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The Faces Behind the Controversy: Medical Marijuana Patients

All people in this story have refrained from giving their last name. This was not a choice of legality, but rather to keep their personal lives private.

By now, many Fort Collins residents have heard a lot about moratoriums on marijuana dispensaries, but not about how it affects dispensary owners. Voters may have been for or against Amendment 20, but what do licensed patients have to say about it? With all the speculation on the future of marijuana, it’s hard to get a personal stance on the issue when the news only grants us with statistics and regulations on the drug. As voters, how are we supposed to get a clear understanding of how this could affect us if we never hear from a medicinal marijuana patient?

This article focus on the lives of four different Colorado State students: Matt, Alex, Justin, and Andrew, who all use marijuana to suppress pain in their lives. Although these students agree on the potent affects of this controversial plant, they all have different stances on the political, economic, educational, and social futures of this drug.

Matt

For most of his life, Matt suffered in silence. He spent many days popping medication and lying in his bed, trying to get away from bright lights and noise.

“Back in the fourth grade, I suffered the most horrible migraine. My teacher wouldn’t let me leave because she thought it was just a little headache. Then I ended up throwing up all over myself because the pain was so bad,” Matt recalls.

Matt had been suffering from chronic migraines since he was 9. He stated the hardest part about his migraines was that people didn’t think they were that big of an issue. But Matt would have to miss school, leave early from soccer practice and stay home during football games because his migraines got the best of him.

“I was definitely teased a lot for not being able to ‘man-up,’” Matt said. “It was hard when my mom would have to get involved, because then I would just get made fun of even more.”

At first doctors believed his headaches stemmed from an extra central incisor (the large front tooth) lodged underneath his nasal cavity. But, after removing that tooth in surgery, the headaches didn’t go away.

Doctors and neurologists began blaming the problem on other things, such as being allergic to MSG, a flavor enhancer used in many processed foods. But cutting out junk food didn’t seem to cut it either. His neurologist even issued an MRI, which found his brain to be healthy and tumor-free.

By high school, Matt was growing weary of his chronic problem. In the winter of his junior year, Matt starting smoking weed as a form of teenage experimentation. But to his surprise, the drug started to help his migraines. In fact, Matt didn’t get any for months at a time.

“My mom thought I was growing out of a stage, but there is no coincidence between when I started smoking and when the migraines started going away,” Matt said.

His mother didn’t catch on until his senior year, when Matt was caught by the local police for smoking outside of a hookah bar near his house. The officers let him off with a warning, but his parents started issuing stricter rules, like cutting his curfew short, to ensure he wouldn’t keep taking the drug.

Matt continued to smoke throughout high school and into college, about four or five times a month, despite his parents’ disapproval of the drug.

Although Matt has found this drug to help him medicinally, he is wary about getting a medicinal license. “Investing in the ‘club card’ is a one-way ticket to getting labeled as a pot head,” he said.

Matt said he would consider getting a medicinal license if it helped lower the cost of getting the drug. “Marijuana costs about the same as it does to drink on a weekend, about a month’s worth of weed is about $25 for me, but this is for a minimal smoker,” Matt said. “People that smoke as much as an eighth or a quad (one-fourth of an ounce), in a month can be spending to the upwards of $50 to $100.”

“I don’t really know what I would do if I got caught,” Matt said. “That’s definitely another reason I would be okay with getting a license.”

Matt would eventually like to see the drug become federally legalized. He compares it to the alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. “Marijuana offers a safer choice of recreational drug use over that of alcohol, can produce positive health benefits for users, doesn’t create user dependence, and could become a cash crop to help the economy,” he said.

Matt says he relates to Seth Rogan’s character in the 2008 Hollywood blockbuster Pineapple Express: “Marijuana is great. It makes everything better. It makes food better, it makes movies better. If this drug isn’t legalized in the next 10 years or so then I have no faith in this country.”

If more cities keep decriminalizing the drug, like Breckenridge recently did, then Matt might eventually get his wish.

Alex

Alex gives off the impression he is just like any ordinary 22-year-old: unkempt hair, grey worn T-shirt, and profound excitement for when the clock strikes noon at the RamSkeller.

However, with careful questioning, you would immediately realize Alex isn’t like a typical college student at Colorado State. Rather than spending his weekends waiting in line at the local pub Lucky Joes, or lounging around on his hand-me-down sofa watching reruns of Scrubs, Alex is working in Colorado Springs picking out strains of marijuana for his dispensary in Fort Collins.

Alex has owned his own dispensary for almost two years. He got started in the business back in 2005, after he rolled his car and broke his clavicle. The pain was immense and doctors informed him that although they could fix his collarbone, the pain might not go away.

“I was hesitant to start taking addictive pain medications,” recalls Alex. “I’ll do that shit when I want to die, but not now.”

At one time, Alex was a national rock climbing champion sponsored by Mammut. But the constant pain was taxing on his climbing abilities.

Alex started researching about natural medicines when he came across uses for marijuana, and began experimenting with how different strains worked with different parts of the body.

Alex found that different strains of the cannabis plant affected different parts of the brain. That is also why some strains might help someone with anxiety, and another strain might alleviate back pain.

Alex started to experiment with different forms of the plant, like smoking, vapors, edibles and tinctures, to see how the different varieties to consume affected how a person receives the drug.

Someone who has trouble sleeping, for example, might slip some tinctures, or liquid concentrates of the cannabis plant combined with pure ethanol, into some tea before they try to sleep. While someone with high anxiety might rely on smoking as a way to calm down.

To help others benefit from the conclusions he found, Alex started his own medical marijuana dispensary in 2008. Alex’s business, which he wishes to remain anonymous, focuses on maintaining a strong dealer and patient relationship.

“I smoke with my patients; I call it smoker’s etiquette,” Alex said. “I like to be a connoisseur of all strains and variations of the medicine. I like to educate my patients on what the different ways to consume are, like how edibles might work differently than smoking.”

Depending on the form of the drug, he explained, it can take anywhere from 10 seconds to 30 minutes to feel the effects of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the main psychoactive substance in marijuana. “Smoking [as opposed to consuming] is a great way for monitoring,” Alex said. “You take it, then have a high for an hour or so, and then go about your day doing whatever you want.”

Eating the drug, on the other hand, is much more intense and can take about 45 minutes to get in your system. These edibles also stay in your system for about 4-8 hours.

Alex makes edibles in whatever substance a patient might desire. He has made “special” cakes, brownies, and candy. “I would baste a turkey if you asked me to,” he said.

He said that his patients tend to prefer smoking, but claimed that it’s also associated with the culture they live in.

Although there have been zero cases of “death by weed,” Alex explained that the actual process of inhaling smoke can be damaging to health. He assures, however, that the benefits certainly outweigh the costs.

Alex not only deals and smokes the drug, but also grows some of his own weed as well. He keeps his plants on a strict cycle between the flowering and vegetative stages – in 8-12 week cycles. He even built his own growing room that has an automatic light cycle and hydroponic watering system.

Alex keeps the popular strains in constant cycles, and fluctuates with random breeds that his patients might enjoy. “I listen to my customers, and get what they want,” he said.

He makes sure that the first person to touch the weed is the patient. To ensure the safety of his patients, he enters the growing room decked out in a full body suit; he guarantees that everything is Board of Health certified.

Alex remarked that although there are other legal options to receive the affects of THC, like the prescription drug Marinol, it doesn’t compare to consuming the real thing. “Marinol is like having an orange substitute powder instead of real orange juice,” Alex said.

Although Alex makes more than the average college student, roughly $1 million a year, he constantly maintains that he’s in the business to help other people. “Ultimately the more I make the more I can help others” he said.

Alex wants the federal government to begin taxing dispensaries. He has already put aside $300,000 for taxation when the government realizes how much money they can make off this market.

“This taxation will prove Darwin’s Theory, you know, survival of the fittest,” Alex said. “Taxing will weed out the weak dispensaries, plus all of that extra money can go toward health care and equity.”

Alex feels the overall stigma toward marijuana is completely incorrect. He wants to see the education, political, and economical stances completely change before the stigma can be removed.

“You can try to read about this stuff in books, but there’s not enough information out there. What I’m telling you now, well you can’t find any of this in books, nothing. And that just does nothing to help the education system.”

Alex also explained that Hollywood’s version of the misrepresented drug doesn’t help the situation either.

Weeds, well it gets me so worked up,” Alex said. He’s referring to the Showtime series which details the life of a suburban housewife who has to start working as a marijuana dealer to make ends meet.

Alex’s blames Hollywood for making the drug seem dangerous and forbidden. “We need to take away the taboo of it, make a better name of it; the actual culture is very peaceful.”

Alex is also disappointed in the legal disputes over the plant. He doesn’t understand why so many people are taken to jail for having possession of the drug.

“That’s tax money they are using to jail these people!” he said. The latest statistic from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shows that there were 12,358 arrests for marijuana possession in 2007. And, possession of the drug makes up for 95 percent of all marijuana arrests.

Ultimately, Alex believes that the education, political, and social opportunities of medicinal marijuana need to be drastically reconfigured. “People don’t know how often meth is commonly used by high schoolers in order to get high. It’s because the ingredients are so easy to get a hold of, and drug dealers don’t have a lot to lose.”

Alex looked up toward the ceiling like he was about to finish his thought.

“What was I saying?” asked Alex. “Sorry, I’m spacing out. Yeah, that’s one of the side effects.”

Andrew and Justin

Ever since Andrew and Justin reunited at Colorado State, these brothers do everything together: go to parties around campus, lounge and watch television, and hang out while smoking medicinal marijuana.

“I started smoking medicinally only a couple months ago, but I have had a great experience” said Justin, the older and more talkative of the two brothers.

Justin, 21, had been suffering from anxiety issues since he entered college, and had been suffering from insomnia for the past year. Doctors had put him on Ambien and Lexapro to help out with his issues, but they weren’t giving them the results he was looking for.

“I was worried about what the drugs were doing to me,” Justin said. “I gained 30 pounds in a year.”

Justin started looking for the all-natural solution to fixing his problems. When Justin transferred to Colorado State in August, he started talking with his old friend, Alex, who recommended him to medicinal marijuana.

“Ever since I started, the quality of my life has skyrocketed. I feel more positive, and my mom has noticed too.” Justin and Andrew’s mother used to be against them taking this substance, but has warmed up after noticing the positive affects it has had on their lives. “My mom used to be so cautious, but now she just chills with us on the couch while we smoke. She understands.”

Andrew, 18, is a younger, shaggy-haired version of his older brother. For the past two years, Andrew had been suffering from pains in his leg after being in a sports-related injury in high school. Rather than continuing to take his constant pain killers, Andrew talked with his brother, who was starting to research and experiment with the medicinal uses of marijuana.

The brothers take diverse strains and various forms of the drug to treat their different ailments. Justin prefers edibles, as opposed to smoking or tinctures. “They extend the high, and especially help with sleeping,” he said. Andrew used to prefer smoking, but has recently realized that adding tinctures to his tea at night has helped him relax and soothe the pain.

Even though Justin and Andrew knew Alex, they still had to show prior medical need, and get two physician notes claiming they had doctor’s approval to medicinally take the drug. They agreed that it was a long process, but one with enormous benefits. “We don’t mind having to get clearance. We know dispensaries stand to lose a lot,” Justin said.

Justin and Andrew will have their licenses for a year, and then doctors will have the chance to reevaluate whether or not the drug is benefiting them.

Andrew remarked how Alex’s business gives out the best deals in town – only $300 per ounce. “That’s definitely better than what you can get on the street,” he said.

“A lot of people are getting into the industry to rack in some quick cash,” said Justin. “It’s hard to get the care and attention from other dispensaries like we can get here.”

They both agree that Alex’s business has put customer service and safety first. They also appreciate how their dealer listens to their needs. “If we want something, he can definitely do it for us,” Justin said, as he browsed the internet at his house. Andrew showed him a picture of a cannabis plant on Google. “Oh, c’mon Super Lemon Haze? That was the 2009 [Cannabis Cup] winner. But, look at how good that looks. Think Alex can get us that?”

Justin doesn’t feel as though he should be labeled as a “pot head.” Justin takes the medicine for the right reasons, not just to get a high.

He warns people who are looking into getting a license just to get easier access to weed: “Just do it the right way. As long as you go through the same steps, that’s fine, but don’t give me a bad image.”

Both of the brothers also disagree with those who wish to legalize it. “It can’t go legal,” Justin stated. “Then professionalism goes to crap!” Andrew quietly chimed in, “I just feel the city is making too big of a deal out of it.”

Justin believes the government could make a lot of money by taxing dispensaries. “I have an idea: tax the shit outta weed, and then [our country] would finally be outta debt.”

The brothers also feel the need for change in the education system. The usually hushed Andrew spoke up, “People need to research it, and talk to organizations. There can’t be this stigma. Stop telling us it’s terrible, and instead just tell us the effects.

“We have been talking to you and smoking the whole time,” Andrew said, “and we don’t seem crazy, do we?”

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