Cannabis is replacing medications for a variety of ailments and illnesses.
Medical cannabis has been available to patients for just over six months in Oklahoma, and though the data is still far from comprehensive, anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness is coming in droves.
Extract spoke with two women who have used the plant to wean themselves off powerful prescription pharmaceuticals.
One of them is a 29-year-old attorney. Though she feels telling her story is important, professional concerns prompted her to ask not to be identified or photographed for this story. She shall henceforth be referred to as “Jo.”
Jo has had lifelong ailments, both physical and mental, and began treating them with cannabis last fall.
“I knew that I had anxiety and depression, but law school was where I first was diagnosed and really kind of my first introduction to it. … My mental health is kind of what sparked, ’All right; I need this, but I also have a crazy physical illness,’” Jo said. “I’ve always been active; I always played sports, grew up playing softball, golf and basketball. And when I was 10, I’m right handed, and I noticed that my left side was weaker, and I asked my parents about it. … Long story short, we discovered that I had a stroke, actually. I didn’t know. They think it must have happened when I was asleep. But I was 10 years old, went to a lot of specialists and I was diagnosed with dystonia. There are a ton of different versions of it. It’s all weird. There are no cures. The way that it affects me, specifically, I had a stroke in the right side of my brain … but essentially what it does is overworks my left side, specifically overworks my left hand, but it overworks my entire left side, so when I’m tired, my mouth will pull to the left a little bit. The left side of my body just doesn’t fit the right way, and the best way I can explain it to anyone that doesn’t have any kind of neuromuscular issue is you feel like you’re clenching all the time. So start with your hand; you clench your fists. My go-to position, like right now, I’m looking at my hand, it is a clenched fist — my thumb is in between my fingers. But it mainly affects my hand that way but affects my entire left side. It’s weakening of muscles, it’s shaking, it’s kind of tremorlike symptoms. It’s like terrible fluidity of motion, and it’s constant tension. I’ve had that since I was 10, and I’m 29 now and I’m really feeling the effects. … It doesn’t hurt, but if you imagine that stress on your body … it’s a lot of wear and tear on your body. That is the very un-nuanced version of it because a lot of people experience in very different ways. It’s such a weird illness to have, and it’s hard to find doctors that even know what it is or know how to treat it, know where to even begin with it.”
When she was 10, Jo started taking muscle relaxers for a number of years to treat her dystonia but curbed them in her adolescence.
“I stopped taking medicine for it. I just dealt with it. I taught myself to type. I played golf, basketball and softball — super-active kid, all while dealing with this physical disability. When I was in high school, my shoulders started hurting me, and so I started going to see a traveling movement disorder neurologist because I didn’t have any available to me in Oklahoma,” she said. “I get Botox shots in my hand. It’s one of the weird ways that Botox is used; it deadens the nerve and just relaxes the hand a little bit. Well, the flip side of that is it also weakens the hand or weakens muscles it’s injected into, and so I was really good in high school at golf, and I couldn’t hold on to the club because it weakened me too much. … I now get Botox shots in my hand, my neck, my shoulder, my forearm, my chin. I get about probably 10 Botox shots every three months. I tell people I probably have like a 50- or 60-year-old’s body, and I’m 29. Maybe even something more achy than that. It’s just constant pressure, constant pain.”
“The first day it was available,
I believe in October, I started using it
for medical purposes.“
Jo said she only started considering using cannabis to treat her ailments in her 20s.
“Even in college and law school, I didn’t use it at all,” Jo said. “And so since as soon as I could get my license, I applied and I’m one of the few that my general practitioner was like, ‘Absolutely; you need this.’ And once I got it, and it was available, I finally was able to start figuring out what was right for me, what helped me the most. So I’m fairly new on my journey using pot, using cannabis. I know people had a lot of practice compared to me.”
Jo acquired her card last summer and waited patiently for the day THC became legal.
“The first day it was available, I believe in October, I started using it for medical purposes,” she said.
She started with edibles.
“I was fully aware of the unpredictability of it, so I started off and the edibles available were pretty limited initially, and so I started off with edibles and I needed some guidance with flower and I got a vape pen. So I use flower, edibles and I vape oil now, but when I first started, it was like a brownie and I got flower, and I’d smoke it out of a pipe, but it took me a little while to get the hang of that,” she said. “Time of day is mainly my issue. What am I using it for? What am I going to go do? … For pain relief, edibles are my best bet. I know that, and I knew that from the beginning. They tend to be the biggest bang for my buck, at least in my experience. I use different kinds at different times, knowing how interactive I have to be with people, so mostly it’s based on less symptoms, more ‘What kind of social interactions am I going to be doing today? What kind of work do I need to get done today?’ Because I know what works best for my symptoms. Time of day mostly dominates it.”
Since beginning cannabis treatment, she has been able to get off most of her other medications.
“Since October, when it first actually became available, I think I’ve taken my muscle relaxer twice,” she said. “I am also prescribed beta blockers for my anxiety as needed, and I think I’ve taken those twice as well since October, and I have not bought ibuprofen since the summertime. We have Bayer. I’ve taken Bayer maybe twice since October. I was definitely taking ibuprofen or Bayer every day, and I was pretty much using my muscle relaxer every day as prescribed by a doctor. I needed it. This has replaced a lot of things for me.”
Suzanne Wallace also has both physical and mental issues that she has to contend with daily and has replaced her other medications with cannabis.
But that was not where her familiarity with the plant began. The daughter of a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent, she was also an Oklahoma County juvenile bureau probation officer. It was not until she left that profession that she began experimenting with cannabis though.
“When I was 10, I injured my knee skiing. And I’ve had problems ever since. I think seven surgeries on the books on my right knee. They started me on opiates when I was 16. And from 16 to 26, I was on, daily, like 80 to 100 milligrams of opiates,” Wallace said. “It got to the point where I was in so much pain that I would have to use crutches or a cane to go to work. I couldn’t go into the field at work because I wasn’t safe with my physical health, and I actually finally had a knee replacement at 26. And after that knee replacement, I said, ‘OK, I don’t want to ever take another opiate again.’ And around that same time when I got my knee replaced, I was the victim of a sexual assault and I developed PTSD as well. So about the last six months to a year, I was on that amount of opiates plus six benzodiazepine doses a day. So I was not functioning. I wasn’t able to get out of bed. I mean, at 25 years old, it just felt like my life was over because I couldn’t do anything with the pills. It was actually the PTSD that got me to try cannabis. [A friend] saw me just struggling really, really hard one day and finally said, ‘Just please take this joint and try it and see if that helps.’ And I have not gone a day since without cannabis, I don’t think.
“I didn’t feel like there was enough
mental health representation
in the industry.”
“I was a criminal. Absolutely illegally healed. I was on opiates for 10 years, and it was doctor-prescribed. I never went out and bought them off the street or anything, but 10 years is a long time. Within two weeks, I was completely off of opiates with cannabis. Didn’t need rehab. Nothing. The first week, I still had the opiate withdrawal. I was sick. I went through that. But cannabis really helped with those symptoms, too. But after that, it was enough. I still had to take the benzos. It took actually having access to medical-grade cannabis and my research on the terpenes and all the properties that go into it.
“I was diagnosed with PTSD off the charts. … After four months of access to legal medical cannabis and being able to tailor what I was buying to what I needed, I no longer measure for PTSD. It takes 33 points to be diagnosed. My scale was at six at the beginning of March, and it’s been at like 50 to 70. I do believe it healed the neural pathways in my brain.”
She got her medical cannabis card in October, before dispensaries were open for business, and using her master’s degree in forensic pathology, Wallace is helping other patients with her knowledge and experience.
“I didn’t feel like there was enough mental health representation in the industry,” Wallace said. “There are a lot of people that have a lot of medical knowledge. I mean, I’ve even heard of people that went from being paramedics and things to going into the cannabis industry. But I don’t hear much about therapists or psychologists or anything like that. And that’s physical pain. I’ve lived with both physical and mental, and one is not more important than the other. And I really think that mental health is represented enough in the cannabis industry at this time, but we are still new. And I would like to see more people with backgrounds in mental health get into the field to help the patients.”
Now Wallace has left her law enforcement career behind to work in the industry.
“I’m a dispensary agent. So that’s a fancy word for budtender that we like to use. … I’m really good at research with my academic background,” she said. “And so for me, my day-to-day consists of a lot of reading and researching looking up symptoms, looking up diseases and then going to what limited research that we have on cannabis. That’s one thing; I can’t wait for it to be federally declassified so that we can study it. We’ve got a lot of good research coming out of Israel, some starting to come out of Canada. So really, a lot of my day is spent on research, and what’s not I spent with patients, talking to them about what’s going on and trying to help them find the best product to meet their needs.”
She is good at recommending products as well, as she uses every form of cannabis product on the market.
“I have found that for me, topical oils and edibles work best for my arthritic and chronic pain, like with my knee, but smoking works best for my anxiety,” Wallace said. “I really believe that, honestly, that we’re supposed to have THC in our systems. We wouldn’t have evolved an endocannabinoid system if it weren’t supposed to be used.”
Medical application of cannabis is still emerging science, but doctors are discovering that the medicine is effective in treating a growing number of diseases and conditions. This is a partial list of conditions for which medical cannabis can be effective.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis/Lou Gehrig’s disease
Autism spectrum disorders
Cachexia (wasting syndrome)
CRPS (Complex Regional Pain Syndrome Type II)
Inflammatory bowel disease
Irreversible spinal cord injury
Obstructive sleep apnea
Persistent muscle spasms
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Reflex sympathetic dystrophy
Residual limb pain
Sickle cell disease