- CANNABIS WORKS: Erika Nicholson says marijuana helped her health conditions.
The simplest thing would be to do the horserace story on the effort to bring medical cannabis to Arkansas: the two competing proposals that will very likely be on the ballot before the voters in November; the pros and cons; the ins and outs; the numbers of dispensaries and the grow-your-own option; the lawyering up and infighting between the two camps that has flared behind the scenes; Governor Hutchinson's full-court press against the idea of marijuana as medicine, with press conferences backed by a handful of doctors and business leaders who say that cannabis legalization, even for sick people, is not only bad for our collective health but will harm the state's workforce (read a little about all of that here).
The story that will do the most good, however, is to listen to the voices of some of the people who have been helped, or believe they could be helped, by legalization of medical marijuana in the state. It's no secret that the Arkansas Times is in favor of the effort to legalize medical cannabis (this writer is planning on voting for both proposals, just to boost the chances that one passes). You could probably go a long way toward wallpapering the governor's office with the number of prescriptions for opiates written in this state every year, drugs that demonstrably lead to addiction, desperation and death for tens of thousands of Americans. Meanwhile, a plant that critically ill patients say helps them lead fuller, less painful lives — a plant that couldn't kill you unless you were physically crushed by a compressed bale of the stuff — remains illegal. There's clearly something wrong with that.
Over the past few weeks, we sought out some of those Arkansans who know what it's like to be so sick or so desperate to help someone they love that breaking the law is preferable to staying within it. Their stories need to be heard before we all go to the ballot box — mostly because any one of these people could, with a simple twist of fortune, be us someday.
Alexander resident Erika Nicholson knows that medical marijuana works well on her conditions — a migraine disorder that causes nausea and loss of appetite, an anxiety disorder, fibromyalgia and insomnia that sometimes forces her to go to work bleary-eyed — because for years, she broke the law to treat herself with illegal cannabis.
"Unfortunately, I work at a place where they started doing random drug tests," she said. "I got popped on a drug test, and needless to say, I had to determine whether to choose the medical marijuana or my job. I had to quit [marijuana] about three years ago."
The decision to quit was hard, she said, but it was a have-to. Because she has so many conditions, she needs her health insurance. In order to make up for what she lost, Nicholson said she had to be put on three additional medications, including an appetite stimulant, an antidepressant and a sleeping pill.
"I've always had a lot of issues with my appetite and being able to eat, eating enough and maintaining weight," she said. "They also had to put me on Ativan, which, of course, is very addictive. But that was preferable to them, that I be on that."
Nicholson said she hopes medical marijuana is legalized in Arkansas, because she knows it's safe and works for her. She believes it would allow her to back off many of the medications she is taking for other issues, in addition to helping her live with less pain. She is being evaluated for epilepsy after suffering a seizure earlier this year, and believes cannabis might be able to help with that. She also hopes it might help her mother, who has multiple sclerosis.
"The things I've heard about what it can do for MS is amazing," she said. "I've seen what it can do for people. It's not just what it would do for me. It's what it would do for them, and what it would do for so many other people who have to make the same decisions — who have to decide whether to live with the pain, suffer, or break the law."
Bella Vista native Lana Sparks, 61, has a triple whammy when it comes to her health: fibromyalgia and other conditions that leave her in near constant, debilitating pain; a severe allergy to the vast majority of most available prescription pain killers; and surgery several years back that removed a 16-inch section of her colon, leaving her body unable to absorb most of the pain relievers she can take.
Desperate for a legal solution to her pain, she researched and found Marinol. A synthetic version of THC, the drug is often touted by those opposed to medical cannabis — including Governor Hutchinson, most recently at a September press conference featuring several Arkansas doctors — as a legal, FDA-approved alternative that negates the need for cannabis legalization. Though Marinol is officially for nausea and loss of appetite due to AIDS and cancer treatment, Sparks in 2005 was one of an initial group of 10 Arkansans approved to receive the drug for pain. Though it had some mind-altering side-effects, she said, Marinol worked well for her. Now, however, Sparks is on Medicare, which only covers Marinol for the original label use: loss of appetite or nausea caused by AIDS or cancer treatment.
"This is where the real problem comes in," she said. "I can get the medication with a prescription, without Medicare coverage. But a 30-day supply costs me $10,000 — right around that area. Between $9,000 and $10,000. It depended on which pharmacy we were going to." Sparks said she and her husband live on fixed incomes and "we can't afford medications like that, so essentially I have no choice. I have no pain management option because Medicare won't cover it." When Hutchinson says that Marinol is an available alternative to medical cannabis, Sparks said, he's telling the truth, but there is quite a difference between "available" and "attainable," depending on your health insurance.
Sparks went back to Ibuprofen for her pain for a while, then started herself on legal hemp oil, which she said helps her sleep and is beginning to dial back her pain. She hopes the voters of Arkansas will approve medical cannabis this fall so she can find more lasting relief. A child of the '60s, she said she smoked pot when she was younger, but said that for patients like her, it's not about recreation.
"That isn't what this was about," she said. "We did that back then to get high. We don't do it to get high. We do it for the benefits of cannabis. Cannabis can change a lot of things, and the drug companies don't want it to happen."
A lifelong Arkansan, Mary (who asked that we protect her identity because she owns a company that does business in Arkansas) had to make a decision a few years back: help her daughter, who is now 11, or flee the state where she was born to find help for her. Mary's daughter has a rare seizure disorder, and since she was 3 years old, she's been to hospitals from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to Arkansas Children's Hospital, and been prescribed pharmaceuticals and special diets. "All the places you would imagine, we have been with her," Mary said. "They have basically given up on her. She has tried nine or 10 pharmaceutical drugs at this point. The last one they gave her, we had to sign a piece of paper that said if they killed her, we wouldn't sue them. She had an allergic reaction to it and was in ICU for three weeks, on a ventilator. She burned from the inside out. She was 7 at the time."
By the time Mary decided to move her family to Colorado, where marijuana is legal, to treat her daughter with a cannabis oil that has helped other children, the girl was having 150 seizures a day. Most were 10- to 15-seconds-long "head drops" that sometimes caused the girl to hit her face on a table, or fall from a chair. Medications only seemed to make things worse, resulting in everything from rashes to vomiting to an increased severity of her seizures.
"She rides a bike, she swims, she hikes mountains, she rock climbs. She's a very functional child except for this weird seizure thing," Mary said. "Here's what I hear: 'I can't believe you're giving your kid pot ... ' You have a child who has zero options from the medical community. The only option we've got is to drill into her brain with an experimental deep brain stimulator, which the Mayo Clinic has only ever done on like 18 kids, and it's not meant for seizures; it's for Parkinson's. When that's your only option at 10 years old, you start looking for things."
Once they were in Colorado, after obtaining the girl's medical cannabis card with a doctor's approval, Mary started her daughter on cannabis oil. The girl takes 0.5 milliliters of the low-THC oil twice a day. Even though she no longer takes other prescribed medications, the changes have been dramatic.
"She's having about 30 to 40 seizures a day now," Mary said. "It's a 75 percent reduction. For her quality of life, it's unbelievable ... . There's nothing in it that makes her high. You could give her the whole bottle of this and it wouldn't matter."
Mary said she hopes medical cannabis is legalized in Arkansas this fall not only because she wants other parents of children with seizure disorders to have the option to try it, but because it will allow her daughter to return to the state. She can't travel without being able to take her medicine.
"When I come back, I can't bring her there. I can't bring [her medicine] across state lines. I can't let her see her grandparents. I can't let her go to her cousin's birthday party, which is today. There are lots of things we gave up by doing this, but it was her life we were playing with."
Even if medical marijuana does become legal in Arkansas, Mary said it will be a hard question as to whether she moves back home, saying that Hutchinson's efforts at defeating the measures would always make her feel as if she and her daughter weren't truly accepted. For the good of desperately ill people in Arkansas, however, she hopes the voters will pass one or both of the measures.
"I think people, especially people in my position, deserve to be able to at least try it as an option," she said. "When you're going to a doctor and having to sign a piece of paper that says they might kill your kid? This is a much safer option. I'm all for trying [conventional medicine] and going through that process. But if you're out of options, this is another option."
- 'IT CAN HAPPEN TO EVERYONE': Cancer survivor Raven Thompson says cannabis helped save her life.
Little Rock resident Raven Thompson, 34, had been suffering with unexplained pain for years by the time doctors discovered a 12-millimeter mass in her pelvis in 2013. It turned out to be synovial sarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of soft tissue cancer that occurs in only one in 3 million people.
"They told me that I was going to lose my right leg, I was going to have to have a colostomy bag and a full hysterectomy," she said. "The mass was starting to push everything to the left. They told me that if I didn't do the chemo, my lungs would collapse, I would suffocate and die. I was like, 'Danged if I do, danged if I don't ...' I can remember when I was first diagnosed. One of my co-workers said, 'Raven, you're good people. You're not a bad person. Why?' All I could say was, 'It doesn't matter if you're young, old, bad or good. When it's for you, it's for you. If it happens, you've got to take it on and fight and keep going. We all have to go from this world someday, but we still have to fight.' "
At her doctor's urging, Thompson started on an equally aggressive form of chemotherapy, which she heard referred to as "Red Devil." During her treatment, she had to be admitted to the hospital for up to a week at a time, receiving the medicine 22 hours a day. She'd go home for two weeks, be assessed, then start another round. Only 125 pounds at the time of her diagnosis, the chemo killed her appetite and created horrible nausea. She eventually wasted to 87 pounds.
"To drop down to that, I was almost like a walking skeleton," she said. "I was just that small. I'm a petite lady, but to lose that much weight, that's a lot. Of course, I couldn't help it. ... But, I kept fighting because everyone else had killed me off. My own family wrote a eulogy for me. Everybody just kind of gave up on me in a sense. It's sad to say that, but I'm just trying to be honest."
Knowing she would die if she couldn't get her appetite back, Thompson broke the law and turned to illegal marijuana. "At that point," she said, "I was thinking to myself, 'I'm a criminal? I'm a criminal then. I'm a criminal with cancer. What else can you do to me?' "
Within an hour of smoking cannabis, she said, her appetite returned enough for her to eat. "It helped with nausea, it helped with pain, anxiety," she said. "It definitely gave me an appetite. I wanted to eat everything. With the pain meds, it was a mess." Thompson continued to use cannabis through her chemo, six weeks of radiation treatment, and during the recovery from a 9-and-a-half-hour surgery in which she was sliced from her navel to her lower back, the incision requiring over 30 staples to close.
A devout Christian, she says God is the reason she's alive today, but she believes cannabis was put here by Him to help her fight. She's been cancer-free for a little over two years now. Asked what she'd say to those in opposition to the ballot measures that would bring medical marijuana to the state, she said: What is Arkansas so afraid of?
"If people could just come up to the hospital," she said, "and come on the floor and see what we have to go through with that [chemotherapy] medicine going into our bodies — throwing up, weak, stumbling, falling and pooping on themselves, it's just a mess. If this helps me, I've got to have it. I'm sorry. ... It's real, and it can happen to everyone."