North Carolina should legalize medical marijuana
“Those brownies won’t help if you don’t eat one, sweetie,” said the nurse when she saw the zip-close bag beside the armchair I slumped in while she changed my bed.
The bleeding mouth sores that erupted during my first weeks in the cancer center were healing, but eating would have still been painful even if I wasn’t nauseous and everything didn’t taste like cardboard or latex. Brownies were the last thing I wanted.
She tucked in fresh sheets, then turned and draped a blanket over my aching bony frame, as I shivered in the new gown she’d rolled me into after cleaning off my vomit. My I.V. beeped, signaling an occluded tube.
“We won’t confiscate them,” she said of the brownies as she fixed the drip. “I never said this, but there’s nothing we can legally give you that will help as much with the nausea and the loss of appetite.”
My brain was foggy from pain, depression and the lingering effects of oxycodone. The last was what they gave me at mealtime to help me force down the protein shake ordered by the nutritionist alarmed by my increasingly cadaverous physique. The oxycodone was necessary because, despite my mostly-healed sores, the grains of nutritional powder in the shake still hurt no matter how well it was blended. Did she expect me to be able to eat a dry day-old brownie? It wasn’t until she continued on her rounds that I realized she’d assumed the brownies contained pot.
They didn’t. I was given the brownies the day before, while I was pushing my I.V. pole down the hall in the slow shamble that was my mandated daily exercise. An older and even frailer patient had peered from his room, then held the bag shakily out to me, his hollow eyes imploring as he quavered that his wife had baked her family-famous from-scratch recipe and he didn’t want her to know he’d not been able to eat them. I knew they didn’t contain pot because he became offended when I asked him if they did, and shut his door as forcefully as a sick old man can.
The night after my day-shift nurse made her chance remarks while cleaning up where I’d puked on my bed and myself; I pecked out a typo-ridden email to a friend. The next day, she brought the kind of brownie the nurse had suspected the earlier ones of being.
It was big and still fresh and moist. After the nurse brought me a protein shake and hooked up the oxycodone, I slowly sipped the shake until she left. Then I crumbled the brownie into the cup and added more milk, mixing it as thoroughly as I could with a spoon. Despite the tacit assurance I’d been given, I was afraid to ask someone to put it in a blender. The mushy brownie fragments were even more painful than the powder grains, but the oxycodone dulled the mouth ache just enough for me to choke the chunky mixture down.
Chasing the opioid with pot was dangerous, I belatedly and blurrily realized when the drowsy waves of dizziness kicked in. “Please, please, please, don’t let me throw it up,” I thought. The room reeled, but this was the first time in a month that eating didn’t make me nauseous. Instead, my body unclenched into a surprisingly pleasant nap.
When I woke, I was more hungry than queasy, a sensation I almost didn’t recognize. Despite my aching mouth, I ate half a ham sandwich. The first solid food I’d had in weeks stayed down.
This happened in 2013 when I was being treated in a local hospital for Acute Myeloid Leukemia, the disease that killed my mother when I was 6 and would have killed me if a prototype of my chemotherapy hadn’t been invented 11 years after her death. Since recovering from the chemo, I’ve rarely smoked or otherwise consumed cannabis, at least partially because, aside from the issues of legality, I find the buzz pleasant but usually not worth the expense, and my pot-using friends stopped giving it to me for free once I was well. But I’ll never forget what it did for me when I was very, very sick.
This is why I recently emailed Jon Hardister, the North Carolina House Majority Whip and Representative for District 59. In that email, I told Hardister that, when I was undergoing treatment for leukemia, a medical professional had admitted that there was nothing she could give me that would be as effective as marijuana for combating the side effects of my chemotherapy. What, I asked, was his position on the legalization of medical marijuana, the subject of House Bill 185 and Senate Bills 648 and 579? All of those were introduced in 2017, but none have yet received even a committee vote.
“This is something that I would likely support,” he wrote in an email on May 16. “I believe we should allow doctors to do what is in the best interest of their patients. I will defer to medical experts and law enforcement to determine the best way forward.”
Representative Hardister is the rare Republican to voice even implicit support for the legalization of medical marijuana. All of the sponsors of these bills, which include District 57’s Pricey Harrison and District 72’s Edward Hanes Jr., have been Democrats.
Abner Brown, Executive Director of the NC Chapter of the National Organization for Reforming Marijuana Laws, (NORML) claims that’s no coincidence. In an email, he called Republican officials “the largest roadblocks in getting significant cannabis reform passed,” adding that “more Democrat legislators have stepped up to co-sponsor bills that have been introduced.”
Brown wrote that NORML “would like to see the repeal of all statutes against cannabis, so our rights are restored.” The organization’s ideal society, he wrote, would be one in which citizens “would be free to grow their own if they couldn’t afford the market price, and in which all forms of ingestion would be allowed.”
Brown described himself as a man who owes his life to cannabis, writing that he suffered a severe opiate addiction as a teenager and that he believes cannabis can be an important weapon in battling North Carolina’s opioid epidemic.
“Cannabis, along with support from my amazing family and friends, helped me get clean and remain opiate free for 16 years.”
He wrote his primary motivation was seeing six of his friends die from opioid-related overdoses in the past three years.
“It was those tragedies that moved me to become active for cannabis law reform.”
The word “cannabis” can refer to both a genus of flowering plants in the family Cannabaceae (the exact number of species in that genus is a matter of some dispute) and to the drug derived from those plants, which can be used for either medicinal or recreational purposes. The plants contain many compounds that act upon cannabinoid receptors in the brain (“cannabinoid” can refer to either the receptor or the compound). The most notable of these compounds is tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, which produces the “high” associated with recreational marijuana use.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is another compound found in the cannabis plant. Unlike THC, it has no psychoactive effect, but many believe it can relieve pain, anxiety and seizures. CBD oil is legal in all 50 states, but only if it is derived from hemp, a form of the cannabis plant grown in such a way that it contains only trace elements of THC.
CBD oil is sold in many smoke and vape stores throughout North Carolina. But this practice has occasionally resulted in law enforcement raids and confiscations, such as the recent ones in Mount Airy and King, where police officers claimed the CBD oil contained more than the allowable amount of THC. Typically, retailers selling CBD oil tout its effectiveness in treating pain, inflammation, anxiety and seizures.
Sara Carleton, a 24-year-old nanny and restaurant employee, living in Greensboro, recently told me about her medical problems and how she’s treated them with both legal CBD and illegal-in-North Carolina THC. Her harrowing account of her experiences, which began shortly after her 21st birthday, is too long and complicated for a detailed summary here but includes several alleged misdiagnoses, including one for Lyme disease, and treatment based on those misdiagnoses that exacerbated her suffering and damaged her gallbladder. Eventually, she said, she was correctly diagnosed with Connective Tissue Autoimmune Disease. The symptoms are debilitating, many and varied, but include joint pain and a variety of severe gastric problems.
In an email, she described her current condition as one of “flares that can and will attack any organ system (dermal, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, central nervous system, etc.)” and “are triggered by UVB ray exposure, heat, stress, certain foods, flashing and/or fluorescent lights, viral and bacterial infections, and medications.”
While she was still being treated for what was then believed to be Lyme disease, a friend gave her a vape pen containing “Charlotte’s Web,” a high-CBD, low-THC cannabis extract marketed as a dietary supplement under federal law of the United States. The extract is named after Charlotte Figi, whom a 2014 article in the International Business Times described as “the girl who is changing medical marijuana laws across America,” after Figi’s parents and physicians testified she experienced a reduction of her epileptic seizures after her first dose of medical marijuana.
Carleton wrote that her friend gave her the CBD vape pen to help with the muscle tremors she’d been experiencing. “While it did not eradicate them, it definitely eased them.” But, she wondered, might something with a higher THC content help even more?
She told me that she had not “smoked weed” since high school, and was reluctant to try it again, as she was leery of the psychoactive effect.
“But, terrified of trying any other synthetic medication to treat my symptoms, I gave it a go,” Carleton wrote. “I started really small and worked my way up to a comfortable level. Soon after, I could finally sleep again. That was the first thing I noticed. Then the constant anxiety and worry started to fade, and I could breathe a little easier.”
In her written account, she claimed that “CBD alone was not strong enough to manage my pain. It also didn’t touch the nausea.” She described herself as suffering the dilemma of “knowing a viable and safe solution for many of my symptoms, but not having access to it.” She also stressed that “THC, when taken in minute amounts and specific strains, doesn’t always create a psychoactive response. If a strain of marijuana is CBD dominant and has a very low THC content, the medical results for pain management, nausea and anxiety can be dramatic. THC acts as a catalyst for the CBD’s medicinal properties and makes it much more effective. To do this, you really only need a teensy tiny bit.”
She pointed out that states that legalized medical marijuana, such as California and Florida, “have options like THC tinctures that go under the tongue, which are easy to take for people who can’t inhale smoke or vapor, swallow a pill or stomach an edible. This is the sort of thing that would be an amazing tool to have access to for someone who struggles to manage their health in the way that I so often do.”
Carleton was adamant that the legalization of medical marijuana would be life-changing for herself and many other people.
“The opportunities currently available for treating my autoimmune disease cause so much more harm than good. I’m so ready to have the option to treat this awful disease legally and naturally and get some much, much-needed relief. I’m ready to get back to living again.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.