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New law for an old drug

Patients share how medical marijuana affects their daily lives

When Montana legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes in 2004, only a handful of patients registered to be legal medical marijuana patients. But in the last few years that number has exploded from 800 people in 2008 to 12,000 registered patients so far this year.

The numbers are staggering and leave the rest of Montana anxious to understand how the sudden increase of medical marijuana use will effect communities, schools, workplaces, youth and the day to day life of medical marijuana patients. 

The effect that marijuana has on daily life certainly differs from patient to patient — and from condition to condition. Some patients may feel the effects more prominently than others. Some claim to relax and focus and some even claim to feel energized and capable of performing certain day to day chores with a certain amount of concentration. 

But one thing is certain, medical marijuana is here to stay and it is important for community members to understand the issues that medical marijuana patients face in their daily lives and how it will affect the communities. 

 

Alex

Alex is a bright student, studying mathematics at the University of Montana. Up until very recently she and her boyfriend lived in Ronan and she commuted to the university for classes daily. Now she lives close to the university but comes up to Ronan a couple times a month to visit family and friends. 

When Alex decided she needed medical marijuana, she signed up to attend a traveling medical marijuana convention with medical professionals and medical marijuana caregivers. She brought paperwork and medical records, documenting her chronic issue with asthma. Alex said that marijuana opens up her lungs and relaxes her, leaving her less prone to asthma attacks.

When she arrived at the Hilton hotel in Missoula, she was one of 75 people at the two-hour session and when the doctor examined her, he never looked up.

He said that asthma was not a legitimate reason for a medical marijuana card and asked if she had any other symptoms that would need to be addressed.

Alex thought for a second and then blurted out that she had neck pain from a snowboarding accident years ago. The doctor signed the paperwork, recommending medical marijuana for Alex’s pain.

The entirety of the exam took two minutes.

The rest of two hours was filled with paperwork, standing in line and listening to an amplified lawyer drone on about the medical marijuana patients’ legal rights. 

Although Alex was recommended marijuana for neck pain, she claims that it helps her with other medical issues as well. Alex suffers from severe mood swings during menstruation and marijuana helps mitigate those emotional ups and downs. 

“I smoke and all my thoughts rationalize and I think ‘What am I really mad at?’” Alex explained. “It makes me stop focusing on the negatives and stressing over something that is so small.”

Her boyfriend Zach explained that living with her during this time of emotional chaos without medicinal effects of marijuana is a situation he doesn’t exactly enjoy. 

Alex doesn’t smoke before class and she doesn’t smoke when she is doing complicated or “boring” homework. But she claims that when she is working on something she is really interested in or when she is writing, marijuana helps her focus and lends creativity to her mathematical mind. 

“When I am focusing on a (math) problem and when I am working on it, I get involved in it,” Alex explained. “When I am reading, 40 pages will go by and it helps me to be able to visualize.”

“Of course I can’t do physics on it,” she adds. “But math is a different story.”

For Alex, math is second nature and smoking marijuana helps her concentrate on the problems she is working on — but she readily admits that there are some situations where medical marijuana is a hindrance and even a hazard. 

According to the law, driving stoned and driving drunk are both synonymous with driving under the influence. And Alex agrees that it’s not safe. When Alex tried to drive in the past, she ended up suffering from feelings of paranoia, experienced bad depth perception and ended up in hysterics on the side of the road. She doesn’t believe marijuana belongs in situations where someone’s life is at stake.

Though most zoning ordinances in the state of Montana keep marijuana away from schools and churches, the rules are a bit more vague when it comes to medical marijuana in the workplace, leaving it up to the employer to decide. 

Alex believes the classroom and workplace are both places where medical marijuana shouldn’t be welcomed. She touched briefly on the new ruling at the University of Montana that banned medical marijuana from campus. 

“It’s an appropriate rule,” Alex said, stating that marijuana without legitimate paperwork is still illegal. 

She compares smoking marijuana in the workplace to drinking in the workplace — it’s not something that is a proper activity for any employee.

“I think it goes for any workplace,” Alex said. “It’s not the best idea to go in high. You want to go in with a clear mind and be conscious of what you are doing. You are there to do a job."

For the seriously ill who are in excruciating pain, medical marijuana is not like popping Tylenol. The effects could be compared to the effects of some major narcotic painkillers, Alex mentioned.

“I think it’s something that the employer is going to have to face,” Alex explained. “It depends on the job and what is required of the person at the job. Of course, I wouldn’t approve of a substitute teacher going out to the hallway and taking a smoke break.”

But on a day to day basis, Alex claims that the drug has a very limited negative impact on her life. 

And the 12,000 Montanans now using medicinal marijuana legally would probably agree that the positive effects outweigh the negatives.

-Kate Haake

 

George

Life as a medical marijuana patient sometimes feels like being “a pagan in the burning days.”

At least that’s how one man described his experience navigating the murky logistics of the Medical Marijuana Act. George — not his real name — is a local man who’s been enrolled in the state’s medical marijuana program since last year. He’s now devoting his efforts to making a viable plan for forming a nonprofit growing cooperative among patients — an idea he feels could solve many of the problems he and other patients have encountered with procuring their medicine. 

Two weeks ago, George was “dumped” by his caregiver. At first, he couldn’t figure out why, but then he realized what happened.

“The only thing that changed in our relationship is that (the caregiver) found out I was talking to law enforcement,” George said.

George consulted local police when he needed to move his six cannabis plants because they were taking up too much room in his house. After getting the OK from law enforcement, George moved his growing operation to a friend’s house with more space, and notified his caregiver. Soon after, the caregiver told George he no longer wanted him as a patient, leaving George without a way to get medicine until his plants flower and he can dry and cure more marijuana.

“So I will just not sleep for the next three months until I get three more plants grown,” George said.

Like many patients he knows, George depends on marijuana for pain control, and without a heavy dose before bed, he can’t sleep. Several years ago, George, an arborist, suffered a badly broken wrist in an on-the-job injury. 

Reconstructive surgery left his arm intact on the surface, but extensive nerve damage means that any work using his hands is painful. As he does chores, the pain builds until finally his wrist and hand go numb. But when he lies down to go to sleep, the pain comes rushing back.
 
“Eventually, it got down to the point where I had to get something to help me sleep at night,” George said. “My pain gangs up on me at night.”
 
Although he can no longer work on trees, George didn’t qualify for disability, and with no insurance, can’t afford a doctor. For a while, he took Lortab and hydrocodone pills that friends gave him, but the drugs kept him awake, and he didn’t want to go down a road of one prescription after another.
 
“I need sleep, and I don’t want to have to take two drugs,” George said.
 
Medical marijuana, it seemed, was relatively affordable and would provide George with a natural sleep aid and pain control. After he was approved for a medical card, George decided to “test the six-plant theory” and grow his own marijuana, keeping the plants on a rotating schedule so some would always be flowering.
 
“I probably use less than a gram (of marijuana) a day,” George explained. “I don’t need a whole lot to get me by.”
 
George also assigned a caregiver who would keep him supplied with medicine until George’s own marijuana could be harvested. But the caregiver turned out to be only interested in making money, something George doesn’t have much of. So he switched caregivers, thinking he’d found someone more compassionate and affordable — until two weeks ago, when the new caregiver dropped George. 
 
“There are going to be people who are good at caring for plants and those who are good at caring for people, and they’re not usually going to be the same people,” George said, pointing out that caregiver regulations and monitoring are huge issues the state needs to address in the upcoming legislative session.
 
A background check for felony drug convictions is the only prerequisite to becoming a caregiver, leading many people who were involved in the illegal marijuana market to take advantage of what they see as a new business opportunity in medical marijuana.
 
“Everybody else is sick of the medical marijuana profiteering,” George said. “Sifting through that when shopping for caregivers has been a major issue.” 
 
George figures that with more than 50 patients, and charging $300 an ounce, his last caregiver was turning a profit of anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000 a month.
 
“That’s street prices; that’s an illicit market,” George said, explaining that he’s done plenty of research into how much it costs to grow marijuana in a large-scale operation. “Actual production costs are under $100 a pound.”
 
George isn’t the only medical marijuana patient who’s had trouble finding a legitimate caregiver and affording medicine, so he decided to look into starting a patient’s growing coop.
 
According to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, the law is silent on the issue of whether patients and/or caregivers can form growing cooperatives, and when George contacted DPHHS, he was told to consult local law enforcement on the issue.
 
“As far as clear information, the only way (for people) to get it is to go get it themselves,” he said.
 
George has met several times with local law enforcement officials, and they seem to agree that a coop makes sense. Security would be one of the main benefits to the coop, George explained, since together, a group of patients could afford a security system to ensure a safe growing site. Police would also be able to keep track of who’s growing in the coop and audit the group.
 
“Most of the police I’ve talked to are all for coops, because it’s centralized growing,” he said.
“You need to have absolute control of your environment and absolute security … The only way I can imagine doing it safely is in a coop.”
 
Another huge problem George sees in the blooming medical marijuana industry is the lack of standards for dosage. Sure, some cannabis strains are more potent than others, but little research has been done to identify the different strains or how much THC and other cannabinoids — the effective chemical compounds in marijuana — are actually present in each plant.
 
“The strains need to be identified, or else there is no baseline,” George said. “There is no dosage clarity.”
 
But the federal government’s labeling of marijuana as an illicit drug has prevented any significant research on the cultivation and medicinal use of the plant. George hopes that a carefully designed growing coop could change that and bring in researchers from local universities, “using our neutral-ground territory to get these studies done.”
 
While George believes cannabis does indeed have many beneficial medicinal uses, he also realizes the great need for further exploration into the plant’s abilities.
 
“The same open-source approach they’re using in software needs to be applied to medical marijuana,” George said.
 
George has presented his coop plan to several caregivers, but he said no one with more than a couple of patients is interested. He’s been told the idea is a “pie in the sky” and that a nonprofit coop would never work — but the naysayers are all profiting from the current state of the industry, he said.
 
“(The medical marijuana law) wasn’t made for the poor person, and I think it should be,” George said.
 
A nonprofit coop would allow patients to share resources for security, cultivation and preparation of marijuana, leading to better quality medicine and much more affordable costs, he added.
 
“I think ultimately … people need to come together and show people that (the medical marijuana program) can work,” George said. “We’ve got to keep going, because right now, this is not gonna work.
 
“If anyone’s willing to line up and work on it, I think we have nothing but potential in this valley.”
 
-Melea Burke
 

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