Last Sunday, April 17, Gov. Tom Wolf signed The Medical Marijuana Act (SB 3) into law, making Pennsylvania the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana. What does this mean for healthcare? Considering what marijuana has done for my grandma, I’ll be the first to say a lot.
When my mom first told me she was considering medical marijuana for my grandma, I couldn’t believe it.
I thought she hated marijuana and the thought of me, my brother, or anyone else using it, let alone her ailing, 91-year-old mother. Yet I listened as she told me she had already contacted a “cannabis consultant,” was speaking to doctors about getting a recommendation, and was planning her visit to Oakland’s marijuana dispensary.
Even more surprising was my dad, proud to have “not given into weed” in college and insistent that I take a vow against smoking before coming to Haverford in the fall. “I think it could really help her,” he told me over the phone, followed by, “I think it would help my dad’s MS [multiple sclerosis] too!”
Jealousy aside, I was thrilled. I had always heard that marijuana has health benefits and, whether or not this was just a stoner’s tactic to justify use of the drug, I was curious if the tale held any truth. Even if it was a risk, my family was ready to throw ourselves at it if it meant it might help my grandma.
Although she stays sharp and alert at age 91—following all the presidential debates, reading the New York Times cover to cover every day, and actually completing the Sunday crossword—she suffers from a number of debilitating ailments. She can give 100 reasons why we should all vote for Hillary, but she has difficulty sleeping, eating, and managing her back pain, and relies on help from my mom for many basic tasks. These days, pills overflow her cabinets, and every doctor she sees only adds another bottle to the list as he or she attempts to solve one problem after the other. Many will argue that this is simply a reality of old age, but many of these pills create problems as fast as they fix them—especially when taken by the elderly.
In this pharmaceutical world we live in, a trip to the doctor is synonymous with a trip to the drugstore; doctors’ jobs are literally to prescribe pills and if they don’t advertise them, every commercial and billboard will to the point where Prozac and Viagra seem to be panaceas for the world’s ills. Pills are so easy to obtain, however, that it begs the question: why even bother looking for another way? Because we seem to have grown so accustomed to them that we overlook any possible detriments they may cause.
What if pills are not always the solution? What if, as it did for my grandma, the pills that stop the back pain cause nausea, the pills that stop the nausea cause dizziness, the pills that stop the dizziness cause constipation, and we just end up right where we started?
Marijuana, on the other hand, has minimal to no side effects. Even the “high” associated with the drug can be tweaked these days. CBD and THC, the two active cannabinoids in the drug, are what are commonly associated with the healing and “high” properties of the drug, respectively. Alter these ratios, and users can use more of one than the other to tailor the drug to their needs.
In the “greenest” states—Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska—marijuana is legalized for medical as well as recreational use, with no limits on who can buy and sell the drug. Pennsylvania now joins a host of other states—California, New York, and more—that have legalized medical use of the drug but draw the line at recreational use. In these states, patients can form cooperatives or dispensaries to sell different kinds of products, but marijuana can only be bought with the recommendation or approval of a state-licensed physician.
Pot-friendly or not, this is because growing, distributing, and possessing marijuana remains in illegal under federal law. Even the most sympathetic doctors, then, cannot prescribe the drug to patients without jeopardizing their licenses. While the US government has resolved not to go after individual users who are otherwise complying with state law, doctors don’t enjoy this same level of protection and are often hesitant to recommend the drug for moral and legal reasons.
My grandma’s physician, however, was willing to recommend cannabis once my mom suggested it. The mind-altering drugs of our generation have no appeal for my grandma, nor was she interested in “smoking” it for the high, so getting the CBD-THC ratio just right in edible products proved crucial in getting her to sustain use of the drug. Once we did, though, the results were astounding. Not only did her back pain stop, but her appetite improved as well as her sleeping.
It is hard to say exactly how much marijuana can do, but it is certainly an under-explored method of healthcare that deserves more attention than it gets.
But, even with all this good news, it isn’t clear whether medical marijuana is a viable solution for my grandma or simply a short-term one masking a long-term problem. I want so badly for marijuana to help and for it to finally do good for someone who actually needs it, but for now, all we can do is wait and hope and see.
To be clear, this is not a campaign to legalize marijuana. It is a story about my grandma and about medical alternatives to the pill-industry that we have grown so accustomed to using—progress to which has just been made in our very own neighborhood. Cannabis is certainly user-specific and requires research, but doctors and pills, meant to perpetuate each other’s existence, shouldn’t be the only option. To the doctors, the stoners, the people against drugs, or none of these, I offer the hope that non-traditional forms of medicines can work. I do not want to suggest that we suddenly abandon doctors and their discretion, but I do want to suggest that we move towards legitimizing non-legitimate methods of health-care. We should question the industry of medicine we accept so blindly. We should seek out consultants, who play an important role in educating patients about the value of medical marijuana among other forms of non-traditional medicine. We should take charge of our health in ways we haven’t before.