By Tanner Hackney
Last year on the day before Easter, Sarah (not her real name) felt a strong pins-and-needles sensation in her legs. She tried to pick up her feet, but couldn’t lift them. By the next day the sensation had risen to her ribcage. She had her brother touch her, but felt no sensation. She managed to step outside and her fear was affirmed.
“I didn’t know what it was, I just knew it wasn’t right,” Sarah said. “I stood barefoot on the concrete porch and I couldn’t feel cold.”
As she bounced between D.C. hospitals, Sarah had already accepted she had multiple sclerosis. Her mother had it and she knew it could be hereditary. It was no shock when the diagnosis came back positive. By the time she was out of the hospital, Sarah was experiencing muscle spasticity and severe pain. She needed a walker just to move short distances. She was on 14 pills at once, some of which were opioids, but they weren’t working.
“They didn’t actually fix me,” Sarah said. “They just put me to sleep.”
As soon as she got her diagnosis, Sarah had thought about using marijuana to treat her MS. Her family was hesitant, but after getting her hands on a joint, the effects became apparent immediately. It took her nearly half an hour to get down the stairs with her walker so she could go outside and smoke. When she was finished she had control over her body again.
“I noticed a big change,” Sarah said. “I went from not walking to going up and down the stairs.”
Sarah is now one of the two million plus patients across the United States enrolled in state medical marijuana programs, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a lobbying group that works to end marijuana prohibition. There are currently 29 states, including D.C., that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. Medical marijuana has become an increasingly growing trend, with public approval ratings higher than ever. According to a Yahoo News/Marist Poll report published in April, 83 percent of Americans legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
But despite rising popularity, the medical marijuana movement still faces many issues.
A common source of hesitation to legalize medical marijuana is the relatively limited amount of research that has been done on the plant. In addition to current studies, many dispensaries and organizations rely on anecdotal evidence for proof of marijuana’s possible medical benefits. MPP is one of those organizations. Morgan Fox, their Director of Communications, said there’s enough evidence to prove marijuana has medical benefits, but MPP still wants more research conducted.
“We would argue that there’s not enough research to allow patients to take as full advantage of medical marijuana as they could,” said Fox. “All patients, as well as their doctors, could benefit from knowing a lot more about what the substance does and how it could be used.”
Jen Brunenkant is the owner of Herbal Alternatives, a medical marijuana dispensary in D.C. She wishes more research would be conducted so physicians, as well as her and her employees, could isolate different compounds in cannabis and identify what they may be best suited to treat. She also said physicians would be more comfortable recommending marijuana if they knew more about it. But Brunenkant has also seen marijuana’s health benefits first-hand, she said.
“I’ve seen it help across the spectrum,” Brunenkant said. “Anywhere from controlling autoimmune diseases, helping MS patients, cancer patients, anxiety, depression, and healing broken bones.”
(Herbal Alternatives office building in Dupont Circle. Photo by Tanner Hackney)
Kevin Sabet, president of anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, agrees that there are certain properties from cannabis that have medical benefits. However, Sabet said states should not be legalizing marijuana without more scientific research.
“Medications should be determined by science rather than voted on,” Sabet said.
So many states have legalized medical marijuana because people are compassionate, Sabet said. He said the emotional appeal of the medical movement often overshadows the science and research side.
MPP has lobbied in several states where medical marijuana is now legal, and although Fox is confident in the research they currently have, he agrees much of public support is driven by human nature.
“There’s a compassion aspect,” Fox said. “It’s really hard to look at somebody who could be helped by this law and just say ‘No, no we’re not going to do that’.”
Sabet also sees issue with states opening medical marijuana dispensaries. He said other medications don’t have their own dispensaries and marijuana shouldn’t be an exception. Sabet said opening medical dispensaries often encourages the use of marijuana among recreational users and adolescents.
Fox, however, said there’s substantial evidence that teen use stays the same or decreases when states pass medical marijuana laws. According to an MPP report, 17 states have seen a decrease in teen use since medical legalization.
Brunenkant is also unconvinced by the idea that children and teens are being encouraged to seek out marijuana in response to medical legalization.
“To think that a dispensary wants kids, it’s so absurd, it boggles the mind,” Brunenkant said. “We’re here to help people who have a variety of conditions, including children who may be suffering 100-200 epileptic fits a day.”
The children that receive treatment at Herbal Alternatives must get their cannabis through their parents, who are required to register for a caregiver card.
As a dispensary owner, Brunenkant sees things from the patient perspective. One of her gripes with D.C.’s current medical policy is that dispensaries are not permitted to use cannabis on the premises. This means employees can’t demonstrate how to consume cannabis through the various methods they offer. Brunenkant said this is difficult when new patients are unfamiliar with how to properly consume marijuana. She recalls several patients returning with vaporizers complaining they weren’t working properly, when really the patients were simply unaware of how to use them.
However, a new bill proposed by D.C. Councilmember David Grosso may offer a solution to this issue. The Medical Marijuana Improvement Amendment Act is intended to reduce the limitations of access to medical marijuana, Grosso said. The bill would allow D.C. dispensaries to permit consumption on the premises. It would also allow any D.C. resident over the age of 21 to self-certify, signing an affidavit promising to use marijuana for medical purposes. This would give patients access to medical marijuana without a physician’s recommendation.
The bill was presented before D.C.’s Council on Health at a public hearing on Nov. 9.
“That was a good start,” said Grosso. “Everyone in the industry recognizes the need to access medical marijuana.”
But not everyone is on board with the bill. Brunenkant is worried about self-certification. Her concern is that this aspect of the bill would undermine current legislation and bring unwanted attention from the Department of Justice.
“The self-certification, I’m kind of torn about, because it endangers the medical program,” Brunenkant said. “We are in the justice department’s backyard.”
Brunenkant said she supports the portion of the bill that would allow safe consumption in the dispensary. Not only would it allow her and her employees to demonstrate the use of different consumption methods, but it would also give patients who can’t consume marijuana where they live a safe haven to medicate, said Brunenkant.
Sarah is one of the patients who could benefit from this aspect of the bill. She lives with her grandmother, who won’t let her smoke in the house. Typically, she steps outside to smoke, but she likes the idea of having a safe place to medicate.
Other patients are harder pressed to find places where they can smoke or otherwise consume marijuana. It is illegal to use marijuana in Section 8 housing, so residents enrolled in the medical program take a risk by medicating in their homes. Brunenkant worries about her patients who live in such housing, as well as general rental units, where marijuana consumption is typically illegal. She said these patients are afraid to smoke marijuana in their apartments, but is glad she can offer them alternatives with less powerful odors.
“We have a lot of people that need medication,” Brunenkant said. “But they’re afraid to take any method, so it’s good seeing different forms coming out.”
Though the bill was received well at the hearing, it will have to be reviewed by the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety before the D.C. Council can consider passing it, said Grosso. As of now there are no hearings scheduled.
Another barrier to patient access is money. In addition to registration fees for their medical cards, patients are looking at cannabis products that are “cost-prohibitive,” Fox said. This is a barrier Sarah is familiar with. Although she consumes cannabis through various methods, she primarily sticks to smoking the actual plant, as it’s the cheapest option available.
Among the states that have not legalized medical marijuana, there are 19 that recognize certain medical benefits of the substance, but don’t want to go as far as legalization, Fox said. Some of these states have laws that allow limited access to certain types of cannabis products.
“A lot of these unworkable laws are a way for politicians who don’t support medical marijuana to do something that looks good for their constituents without actually doing anything that has impact,” Fox said. “They get to stand in front of TV cameras with really sick kids who might get helped by that law, but are in the vast minority when it comes to all patients who could benefit from an effective medical marijuana program.”
Other states have shown no signs of legalizing, like Idaho and Nebraska, who have instituted no forms of access or decriminalization.
“A lot of it is just cultural,” Fox said. “Across the board there’s public support but sometimes politicians are a little slow to evolve from that drug war mentality where all marijuana is bad.”
This mentality makes it take longer to convince sitting legislators that they can pass an effective medical marijuana law without getting attacked by their constituents, Fox said.