not be a bad thing. 

“I would never call it a miracle drug, like aspirin,” Graham said, but medical marijuana does have a wide range of ability to help.

It doesn’t affect Graham’s cognitive ability other than allowing him to be more relaxed and calmer. Graham believes that's a big positive because, as he explains, a chemo patient’s “immune system can enter into a dialog” with the chemo drugs. 

“The more positive you can be during the process (chemo),” Graham said, the better it is for the patient. Medical marijuana provides a therapeutic calmness for him, “a respite.” 

Graham has had his card for three or four months, and he is not as reticent to use it. Graham does, however, go out to the garage to smoke; he doesn’t smoke in front of his partner.

Graham still has questions about medical marijuana. For instance, he wonders if marijuana is really a gateway drug, will it turn people into potheads, and will they get addicted?

Then there’s the issue of inhaled smoke and the level of carcinogens in marijuana smoke. 

But, to Graham, the positives of medicinal use of marijuana seem to far outweigh the negatives.

“I’ve never heard of anybody dying of an overdose of marijuana,” he concluded.

— Berl Tiskus

 

J.R.

J.R. doesn’t have a critical illness. He isn’t suffering through chemotherapy treatments, and he is not dying from HIV/AIDS. J.R. suffers chronic back pain from an vehicle accident that left his L1 vertebrae fractured.

After the accident, J.R., who asked that his name be changed for the article, was prescribed prescription pain medications and muscle relaxers to help deal with the daily pain. He continued running his local business and participated in daily activities with his family and friends, while popping the highly addictive narcotics. 

But he found the opiates a little too enjoyable. 

“I went to the doctor and I said, ‘You know what, I like these, (but) I don’t want to be addicted to muscle relaxers and pain pills,’” J.R. said, explaining his conversation with his doctor.

In response, his doctor recommended medical marijuana. 
 
The doctor’s office in Stevensville was full of 15 other people who had a made a special Saturday appointment for a medical marijuana recommendation. A variety of people sat in the waiting room, listening to the doctor’s presentation on the drug. J.R. explained that patients ranged from “hippies” to your average citizen sitting quietly in the corner. The doctor gave a detailed explanation of the drug and the law before examining each patient separately. 
 
Determined to live his life in a positive manner, J.R. filled out the paperwork to get his medical marijuana card from the state.
 
Since his medical marijuana card arrived in October, he has cut back drinking by 80 percent, and he even brags that he uses no painkillers, not even Tylenol, to lessen his back pain. He claims that his stress levels have dropped drastically, and a more relaxed lifestyle has enabled him to lose 40 pounds. 
 
His pain is not due to a terminal illness, nor is it a debilitating factor in his life, but it’s always there. From a mild sensation in his lower back to a full-blown pain, the levels range anywhere from two to eight on a 10-point scale. But now, when he smokes a bit of medical marijuana, he has less pain and is adamant that he lives a healthier, happier life. 
 
“Now that I have the option to medicate with cannabis, it doesn’t affect (my life) at all,” J.R. said. “My stress level is down, and I have made some better decisions. 
 
“I am reaping a benefit beyond the pain in my back,” he added.
 
J.R. is 51 years old. His blue eyes sparkle as he gazes out the window toward Flathead Lake. He is not a seasoned marijuana user, but admits to using marijuana recreationally in the 1970s and '80s. 
 
Then his life changed. 
 
“I grew up smoking … and after I got married and we had our first child, my son, that’s when I decided that I didn’t want to have him growing up and seeing his daddy high,” J.R. said. 
 
Ten years ago he started his own business near Polson with his wife and mother-in-law. A resident of Polson, the local businessman describes his involvement in the community as a normal one — he tries to shop locally, he pays his taxes, and he’s a good neighbor. 
 
Every day around 7 a.m. he wakes up, pours himself a cup of coffee, and turns on Fox News. He arrives at his business around 9 a.m. and prepares for a busy day. Sometimes he and his wife enjoy a picnic lunch and occasionally they drive to Missoula or Kalispell to tend to some shopping.
 
But at home in the evenings, it’s time for the couple to relax and de-stress from a busy day.
 
J.R. smokes a puff or two of marijuana, depending on the pain and sometimes cleans the house, plays catch, or mows the lawn — without that nagging stressor in his back.
 
“I don’t want people to get the impression that I’m becoming a pothead,” J.R. said. “I self-medicate.”
 
J.R. explained that he self-medicates within reason and believes that with all things people must exercise restraint and moderation. He holds firmly to the belief that marijuana should be kept out of the hands of those who misuse it and should be kept away from children. 
 
“If you abuse it then you shouldn’t have the privilege of using it,” J.R. explained. 
 
As for critics of the drug, J.R. notes that concerned citizens can easily read about the history of cannabis in the United States. Research is available on the different types of cannabis used for different ailments, he said.
 
To J.R., the research paints a picture of a beneficial drug that has been maligned.
 
“People are going to find that once they get past the stigma, they are going to be some happy campers,” J.R. said. 
 
— Kate Haake
 
 
Chris
 
Soaking up the spring sunshine with his wife and 2-year-old son, the young man is the picture of a happy, healthy Montanan. He speaks quietly and confidently as he explains how medical marijuana makes it possible for him to lead a normal life, something that didn’t seem possible two years ago when he was diagnosed with gallbladder disease.
 
Chris, who asked to have his name changed to protect his identity for this story, is on a special low-fat, high-fiber diet to help ease his symptoms. Still, his gallbladder fills up with bile every three or four weeks, and then he suffers intense nausea every morning for a week or sometimes two.
 
“It’s constant throwing up for hours,” Chris said.
 
Doctors prescribed him four different nausea medications, but Chris could never keep the pills down long enough for his body to absorb the medicine. 
 
“Their last solution was a suppository,” he said, and that sounded like a terrible option to Chris.
 
He tried marijuana and found that one puff of smoke was enough to almost instantly relieve his nausea. 
 
“Before I even went to the doctor (for a medical marijuana recommendation), it was my way of treating myself,” Chris said.
 
Having heard from several cardholders that local physicians wouldn’t even consider recommending patients for the state’s medical marijuana program, Chris decided the easiest way to legally access his nausea medicine would be through a medical marijuana clinic. 
 
“When every doctor you talk to is against (medical marijuana), (clinics are) the only way you can do it,” he said.
 
So in January, Chris joined hundreds of other would-be medical marijuana cardholders at a Montana Caregivers Network convention in Kalispell. 
 
“It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.
 
About 1,100 people attended the convention the day Chris was there, and “it was an assembly line, basically.”
 
Chris joined about 300 other people in line where he registered, filled out a medical records release form along with other paperwork and then waited in another line to see a doctor who would review Chris’ medical files. Chris spent less than five minutes talking to the doctor, and then was on his way home after paying $100 for the doctor’s visit and a $25 application fee for a state-issued medical marijuana card, which he received in the mail a few weeks later.
 
All that time waiting in line — a total of five and a half hours — gave Chris plenty of opportunity to observe how the clinic worked and see who was applying for cards. While most people had a long list of medical problems, like one woman who needed two duffel bags to carry all her medical records, there were some, too, who were obviously abusing the system.
 
Chris overheard three men in their early 20s discussing their plan for getting medical marijuana cards to show their probation officers that, even while on probation, they can smoke dope legally. 
 
While Chris was angered by what he perceived as blatant abuse of the medical marijuana program — people like the three on probation are the sort who will “ruin it for the rest of us (legitimate patients),” he said — he wasn’t surprised to see people taking advantage of the system. 
 
“That’s to be expected,” he said.
 
But regardless of how others may push the limits of the law, Chris maintains that smoking marijuana is the quickest, most effective way of treating his nausea. He’s experienced no side effects to the drug, and since he only needs a small amount to ease his symptoms, Chris has been able to continue his job as a manual laborer with no problems.
 
“For an average smoker, one hit’s not enough to impair them,” he said, explaining that on days when he feels sick, he’ll smoke just enough in the morning to make his stomach feel better. Then as the day wears on, the nausea gradually dissipates on its own, and Chris is able to work a full day with minimal discomfort.
 
“I have to work. I don’t have time to be going to the doctor every couple of weeks,” Chris explained. “(Marijuana) far outweighs any other (options).”
 
While he currently works for family members, and his bosses are aware that Chris is a medical marijuana patient, Chris said he’s discreet with his marijuana use just like he would be with any private matter. Chris has a local caregiver who supplies him with pot, and he doesn’t grow any himself. He’s also careful not to smoke or have weed around his son. 
 
“I don’t walk around (smoking); I don’t flaunt it,” he said. “I don’t go around telling everybody and their mother … it’s not anyone’s business.”
 
Although Chris is on Medicaid, insurance doesn’t cover medical marijuana, so he has to foot the bill on his own. 
 
“If I can’t afford it, I go without,” he said.
 
Still, the benefits outweigh the cost for Chris, and he sees marijuana as a long-term solution to his problems.
 
“As long as the government makes (medical marijuana) available, it’ll be how I deal with my issues … save my liver; save money,” Chris said.
 
— Melea Burke
 
(Editor's note: This article is part of a series that provides an overview of where medical marijuana use stands and how many questions remain about its use, sale and distribution, particularly within Lake County and the Flathead Indian Reservation. These articles will explore the effects medical marijuana is having in the community, as well as ask some of the questions that remain unanswered.)

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