In the spirit of “coming out of the basement,” Weekend Review Kit brings you stories from people who demonstrate that cannabis can have a powerful positive impact on our lives and on the world.
Driving home this evening I heard about the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S. No one was worried that it would spread here as it has in West Africa, the calm NPR voice assured me, because we have treatment options and technology that they don’t and are prepared to contain and eradicate the virus. The disease that’s killed more than 3,000 people in five countries does not scare the U.S.A.
It’s amazing – you might say miraculous – the difference the right medicine makes.
Multiple sclerosis is a disorder of the central nervous system that affects more than 2.3 million people worldwide. Though widely researched, it is poorly understood; in fact, the MS Society’s first descriptor under its “What is MS” page is “unpredictable.” Each individual experiences MS in a unique way, and many individuals’ experience of MS changes frequently and without warning. While numerous treatment options exist, a cure does not, and pharmaceuticals are typically expensive, difficult to administer, of questionable efficacy, and come with a host of unsavory side effects.
Barrett Samuel has known he’s had MS for five years and has used cannabis medicinally for that time to relieve pain, reduce fatigue, and combat depression. He relocated from the east coast to Colorado in 2012, to attend graduate school and to have easier access to marijuana. He’s studying to be a social worker and has a particular interest in aging and the elderly. I spoke with him today about the ways his life has changed since moving to a state with legal weed.
Weekend Review Kit Will you describe your condition, whatever you’re comfortable sharing? Symptoms, the ins and outs of your diagnosis, how you cope with the experience, how it might affect your daily life?
Barrett Samuel I was diagnosed officially in June of 2009 with multiple sclerosis of the relapse/remitting variety; I was 25. It was in the winter, February of 2009, when I began to see double. Anytime I looked to the right-hand side, things wouldn’t match up, everything got doubled. My eye doctor thought it might be strabismus, some eye muscle weakness, so I went to a strabismus expert. He took photos of my eyes, and he saw a spot on my retina. And he let me know that I should probably go back to my other eye doctor, because he was not sure what was going on with this spot. So, anyway, the original eye doctor recommended getting an MRI because he didn’t know what was going on either.
The MRI results showed that I had plaques on my brain; the myelin, something was going on, the myelin was being chipped away, and scars were forming and these plaques were forming. And that’s indicative of MS.
It’s weird I guess, but it’s the kind of thing where sometimes I have symptoms and sometimes I don’t. Recently, maybe for the past six months, I’ve been dealing with nerve pain in my legs, around my knees. It’s not always incredibly painful, but my legs always feel a little weird. There were a couple days of intense, intense nerve pain, where the only thing that helped was a cannabis edible, some ibuprofen, and remaining as still as I possibly could. My legs worked, but I couldn’t walk. They hurt too much to walk. Now I have shots of pain, that nerve pain; to give some description of it, it very much felt like what I imagine a burning knife might feel like if someone did that to me. That’s been like the past half-year.
During that time I’ve also had vision problems. Trouble focusing on reading, which is a great challenge to my academic endeavors. Words get kind of blurry when I focus, I guess, or try to focus. Also, the fatigue is something that’s been present beyond the past six months, a fatigue that I didn’t really understand until I had MS. It’s what I imagine someone who ran a marathon would feel like.
A couple of other things that have happened in the five years since I was diagnosed: I had optic neuritis, which is basically a swollen optic nerve, and it created very, very intense pain like someone was in my head with a steel-toed boot trying to push my eye out. I was really glad that I’m not someone who’s into guns. It was just that miserable and intense. I didn’t think about killing myself, but I wondered if I might if I had access to that kind of weapon. I had to go to the hospital, three days in a row, not overnight, but three-and-a-half-hour sessions for three days of IV steroid treatment.
I wasn’t in Colorado then. I didn’t have the treatment options I do now.
It’s maybe not the most linear recounting of this, but that experience and falling twice pushed me into the pharmaceutical avenues.
WRK So you’ve done the conventional pharmaceutical route, and you also treat your condition with medical marijuana. Can you talk a bit about that, about how you use cannabis medicinally?
BS I actually got in the habit of smoking a bowl after my daily [Copaxone] injections. It helped with the pain, the burning sensation; it directed my thoughts away from the pain, so that was incredibly helpful. That sort of became my routine, and it’s been like that ever since.
I would say, especially with the nerve pain I described – the burning, stabbing sensation – I’ve found that baked goods are the best for me. Chocolate is really good for me as well. Edibles in general. For dealing with things like the intense pain. Especially the intense pain.
Certain strains, certain sativas, can kind of pep me up a bit, give me a little more energy than I might have in my generally fatigued state. That’s great, because I’m in school, and I need that. I need to be able to stay engaged.
Also, very honestly, it helps me on an emotional level just as much as the physical level. It gives me important perspective and it makes me feel good – well, it doesn’t make me, it helps me to do those things. And it helps me to accept the reality that I face every day. It’s been great, it’s been a fantastic, fantastic medicine.
I always say I would get high every day even if I didn’t have MS…
WRK Say more about that…is the way you use cannabis now different from the way you used it prior to your diagnosis?
BS Well, some of the same things are true. But I was a teenager then and in my early 20s. [laughs] It was fun to get fucked up, to have fun with friends. I knew then about the more functional aspects of cannabis as medicine, and I was all about that even though it wasn’t my situation. It just made perfect sense to me. Then, five years ago, I started to live that. To understand it on a different level. Not a better or worse level or a higher or lower level, just a different level. And that has very much been my relationship with cannabis for the last five plus years.
WRK You mentioned living in places where you couldn’t easily treat your MS with marijuana. What was the process of procuring cannabis like before you lived in Colorado?
BS It was a pain in the ass. With very few options. Many of the options included going through multiple people and feeling like I was a pain in the ass to all of them. Not always the most reliable. Never on my terms, even when my guy was regular, it was always on his terms, when he had time, or on the terms of the people who actually talked to this guy, the middle people, who I was inconveniencing. An unreliable pain in the ass.
WRK How is that different now? And how was it different when you first moved to Colorado, even before you were approved for a medical marijuana card?
BS There’s one dispensary that’s very close, and it’s medicinal only. There’s another one that’s about a mile and a half away. So, before I had my card, I’d take the bus, and, door-to-door, it’s about 20 minutes. They open at nine. I wake up early, so if I was feeling like I needed some, I could wake up and take the bus to get to the dispensary at nine in the morning and purchase anything up to – I had my Colorado driver’s license, so I was able to purchase up to an ounce.
Getting my card was an interesting process. I actually got a recommendation from one of my favorite dispensaries. When I saw the doctor, I went from a waiting room to a desk in an office; there were a couple of other people, people who worked there, answering phones, typing things. So I just talked to the guy. I gave him the name of my neurologist, I let him know about my MS, my symptoms, and, almost excitedly, he told me that “people with MS need a lot of marijuana.” To which I was like, “Yeah, yeah, you’re right man.” It was very casual. There was no examination or anything like that.
Being in Colorado is so comforting, so comfortable, in the sense that, on one of the days that my leg was in such pain, I was able to get in touch with a friend and could say, “Hey, can you help me out. Can you take me to a dispensary?” And she did. I was able to go buy some edibles, buy some flower, to help me feel better. Previously, before Colorado, I would not have had that option. It’s unreal. It’s absolutely unreal how fantastic that is.
WRK You’re in social work school; it’s probably safe to assumer you want to help people. How do you see cannabis fitting into your professional life going forward?
BS This is something that came up with my most recent internship. It’s a government agency, and I know I’m on some list somewhere that says I’m a registered medical marijuana user in Colorado. And I got nervous. So I was in touch with my school’s field liaison and I was really open. I told her I’d thought about ways this might affect my employment opportunities in the future, but because of the value I see for myself and for our society, I decided to get my card. She didn’t think it would be a big deal and advised me to talk with someone I felt comfortable with at the job. I was assured it wasn’t an issue; it probably wouldn’t even show up on the background check. But I did kind of have to out myself.
It’s still so new, I guess, that not many people have had that experience. Or at least I haven’t talked to too many people who are balancing the medicinal need and a professional life in social work.
I do know there are jobs I won’t be able to have. There are plenty of social work jobs that test people’s urine, even though the only thing they can find is marijuana. But, for me, the benefit of having cannabis as part of what I do is more important than having options in these government positions or positions that require drug testing.
As far as helping other people, there’s still so much I need to learn. But I’ve thought about, if I were to do end-of-life care with older adults, I’d certainly leave that door open. If someone who is in hospice or palliative care wants to eat some edibles, then I’m going to try to accommodate that. Because the benefits it provides for me lead me to think that it would have an incredibly positive influence on other people, especially in situations like that.
For more information on Multiple Sclerosis, click here.