Earlier this year, one of my friends asked: “Will medical cannabis get you stoned?”
This was just before my first appointment to get “qualified” for medical cannabis use. I wasn’t sure how to answer.
What did I know about medical cannabis? Not much. I struggled to parse what I was finding online. Perhaps I was naive in expecting straightforward information communicated by words without multiple meaning. So I was thrown off by the lingo.
For example, I began my quest, back in February 2016, by asking my primary care doctor whether she “prescribed” medical cannabis. She did not, she said. I later learned the distinction between “prescribe” and “qualify.” Federal law prohibits U.S. doctors from prescribing medical cannabis, because it is still an illegal substance according to federal law.
I even searched online for “doctors in MN who prescribe medical weed.” At that time, I found just two. After a little research, I chose a doctor in Golden Valley because of his experience in managing pain.
I expected the experience would be similar to visiting a primary care physician. “How are you today? What are your symptoms?” Instead, the clinic staff gave me a long checklist of instructions during the initial phone call. I followed the instructions to the letter. For example, they directed me to write down my e-mail password and have it handy for my appointment, for reasons that became clear as I progressed through the process. It was all very mysterious, but I obeyed carefully.
I was desperate by this point. The severity of my pain and spasms was escalating. I have a musculoskeletal condition and multiple degenerative conditions, which cause debilitating spasms. By their nature, the degenerative conditions aren’t going to improve; they will only keep getting worse. Already, I have very little cushion between vertebrae. I have one vertebra that constantly crunches another, like a ledge of rock sliding against the one below. This squeezes the nerves coming out of my spinal cord, causing searing pain and a lack of mobility. My neurologist says that at 57 I’m “relatively young” for this degree of degeneration. If I wasn’t able to get qualified for medical cannabis, I planned to beg my doctor for oxycodone.
“I’m qualified,” I announced to my husband after the visit. I was still starry-eyed with disbelief.
That very afternoon I called LeafLine, the lab that sells medical cannabis. I made an appointment for the next day.
I found the lab at the end of a small strip of businesses in Eagan, bordering woods. The door was locked when I arrived, but a staff member quietly let me in. The monitor in the waiting area ran a looping video touting LeafLine’s various formulations: Heather, Tangerine and Cobalt.
Finally, I met with a pharmacist. She prescribed an oil I could take orally and another formulation I could inhale using a vaporizer or vape pen.
Proceeding with caution
At home that night I laughed giddily as I took my first toke on the vape pen. It had been more than 30 years since my last experience with THC.
No, I did not get stoned that evening. But my muscle spasms eased almost immediately and so did the stabbing pain. My feet had been curling with severe spasms for months, but suddenly I was freed from that particular symptom (as was my husband who tried to help by massaging away the spasms). Gone were the lightning bolts of pain that jabbed my shins, knees and quads. I rose from my recliner a reborn woman.
Before medical cannabis, I experienced several spasms an hour, at all hours of the day. I could barely sleep. With medical cannabis, the spasms have decreased to just a handful per day. And, thank goodness, I’m able to get five solid hours of sleep most nights.
The downside? I can’t travel as freely as I’d like. For the most part, I’m able to wander around Minnesota with my medical cannabis. I can use my vape pen openly in public. I’m even able to toke while driving as long as I don’t go within 1,000 feet of schools or enter a federal government facility.
But crossing state lines and entering airspace with medical cannabis is strictly off limits.
I recently read an article that indicated airport and airline staff will look the other way when it comes to passengers carrying medical cannabis. Some airports in states where marijuana is legal allow possession while flying. So I called Delta and asked for clarification about their policy. I expected a straightforward answer but instead got passed from person to person. I hung up and tried again the next day. This time the representative dug around and found the answer: It’s illegal to transport federally illegal substances across state lines, whether you’re driving or flying.
How will I cope when my husband and I travel? I recently learned about a prescription pain medicine with the same pain-relieving powers as oxycodone but without the high risk of addiction. I also learned there are certain types of injections for temporary relief of the bone-on-bone, nerve-squeezing condition that causes my symptoms. Yes, I know this is a “Cadillac” problem, as we used to say. As a staff member at the cannabis lab told me, most of their clients are too immobilized to travel much.
Have I ever gotten high from medical cannabis? Are the effects similar to the buzz I used to experience while smoking pot with friends?
No. After a few days of inhaling and staying housebound, out of caution, I finally went for a test drive around the block, just to be sure. There were no flashbacks to my younger years, but I certainly noticed a heightened awareness of everything I saw and heard. The pharmacist at the lab told me that if I start to feel “loopy” I’ve taken too much.
My experience with medical cannabis has been solitary but blissful — I can move again. My body has relaxed from the ravaging spasms. I can grocery shop with some degree of leisure. I no longer have to frantically get in and out before my legs start to give way to spasms and pain.
Medical cannabis is not a cure, of course. The conditions causing my symptoms are still very much with me. By their nature, they always will be and they probably will continue to worsen. At least now I know I can get some relief, even if it means never leaving Minnesota again.
Karen Cavalli is a writer living in Savage.
ABOUT 10,000 Takes: 10,000 Takes is a digital section featuring first-person essays about life in the North Star State. We publish narratives about love, family, work, community and culture in Minnesota.