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What I've Learned From Using Medical Marijuana for My Chronic Pain

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From opiods to medical marijuana, this is my experience as a chronic pain patient.

I live every day with my companions hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and fibromyalgia. Essentially, my collagen is weak, causing my joints to partially or fully dislocate, and my muscles feel like they’re in a state of constant spasm. As you can imagine, widespread continuous pain does not make it easy to live life without some pain management.

• What is Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome?
• What Are Common Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Symptoms?

I will fully acknowledge that there is an opioid crisis in North America. But news articles that sensationalize the opioid crisis overlook the very people for whom these medications were created: chronic pain patients who have a legitimate prescription for opioids, and are taking this type of medication responsibly, under the supervision of a medical professional. It is estimated that out of all of the legitimate chronic pain patients using opioid therapy, up to 12 percent may become addicted. While 12 percent is still a fairly high number, it is far from the masses of people addicted to opioids portrayed in the media. Chronic pain patients both need and deserve additional counseling and support while on an opioid regimen – including but not limited to complimentary non-opioid pain relief options and mental health services, as mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are an often overlooked part of chronic illness.

I used to use opioids to manage pain; however, I discontinued opioid therapy because it was not the right choice for me. My body did not respond to treatment overly well. After taking opioid medications for years, I was ready for another option. I was tired of taking pain medication, and then taking other medications to mitigate the side effects, like chronic constipation, that persisted no matter how many liters of water I drank, or how much fiber I consumed. I was also tired of being treated like a criminal for seeking medication to help me live in a reduced amount of pain.

After taking the above into consideration, I decided to take advantage of Canada’s ACMPR (Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations), and give medical marijuana a try, as it had recently become easier to access in Canada without having to futz around with growing my own. I’m not a great gardener, and honestly, some days I have trouble taking care of myself let alone some pretty demanding plants.

I did have some initial reservations, having never used cannabis in my life. However, my research lad me to comprehensive studies completed which all showed the number of deaths directly attributed to marijuana in the year 2015 were 0. This is what swayed my decision in the end.

In the past year, I’ve come to several realizations:

1. It can be really expensive. Aphria, the Health Canada-authorized grower/distributer that I deal with charges $4.00/gram for their entry level “Growers Blend,” which is a mix of several different strains. It uses the “off parts” of the plant such as stems and leaves. These parts of the plant are lower in THC (the cannabinoid that I find helps relax my muscles and control pain), and can be wildly inconsistent from batch to batch. It’s the ground beef of the marijuana world, if you will. For more top drawer products like dried bud, which would be the ribeye steak of the medical marijuana world, it can be up to $15/gram, which doesn’t sound too bad – until you do the math. My prescription is for five grams of cannabis per day. I use half a gram on a good day, and up to three and a half grams on a bad day. If I have 18 good days in a month, that is $7.50 for half a gram, per day, times 18, which equals $135. For simplification, let’s say I use two grams per day at $15/gram for the remaining 12 days of the month, which equals $360. My grand total would be $595 per month, with insurance covering none of it. That would be why I choose to use the lowest tier option. It’s not quite as effective as I’d like, but I simply can’t afford the more expensive options.

2. It’s easily accessible. Here in Canada, our system for the initial prescription is pretty straightforward. A doctor prescribes medical marijuana, and you then can do two things: apply to register for a permit to grow your own marijuana/designate someone to grow it for you, or register with a Health Canada-authorized distributor. Once you’re registered with an authorized distributor, as long as you have an internet connection, physical address and a credit card, you are set. Your order is shipped to your door with very little fuss.

3. It’s effective. I found that opioids relieved between 55 to 70 percent of my pain under perfect conditions, whereas medical marijuana relieves between 75 to 90 percent of my pain on a good day. That’s not to say that I don’t hurt. There are days (many of them) where my pain is not as well controlled as I’d like, as I’m unable to take a therapeutic dose during the day due to day-to-day obligations like work that are incompatible with marijuana use. That’s where my “rescue” medications like muscle relaxants come in.

4. If I cannot obtain the level of relief I need, there are complementary medications like muscle relaxants I can use safely. Since starting on this treatment I find I am not tempted to misuse or overuse other medications to find additional relief, as I know I have a safety net if I need it. That makes me feel as if my pain is being completely and compassionately addressed.

5. There are more ways to use marijuana than just smoking it. If I require immediate relief I have a dry herb vape (also referred to as an e-joint) which heats the plant material to activate the THC, without causing the plant to combust. The aforementioned vapor is inhaled. It’s kind of like Buckley’s – it tastes awful but it works. I vastly prefer edibles, which take longer to work. Instead of feeling “high” I find that it relaxes my body, is much longer lasting than other methods of consumption, but has a tingly feeling described as a “body buzz.”

6. It is not like Cheech and Chong. Never have I ever used my medical marijuana and yelled, “Dave’s not here, man!,” “Duuuuude” or any other ridiculous stereotypes. There are times I can get pretty goofy for about 20 to 60 minutes after using a higher dosed edible, or larger than normal e-joint, which is why I tend to use most heavily before I go to bed. It helps me sleep and relieves a great deal of my pain. Besides, if I want to spend 30 minutes laughing at cat memes on the internet, who am I hurting?

7. There is no time when I am using that I feel out of control. I use in small amounts unless I use with the clear intent to get some rest. By using in small amounts, I am aware of everything I do or say. That’s not to say I would ever make any major decisions or sign any legal documents while using, the same way I wouldn’t do those things after a couple glasses of wine, or under the influence of opioid medication.

8. Using medical marijuana is the same as using any drug, including alcohol and prescription narcotics. Anyone who has downed a couple glasses of wine or is drowsy from pain medication shouldn’t be driving, operating heavy machinery, re-shingling their roof or otherwise engage in activities involving mental acuity, fast reflexes or decision-making skills, for obvious reasons.

9. My ability to travel with my medication is greatly reduced. Although marijuana is legal for medical use in Canada on a federal level, those protections are only extended to Canadian patients, on Canadian soil. If I were to cross the border into the United States, while medical marijuana is legal on a state level in some states, it remains illegal on a federal level. Therefore, if I were to go to the States carrying my pain relief, I am automatically breaking the law just by possessing something I am legally able to possess in my home country. Thankfully, my doctor is willing to prescribe a short-term prescription for opioids if I decide to escape the winter in Florida for a week.

10. I do not use recreationally. The only time I consume marijuana is to control pain or other symptoms such as gastrointestinal symptoms or anxiety. This treatment was prescribed as a medication, and I treat it as such.

The safety and efficiency of cannabis make the downsides worth it for me. I can use marijuana edibles the same way others would take a pill and get a very high degree of pain relief, coupled with the fact that I don’t need to endure the scrutiny of medical professionals who are trying to decide if I’m a drug-seeker every time I need to renew my prescription.

I am immensely glad that I tried medical marijuana. I discovered a pain therapy which is safe, that I find effective and that has minimal risk. As I also purchase through a licensed distributor, there are rigorous quality control checks and records kept. Every time I consume an edible or have an e-joint, I can feel comfortable doing so, as I know for sure that what I am consuming is safe.

As long as common sense regulations such as not driving under the influence are implemented and enforced, I believe medical marijuana can definitely be the future of pain management in North America. It is in my opinion equally, if not more effective, at treating pain than narcotics, there is much less risk of addiction and, to my knowledge, there has never been a single death due to marijuana overdose. I actively encourage anyone struggling with chronic illness – who possesses the means and lives in an area where it’s legal – to ask your doctor about medical marijuana as an alternative form of pain management. There’s some expense and logistical issues, such as making sure to use when I know I don’t have to get behind the wheel at all, and educating myself on where I can legally possess my medication, but having a safer yet effective method of pain relief is well worth the inconvenience for me. I can confidently say that after trying medical marijuana, I feel much more in control of my pain, and I feel better equipped to deal with my day-to-day tasks.

In summary, a month of top drawer medical marijuana: $595. Feeling like I, for the most part, control my pain: priceless.

Getty Image by morisfoto

Originally published: February 9, 2018
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