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 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.
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.