Medicating with Marijuana: Three People Share What It’s Really Like

Three people with chronic pain, ranging from autoimmune diseases to anxiety, share how they’ve learned to manage it with marijuana

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using medical marijuana: a portrait of Vee.

Vee (Photo: Sean Berrigan)

Vee’s memory of the first time she tried marijuana is a bit hazy, but she’ll never forget the moment of relief it brought her. It was unlike any other painkiller she’d ever taken.

And she’d taken a lot. Chronic back pain had ruled her life for more than 10 years, and so too had a cocktail of prescribed narcotics and anti-inflammatories.

All that changed two years ago. “One night in our apartment, my boyfriend suggested I try marijuana. He had been using it treat his arthritis, and I was very skeptical,” says the 27-year-old Montrealer. “I grew up in a very conservative French family, and I’d always been against drugs. But I was having a flare-up of severe back pain and nerve pain radiating down my legs that night. It was so bad I could barely walk.”

Vee’s boyfriend rolled her a joint. “I can’t remember much immediately after that,” she says, “but I do remember feeling light, like I could move again. More than that, I started dancing around my apartment for the first time in years.”

Vee’s experience medicating with marijuana: “It let me forget about my pain for a moment” 

The back pain started in her early teens. Vee loved playing tennis and competing in track and field, but she was sidelined at 15 after a hard landing during a high jump. She sustained a compression fracture in her lower back—an early sign that something was terribly wrong with her spine.

To find the source of her widespread pain, Vee worked with many doctors for more than a decade. But test after test revealed inconclusive results. During that time, Vee says she tried every prescribed painkiller imaginable, including a morphine patch that gave her horrible withdrawal symptoms. “Shivers, fever, night sweats—coming off that patch was really intense,” she recalls.

But, her pain persisted—and even got worse. Vee began to experience blinding “breakthrough” pain (sharp pain that can overpower medication), which would last one to three months. It grew so intense that she had to go on disability from her work as a translator.

Then she tried smoking marijuana, and with that first toke came a faint whiff of hope. “I still knew my pain was there, but it allowed me to compartmentalize it. It let me forget about it for a moment,” she says.

The next morning, Vee went to her family doctor and asked for a medical marijuana referral. “Surprisingly, she was so supportive, and I’m grateful for that. She’d seen me struggling for so many years, and she knew that I wanted to try something different.”

Since that night, Vee hasn’t used a single painkiller or anti-inflammatory drug. She’s actively managing her chronic pain with marijuana now, using it around four times a day. And just last month she finally discovered the source of her pain: a blood test confirmed she has a gene associated with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that attacks the spine and can cause vertebrae to fuse together over time. It primarily affects men, but a small majority of women can have it, too. Because the symptoms are difficult to detect on radiographic scans, it can take a decade or longer to properly diagnose the disease. For Vee, it was a 10-year wait, but she’s relieved to have an answer—and even more relieved to have found a way to manage her condition.

“Marijuana changed my life physically—it helps me get through each day—but it’s honestly about more than physical pain. It helps me be happy on days when I can’t be. It really helps with self-love, too,” says Vee. “My back pain took such a toll on my mental health, and marijuana is helping me find myself again. I feel like, for the first time in years, I’m choosing to medicate myself in my own way, and it’s really beautiful.”

Jess’s experience medicating with marijuana: “I finally admitted to myself that I had chronic pain”

After many years of struggling with chronic pain, Jess started using marijuana as an alternative to pharmaceutical medicine in 2014. Now 29, Jess lives in Toronto and recently completed a master’s degree in cinema and equity studies.

using medical marijuana: a portrait of Jess.

Jess

Jess has scoliosis, an abnormally rotated spine that curves sideways, and in this particular case the main curvature of Jess’s spine presses against her stomach, causing ongoing and and painful gastrointestinal issues. Jess was initially prescribed naproxen, an anti-inflammatory, around age 12 and took it regularly over the course of a decade. “To this day, as a result of that medication, I have very little stomach lining, which causes me a lot of pain.”

In late 2013, to treat and protect Jess’s damaged stomach lining, a doctor prescribed a special stomach-coating drug for six months, which meant Jess had to stop all other forms of medication. It was a period of healing, but after Jess finished the meds, the pain came roaring back.

“I was in limbo at that point. I was started to feel a bit better, but by the end of the year, I was back where I started. It was really affecting my mental state, too. I think that’s when I finally admitted to myself that I had chronic pain.”

After a particularly bad flare-up in early 2014, Jess called Health Canada seeking an alternative to prescribed narcotics. (Up to that point, Jess’s doctors had been fairly dismissive about alternative therapies.) “I knew I couldn’t take any other pain medications—they were killing me—and I felt like I had exhausted all my other options,” says Jess. “After being dependent on taking something every day, I wanted more agency.”

Jess was worried at first about using medical marijuana. “I was still doing my master’s, and I had small classes and presentations and I thought, ‘How am I going to do this, you know, high?’ But I learned that even when I’m in that state, I can still function normally. People think you can’t have a life that’s as operational as a life using traditional prescription painkillers. But you can. I’ve since figured out how to limit the euphoric effects by using strains that aren’t too high in THC [tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical responsible for marijuana’s psychological effects].”

Eventually a doctor referred Jess to a cannabinoid medical clinic. But getting a prescription took persistence. “Because I was under 30, I had to jump through a lot of hoops,” Jess says. “I had to get verification from my doctors that I had a chronic permanent condition. I also had to forge all these medical relationships to assert that was I was stable, mentally and socially, before I could have access to it.” From there, it took “some trial and error,” Jess says, to figure out what strains worked best to relieve the pain. The dosing for medical marijuana is described as “still relatively uncertain” on the website for CanniMed Ltd., a licensed producer of medical cannabis that’s governed by Health Canada; CanniMed says that efficacy and safety studies are still needed to determine exact dosing regimens for specific conditions. While CanniMed urges patients to consult with their doctors about treatment plans, it does offer these general guidelines: “start low and go slow.”

Which is exactly what Jess did. When asked about any negative experiences during the trial and error period, Jess recalls only one episode. “It wasn’t negative, just surprising. I was always told, if you’re not feeling well after taking it, get some orange juice—something about the sugars in the juice may help. I remember in the early days I took some and suddenly felt light-headed and a bit nauseated. I immediately had some orange juice, rested and felt better. It’s never happened again.”

At first, Jess tried smoking, but quickly wanted other options. Smoking brought on bouts of nausea—plus, Jess just wasn’t keen on the idea of it from a health perspective. Soon Jess graduated to a vaporizer and learned how to make cannabis-infused oils using coconut oil as a base, to be consumed on its own or used as a salve to relieve aching joints. After trying different strains of weed, Jess realized that sativa helped best in the morning to manage full-body inflammation, while indica helped bring her appetite back.

In addition to personal education, Jess had to bust a few of the misconceptions about marijuana when broaching the subject with family. “My mom and stepdad are very good Christians, and they don’t think highly of drugs. Growing up, I was told weed is bad. But I think they respect my opinions and views, and once I explained why I wanted to start using it, taking all their concerns into consideration, they accepted it.”

Jess’s landlord, on the other hand, isn’t as supportive. “My landlord doesn’t like the odour. It’s a weird place to be in, because she can’t do anything about it, but I also can’t tell her to stop complaining.” Jess is respectful in the apartment, but admits it’s difficult negotiating this new territory.

Despite these initial obstacles, using medical marijuana totally changed Jess’s life. “All of the sudden, you have this plant that helps you in so many different ways,” says Jess. “I went from being in pain my whole life, and experiencing pain at its highest threshold when my stomach lining wore away, to feeling in control.”

Now Jess follows a dosing schedule that switches between vaping and consuming oils about three times a day. “It doesn’t remove the pain, but it helps me live with it instead of attempting to mask it or cover it up.”

Antuanette’s experience medicating with marijuana: “Mary Jane helped me find myself”

Antuanette is also a Toronto-based patient who uses prescribed marijuana and staunchly advocates for it. She’s the creator of Pleasure Peaks Cannalube, a cannabis-infused lubricant, as well as a relationship coach with a background in holistic nutrition, yoga and psychedelics.

using medical marijuana: A portrait of Antuanette

Antuanette

Like Jess and Vee, Antuanette has grappled with chronic pain, as well as anxiety, from a young age. She experimented with marijuana in high school, but didn’t know how to dose properly: “I always got too sleepy or really bad cases of the munchies.” She has also struggled with back pain (likely due to having an extra vertebra in her spine, she says).

Instead of turning to prescribed painkillers, Antuanette found relief doing ganja yoga and working with a massage therapist who uses cannabis-infused oil. Eventually she went to her family doctor to ask for a referral to a cannabinoid medical clinic, and found her to be supportive. “She was very hesitant the first time I asked about it, because she had no experience with it and wasn’t comfortable prescribing it. But I felt like I must have at least planted a seed in her head because she eventually sent me to a clinic in Toronto where I got a prescription.”

Now Antuanette uses marijuana daily to relieve lower back pain, curb bouts of anxiety and alleviate particularly bad menstrual cramps. She often journals when she uses it, noting her pain and dosage and re-evaluating after it has taken effect. As Antuanette explains, sativa strains provide a more “cerebral high, it’s uplifting and energizing, a real mood booster,” while indica is “more of a sedative and major pain-reliever.”

“When I talk about marijuana, I like to say Mary Jane, because I have a real relationship with her. She changed me in many ways I didn’t think she could,” says Antuanette. “On a mental, physical and even spiritual level. She helped me find myself.”

Antuanette prefers to use a vaporizer because it’s both fast-acting and creates “a really mindful high.” She also uses topical oils for on-the-spot relief without psychological effects.

Unlike Jess, Antuanette lives in a cannabis-friendly apartment. She also recently introduced her dad to marijuana, who now uses it to manage his pain.

Antuanette has enthusiastically embraced marijuana, but she doesn’t want to be categorized as a stoner. “I really want to dispel that whole stoner mentality. It’s such a misconception,” she says. “I’m an executive who uses marijuana, not the other way around. It helps me, but it doesn’t define me.”

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