Reefer madness

Or A Tale of Two Patients. Use of medical marijuana can be both a godsend and a trial.

A diabetic doesn’t have to grow their own insulin, but medicinal marijuana is a do-it-yourself affair in Nevada.

A diabetic doesn’t have to grow their own insulin, but medicinal marijuana is a do-it-yourself affair in Nevada.

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Two individuals, both suffering from debilitating, degenerative diseases, both arriving at the legal use of medical marijuana for pain management, could not have come to more dissimilar conclusions regarding its use. Strike that—at least on this point: Both agree the drug is an effective tool against pain. It’s the social side effects that split them on the issue.

“If you don’t mind, call me when you’re outside. I’ll come out.”

“Pat” is very concerned his 8-year-old child will overhear a conversation about marijuana, so the plan is to have a half-hour conversation in the car parked in front of the house—a conversation more suited in style to the sale of illegal drugs than to a completely above-board discussion of medicine.

The home has a well-manicured lawn in a neighborhood of well-manicured lawns in Reno’s medium-aged northwest. In the context of the clandestine meeting, it’s a bit reminiscent of the Showtime suburban pot-dealing show Weeds.

A few weeks ago, Pat was at his wit’s end. He was adamant that he was going to give up the “card” that enabled him to grow a few marijuana plants to treat his disease. Fed up with the social risks associated with treating a disease with a drug more widely acknowledged as a purely recreational gateway drug, he decided it was less risky to buy the drug illegally than to continue growing his own, putting his family at risk of discovery and social ramifications.

Tommy Whiteman doesn’t care who knows he legally grows marijuana to treat his cancer.

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Then the Obama administration announced it did not plan to prosecute medical marijuana users who comply with state laws. This at least gave him hope that social and government views are changing.

Not to play stereotypes, but Pat is paranoid. He wants his identity, number of family members, marital status, details of his disease, maybe even his gender concealed if he’s to talk about his issues with legal, medical marijuana. Suffice it to say that Pat may very well be a woman.

“I know a lot of people in this town, and I know if some of these details get out, somebody’s going to read this and go, ‘Oh, I bet that’s …” And I don’t give a shit for myself, but it’s my family. That’s the whole problem. And ironically, my partner has no problem with me using marijuana—it controls my symptoms.”

Pat’s disease is not a killer, although a wheelchair may be in his future. While he waves the thick sheaf of application papers, he’s talking about the whole of Nevada’s medical marijuana program. “There’s no way the poor guy in a wheelchair can do this; he can’t do this program. There’s an option for a caregiver, but what if you can’t get a caregiver? What if the caregiver doesn’t want to be fingerprinted and put in a database? It’s so restrictive, it’s almost like the people who wrote this made it so complicated and restrictive that they were trying to prevent people from using it.”

The law was written by the Nevada Legislature in 2001 after voters twice approved a mandate. And legislators were restrictive, limiting it to cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, or any condition that causes severe pain. Licensed Nevadans are allowed to grow as many as three mature and four immature marijuana plants. The law states they may possess no more than one ounce of usable marijuana at any one time.

“Pat” (not pictured) wants his marijuana use, disease and anything that could signify his identity to remain anonymous. He fears the social stigma associated with growing and using marijuana, even for legal, medicinal purposes.

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Pat learned that marijuana worked for his disease before use of the plant received its limited legal use. He’s grown his own pot since receiving his prescription, but the constant fear of having a child stumble over the crop, or a neighbor or visitor smell the growing plants and then treat his family members differently because of his disease was more than he could take. He was going to turn to the black market.

“I can’t afford to buy it illegally, though, and I don’t want to on principle,” he said. “I don’t want to support organized crime. So I joined this program. I had no idea how complicated it would turn out to be.”

But the difficulty in finding a doctor—he found one from Hawaii who advertised in this very paper—to prescribe the drug pales in comparison to endangering the family from thieves who may break into his home for growing plants. The scent of marijuana, particularly when summer temperatures hit, made exposure almost certain. And that was inside the house. Then there was the expense: $250-$300 for a doctor’s appointment, $150 a year to renew his license, plus growing lights, temperature control, etc.

And all the while, he and his partner wait to hear the gossip: “‘So and so can’t go to your house because you guys are criminals’—even though we’re not, there’s that stigma.”

Pat said the only answer is for the state of Nevada to adopt some kind of a plan for the processed plant to be distributed in a way that allows the state to monitor—and probably tax—its sale. California, for example, has dispensaries for the distribution of medical marijuana.

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“We need some way of dispensing it—a pharmacy or something,” said Pat. “Because a lot of people might be too sick to grow it, they might have the social problems where they don’t want to grow it. It would open it up to more people. Yes, maybe there’d be more abuse, but look at Vicodin. Isn’t that the most abused prescription drug in the U.S.? But nobody seems to care about that. But the side effects from those kind of pain killers are intolerable, they’re horrible. They’re addictive, and they’re intolerable for my family.

“If I continue to grow it, [my partner’s] going to be nervous and on edge, and maybe end up resenting me for that. If I stop growing it, then I have to deal with my pain and maybe fall back into the conventional painkillers, the socially acceptable painkillers, which is going to lead to—seriously—divorce or suicide. It’s a no-win situation. If there were a distribution method, this would not be a problem. … Can you imagine them making you make your own insulin if you were diabetic?”

Grow your own

Not all those who take advantage of Nevada’s medical marijuana laws are dissatisfied with the way they work.

Tommy Whiteman, 55, for example, doesn’t care who knows that he legally grows marijuana. He doesn’t care who knows that he suffers from a cancer in his bones, which has deteriorated the vertebrates in his spinal column. He’s had many operations to help him cope with the disease.

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He lives in a well-kept home off the Truckee River in Lockwood with a wife, an 18-year-old cat and a nosy dog.

“I work very hard at being healthy. I ride my bike every day except the last three weeks. I’ve had my bike for the last 10 years, and this is the longest I’ve ever been off my bike. It’s really, right now, very painful for me.”

Even though he takes Oxycontin, Neurontin and marijuana for the pain, he usually rides up to 70 miles a day. Now he’s looking toward to another surgery.

Whiteman points out that his openness with his legal marijuana doesn’t necessarily solve all the issues involved with Nevada’s methods of regulating medical marijuana.

“I’ve been ripped off so many times, it’s unreal.”

Whiteman grows plants inside and outside his home. The inside plants are small, producing only about an ounce of marijuana per plant. They’re also weaker in effect, and he uses them mainly in cooking. If they’re grown outdoors, “It’s a lot of advertising,” he said. “Kids will pop you.” At harvest time, about the end of September, he sleeps outdoors near the plants to protect them. He says he grows three to six plants outdoors because it’s likely only one will make it to maturity. But that one plant could produce half-pound to a pound. Once dried, that pot goes into a large safe, where the harvest will last him nearly a year.

He’s reported the theft of his medicine to the police when it was stolen, but to no avail. It’s not the kind of thing that thieves keep around for identification and return.

“That’s the problem,” Whiteman said. “It’s got to be treated like any other prescription drug because that’s what it is, a prescription. They’ve got to write it for you. I’m sorry, but they had me on morphine for a while where I was a full addict. I was taking almost five grains a day. That’s like a $500-a-day heroin addict. I’ll never go back to that. They wouldn’t make you grow your own poppies. But they’ll sure supply it to you. That’s the thing about doctors, their job is to do that. Your job is to say no. Your job is to find alternative ways that are going to be easier on your body.”