Maine’s medical marijuana laws changed my life

Twenty-five years ago, my life was altered by the onset of Fibromyalgia, a mysterious and poorly understood condition characterized by chronic widespread musculoskeletal pain, unrelenting fatigue, non-restorative sleep, cognitive difficulties, and a host of bizarre neurological complaints. Like many living with chronic pain or illness, I see my life in two sections – life before Fibromyalgia, and life with Fibromyalgia.

I’d tried everything under the sun, been examined by every “–ist,” and tried every “–ology,” with little to no relief. After 2 ½ decades of searching, the most effective treatment I found was through a cocktail of benzos, SNRIs, tricyclics, and muscle relaxants. While my symptoms did not go away, this cocktail (along with a regular sleep schedule) at least kept the symptoms somewhat manageable and predictable, reducing the frequency and severity of flare-ups and crashes that might otherwise render me useless.

Three months ago, I began taking medical cannabis – legally and under doctor supervision. (I was in Maine, after-all, where medical marijuana has been legal since 2009.) Finding the right treatment is a daunting task — there are countless strains, and many different means of intake.  But with the help of my doctor and my dispensary, I began a treatment of tinctures comprised of two different cannabinoids: cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). I take the CBD tincture during the day.  CBD is non-psychoactive, meaning there is no high, but it is considered to have a wide scope of medical applications.  As a professional, and a father, I usually wait to take the THC tincture right before bed to aid sleep. Just as most people would never know I’m living with chronic illness, you’d never know I was taking cannabis.

For those who believe medical marijuana patients are just people who found a way to get high legally, I hate to break it to you, but there are many folks like myself who, despite spending a fortune on cannabis, don’t spend a waking moment high. That being said, it has changed everything.

When I started looking into medical marijuana, I was skeptical. I was not a recreational user, and I had not had any luck with other natural remedies. Although I had heard some promising anecdotes, the science was somewhat murky on how effective cannabis could be for this particular condition.

Most pharmaceutical drugs will take a week or two before you can fairly gauge their efficacy.  With cannabis, the relief came quick.  On day one, I began sleeping more soundly. As a nerdy Fitbit wearer, I have been fascinated with the sleep-tracking feature, which records each restless moment and the duration of wakefulness in the night. Over the past 3 months, and starting almost immediately, I have seen my ‘times restless’ nearly halved (from an average of 30 times a night to 15 times) and my ‘times awake’ reduced by a third.

We hear a lot about big pharma not being very keen on medical marijuana – and for good reason, it seems.  I have completely eliminated a particular benzodiazepine, one that I have been taking 2-3 times daily for over 15 years.  I have halved my dosage of a prescribed muscle relaxant, with the goal of eliminating it completely within the year. I have reduced my ibuprofen intake by 75%.  While cannabis hasn’t eliminated every symptom (the fatigue and cognitive issues still persist), the relief I have felt has been life-changing. The pain and neurological symptoms have decreased drastically. I am a believer. I hope that recent DEA changes will usher in a wave of scientific research into the effectiveness of medical marijuana for treatment of specific medical conditions.

One can also hope that insurance companies start to take medical marijuana seriously. One of the absurdities of our current healthcare landscape is that an individual can get fairly useless and liver-damaging pharmaceuticals at little to no cost through insurance, yet one will have to pay 100% out of pocket for a natural medicine that has been effective in eliminating debilitating symptoms. I am fortunate enough that I can afford the monthly cost of my treatment.  Many are not as fortunate. And don’t get me started on the fact that many who could be treated with cannabis will turn instead to highly addictive opioids, which insurance makes affordable.

I have been reluctant to speak (or write) openly about my experience with medical cannabis, due to the stigma associated with it.  What would neighbors, colleagues, relatives and employers think?

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs states, “The stigmatization of medical marijuana has a profound effect on how patients seek treatment, and whether they seek medical marijuana treatment at all.”

The more I thought about it, the more I felt it was important to speak and write openly about my experience, in the hopes that other reluctant or skeptical sufferers of chronic pain might also find relief.

The truth is that medical cannabis can help many people in pretty dramatic and amazing ways. More and more states are putting initiatives on the ballot. The DEA has removed many of the hurdles that kept researchers at bay.

Things are changing. Half of all US states have enacted medical marijuana legislation.  Life’s too short to sit back and wait for everyone to be okay with the medicine that makes life much more livable for me.

Eric Shepherd

About Eric Shepherd

Eric is a marketing professional working and living in Portland, ME. His writing on politics, science, and culture has appeared on NPR.com, Babble.com, and other national and regional outlets. Eric is also a public speaker on topics related to branding, social media, and cause marketing. He spent 10 years as a recording and touring musician. He has lived up and down the East Coast, but loves Portland the very most.