Jane* couldn’t sleep. The nights were the worst. In the darkness, the drone of pain that she battled every day would ratchet up. Diagnosed with Lupus a few years prior (an autoimmune disease that attacks connective tissue and organs, causing pain, inflammation and a host of other symptoms, some of which can be fatal), Jane struggled like a lone combatant locked in a silent, but deadly battle, desperately skirmishing with her own body for a handhold on life.
Her doctor, although sympathetic, followed the standard treatment (there is no cure for Lupus) prescribing pain medications, steroids, chemotherapy drugs such as Plaquenil (to suppress her immune system), and a host of anti-inflammatory medications which sometimes made her violently ill.
On good days Jane felt like a spaced out zombie. On bad days, she was tempted to give up. She found herself opening the pain pill bottle a little too often. She felt that her life had narrowed, becoming smaller, like an ever-narrowing flashlight beam, until she was afraid she would wink out entirely.
Turning to the Leaf
Then a family member finally suggested cannabis. She was reluctant, but desperation made her try. The results were nothing short of stunning. Her pain levels dropped as did the inflammation. Her appetite increased and she began to become more active. Eventually she was able to wean herself off of the pain medications almost entirely. She now uses the opioids her doctor prescribed for severe, breakthrough pain.
She is less fearful of an accidental overdose and now enjoys a higher quality of life, even though her doctor is still unable to prescribe medical cannabis, due to the fact that it is not recognized as a legal substance in her state.
Jane’s experience is not out of the ordinary. It is, in fact, entirely consistent with statistical trends that demonstrate a sharp decline in accidental overdoses resulting prescribed pain medications in states where marijuana has been legalized.
Jane’s case also highlights the medical/legal limbo that many people with chronic conditions face on a daily basis. They must choose between what may turn out to be an effective treatment, and a convoluted legal morass in which the FDA continues to list marijuana as a dangerous substance. Currently, cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 drug. This means it is considered unsafe with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. The FDA is currently investigating the possibility of changing their stance on cannabis.
Besides being a political hot potato, there are other problems, such as limited research, caused by a decade’s long legal stance that inhibited clinical trials testing the effectiveness of medical marijuana.
And, even in states where medical cannabis is legal, doctors still have to navigate choppy bureaucratic waters in that they may not be protected by their malpractice insurance when prescribing cannabis to their patients. (Medical malpractice insurance covers only FDA approved medications.)
Additionally, there are no set prescribing guidelines that lay out dosing options. Since the strength of the active ingredients can vary based on the specific strain, there is no underlying uniformity to guide medical providers on safe doses, drug interactions and counter-indications for cannabis.
Jane plans on moving to Colorado where cannabis use is legal as soon as possible. In the meantime, she like many others, will continue to struggle with the legal, social and medical conundrums caused by marijuana prohibition.
*Name has been changed for privacy reasons