This Way Out: Cannabis as an exit drug from risky pharmaceuticals

“December 2015.” Those words echo in my mind. I hear what feels like a million reverberations of my voice uttering that phrase in response to friends, family and doctors inquiring, “When did it start?”

I was hesitant to write about my experience because making sense of my symptoms is difficult; trying to write or speak logically about them feels impossible. My experiences are confusing, inferable and ultimately, still inconclusive. But I am one of the lucky ones; I was able to take my health into my own hands and utilize cannabis in lieu of mainstream pharmaceutical drugs with high-dependency risks and a laundry list of side effects. I’m lucky to have found relief from these seemingly random, nonsensical symptoms with an effective, natural remedy. Even if I don’t yet fully understand all of the intricate mechanisms at play, I know what improves my quality of life, and that is cannabis medicine.

It all started with minor, erratic muscle spasms and what I now know as icepick migraines. It was an exceptionally cold winter that year, which wasn’t helping these symptoms, but I had just gotten over a bout of pneumonia and attributed them to a weakened immune system. By February of the next year, the migraines and spasms were both increasing in intensity and frequency; I was getting used to constantly feeling light-headed and dizzy. But even more unpleasant and disruptive, I had begun to frequently experience 30- to 60-second bursts of intense throbbing pains at random times and in random places all over my body, predominantly in my hands and feet. Shortly thereafter, they progressed to sharp and shooting pains, hot/cold sensations and occasional burning and numbness. After endless visits and tests, my neurologist and doctors described what I experienced as “simple-partial seizures” (previously referred to as Petit Mal) accompanied by peripheral neuropathy and trigeminal neuralgia. Additionally, the tests uncovered Hashimotos thyroiditis (hypothyroidism) and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).

When the treatment options for my symptoms were laid out for me, medical cannabis was not on the list. The pharmaceutical options I was given all had significant downsides. For the muscle spasms and nerve pain, many of the drugs that were suggested were benzodiazepines with high potential for abuse, others required up to three pills per day for a month before effectiveness could be determined and then after that, untold incremental dosage increases. Other worrisome options included repurposed anti-depressants that could result in irreversible side effects or had the potential to make me worse off than before taking the drug.

Against my better judgment, I used some of these doctor prescribed medications for a short period to, what I am able to see in hindsight, as my own detriment. This barrage of not only ineffective but harmful medications opened my eyes to a problem I already knew existed within Western medicine, but had been fortunate to avoid. Luckily, I’d already read about how properly administered cannabis could be used to alleviate neurological distress, control seizures and spasms. By September 2016 I was a Rhode Island medical marijuana patient and since then have been able to try different styles and combinations of medical cannabis, all without the threat of negative side effects. Since cannabis is federally illegal, it is not covered by insurance and is, therefore, relatively expensive. To mitigate this cost, I applied to one of the state’s three medical compassion centers and almost exactly one year after first experiencing symptoms, I began working in the cannabis industry.

This is Part I of a multi-part essay on one woman’s experience using medical marijuana to alleviate her myriad symptoms.

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