Over Christmas, I encouraged my mother to try medical marijuana as a way to deal with nausea and discomfort from chemotherapy. Studies have shown conclusively that marijuana has been effective in increasing appetite, combatting nausea and improving the well-being of patients. It's hard not to write about marijuana without getting into the politics of the situation. While I am no expert, it appears that the laws in the US have been driven without regard for the benefits of medical marijuana in treating terminal diseases such as cancer.
Since medical marijuana is not technically available in Florida, there were a few challenges along the way. Not only is marijuana illegal, but if you're seventy-three, it's just not that easy to come by. There are no medical marijuana distribution centers in Florida, no compassion centers, no network that we knew of. Unlike say, Colorado, where pot is easily acquired by patients , Florida laws are tough and posession of 20 g (less than an ounce) is a felony, so it is very hard for a stranger to buy pot there. But a friend of my mother's had offered her marijuana a couple of years earlier when she was previously going through chemotherapy. I told my mother, "if she offers again, take her up on it."
My mother was initally uncomfortable with the idea of smoking marijuana, but the side-effects of her anti-nausea medicine were sometimes severe and conventional treatment wasn't working. She had qualms about using an illegal drug, but my parents read a study by Safe Access Now and we read up on some sites by some local activists. We also spoke to some doctors and none said it would be a bad idea. She tried it and it relieved pain and it helped stimulate appetite.
Later in January, doctors gave her a prescription for Marinol, a synthetic form of THC, one of the ingredients in marijuana. Marinol is more expensive than marijuana, at about $900 a month and unfortunately less effective. My mother said the Marinol was helpful for a few days. Shortly after, it seemed less effective than smoking pot, she said. Compared to natural marijuana, its psychoactive effects are sometimes overwhelming. Once my mother started with the hospice program in late January, they refused to cover the expense of Marinol, so my parents gave up on it, and used medical marijuana instead.
Through friends of friends, cryptic conversations and stealth package drops from unidentified sources, my mother was able to get a small but steady supply of marijuana. She had smoked cigarettes for many years, so she was able to take a couple of puffs once in a while as required. I don't think she ever got "high" from it --she never had cravings for Cherry Garcia ice cream --but it worked better than any of the prescription drugs at relieving nausea and pain. She said it was a god send. We teased her about smoking pot and got her a tie-dye t-shirt and an ash tray with the "Flying Nun" picture by Santa Cruz artist Janet Ellinger, shown above.
Thank you for all those anonymous people who helped out with this project. You made my mother's final months more bearable.
Think what you will about whether marijuana should be legalized or whether it's better or worse for society than alcohol or tobacco. But for medical purposes I defy anyone to look a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy in the eye and deny them access to the one drug that is proven to help them. For those seeking more information, I have listed several links below which may be helpful.
- The Economist: Reefer Madness
- Safe Access Now: Medical Marijuana and Cancer (PDF)
- National Cancer Institute: Marijuana Use in Cancer Patients (PDF)
- NORML: Medical Marijuana Overview, Frequently Asked Questions
- NORML: Marinol vs. Natural Cannabis (PDF)
- Cannabis Home Delivery: Marijuana Delivery in Canada
- Colorado Dept of Public Health: Medical Marijuana
I chose not to write about my mother's use of medical marijuana until after she died. I asked her on one of my visits if she was ok with me writing about it and she agreed.