Patients Not So patient

Patients Find Relief In Medical Marijuana

One of 61-year-old Stephen Haner’s favorite possessions is a vintage gold pipe from the 1980s. The pipe is delicate and intricate; its bowl resembles a dreidel. Though he’s proud to show it off, it’s not just for show. The pipe plays an integral part in his life.

Haner was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis eight years ago, an illness that has ravaged his central nervous system, causing him to even lose his sight sporadically. Shortly after his diagnosis, he became frustrated and tired of taking pills and injections for the pain, so he turned to pot for medical relief.

Now every evening Haner packs weed quickly and deftly in that pipe, in a matter of seconds, to liberate himself from the pain. He never expected to be smoking marijuana regularly, but it is the only way he can cope.

“I found that the marijuana just calmed me enough when I was in excruciating pain just to cut it. I do really believe it is medicine. … There are times when I will take two hits of pot and within 10 minutes it (the pain) is gone,” Haner said.

Haner is not alone in favoring the Mary Jane treatment.

Twenty-three states, including Delaware, have legalized medical marijuana.

After years of uncertainty and delays, Delawareans will be able to legally purchase pot for medical use in early 2015 when the state’s pilot medical marijuana dispensary is expected to open.

There are now 166 Delawareans registered for state-regulated medical marijuana identification cards per the law, many of whom have eagerly awaited for a dispensary for three years.  “So that will be nice. There won’t be any shortages,” said Todd Kitchen, a patient advocate with fibromyalgia who pushed for the state’s medical marijuana legislation in 2011.

But in the meantime, getting marijuana readily is difficult.

“We still have to get our stuff from the street. That’s not safe. There’s no quality control,” Kitchen said.

According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, there have been 202 completed studies on marijuana treatments and another 126 still in progress. Even so, health officials are still wary about dubbing marijuana as the cure-all. “We don’t really know whether marijuana used for medical purposes causes as substantial of a risk for addiction,” said Dr. David Casarett, director of hospice and palliative care at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the soon-to-be published science book “Stoned.”

“Some people say it’s more addictive than alcohol, but less addictive than cocaine. It’s in the ballpark.”

Since marijuana possession is still illegal in most states, it has been difficult to research the drug’s effectiveness, but even as the research continues to develop, one thing remains certain, Casarett said: patient testimony.

He spent the last eight months talking with patients and researchers from around the world to find out how getting high can help alleviate medical symptoms. There is still some hesitancy among physicians to give referrals, but some of the evidence is clear, Casarett said. For instance, tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis, is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as a means to relieve the nausea symptoms cancer patients have post-chemotherapy. Neuropathic pain, which is characterized as chronic pain due to tissue injuries, can also be lessened with marijuana, Casarett said.

Marijuana can be an adequate substitute for individuals who are taking opioids like morphine to manage moderate or chronic pain, he said, and is much more preferable as a medication.

“The side effects of marijuana are more pleasurable often than the side effects of other drugs,” Casarett said.  Patients might experience some confusion  with marijuana, but morphine can cause dizziness, vomiting, stomach pain, shakiness, constipation or stunted breathing.  “If you compare those side effects, which would you rather have,” he said.

Haner knows what he would choose.

Eight years ago he was a different man. He was trying to build himself up after living a life clouded by temptations of alcohol and drugs. He was looking for a change. Haner was living comfortably in the home he had built in Lewes and was studying to become a nurse with Beebe Healthcare. Things were looking up.

Fast-forward to today. Haner is a reluctant retiree, and trying to get through each day without succumbing to unbearable pain. The pain ebbs and flows and is expensive to treat with more traditional medication. “The numbness and pain in my arm is becoming more regular now, but beyond that, you get this band of electrical pain going across your chest and left hand,” Haner said. “It’s a jolt.”

A copaxone injection, which helps to calm the inflamed nerves that radiate throughout the body of an MS patient, can cost $5,400 without insurance, Haner said. He also has to keep a week’s worth of pills stocked. The pills, he said, knock him so out of whack he cannot function.  Medical marijuana just helps him return to himself.

“I can just get peace within myself, I forget about the pain,” Haner said. “There’s no comparison from the relief I get from marijuana. … I can’t imagine living without it, I won’t do it.”

According to Delaware’s medical marijuana law, a physician can refer patients living with cancer, MS, HIV, hepatitis C, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease or with symptoms of post-traumatic stress for marijuana treatment. Medical conditions that cause seizures, consistent nausea and severe pain, like fibromyalgia, also fall under the parameters of referral.

Kitchen, 28, will regardless rely on the cannabis as another resource to help him manage his pain. A car accident in 2005 left him in a coma, with a host of medical problems to wake up to. In addition to fibromyalgia, he lives with inflammatory back disease and Scheuermann’s disease, a spinal disorder that adversely curves his vertebrae to form a hunched back.

“I’m going to be on medication forever, it’s just what amount of medication. I’m trying to get off as many pills as I can,” he said.

Source:  Delaware Online

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