The state now has 81 medical marijuana dispensaries, including two in Lakeland and one in Winter Haven. There are about 1,950 qualified patients living in Polk County.
LAKELAND — For about three decades, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder largely controlled Betty Patterson’s life.
The Lakeland resident endured a traumatic event at age 20 but didn’t receive a diagnosis of PTSD for more than three decades. As she struggled with crippling anxiety, Patterson discovered that smoking marijuana eased her distress and allowed her to feel calm.
But marijuana was illegal, and Patterson was forced to venture into unsafe places and deal with sketchy people to obtain the product that helped her cope.
“It’s seedy and it’s scary,” said Patterson, 53. “You can get robbed. I never was robbed, but I’m sure I could have been. You have to go to the seedy side to get it if it’s not legally available to you.”
By the time a doctor finally diagnosed Patterson with PTSD last year, Florida’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use was operating. Patterson received her state-issued permit to obtain medical marijuana in April, and she now consumes cannabis-based oil on a daily basis. She said the ability to obtain medical-grade marijuana products without breaking the law has utterly changed her life.
“It’s not about getting high,” Patterson said. “I can’t express it enough. People don’t understand. They hear ‘medical marijuana’ and they’re (thinking), ‘Oh, you just want a license to smoke pot.’ … I have friends of mine who got off medications, pharmaceuticals, and are on medical marijuana and have improved their quality of life, like mine, 1,000 percent.”
Florida voters in November 2016 approved a constitutional amendment allowing the medical use of certain forms of marijuana. Since Florida’s Department of Health issued its first medical marijuana patient card in February 2017, some 205,000 Floridians have gained permission to use the previously forbidden products.
She and three others talked to The Ledger about their reasons for using medical marijuana and how the product has improved their lives.
A young mother with epilepsy has managed to stop taking prescription drugs that carried health risks. A college student with Crohn’s disease celebrates a reduction in painful symptoms while discarding medications that brought nasty side effects. Another man has gained new stability after years of being buffeted by severe anxiety.
Florida is one of 33 states that now recognizes the cannabis plant as a source of medicine. Amendment 2 included a list of conditions for which medical marijuana could be used to treat symptoms, among them cancer, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain and any terminal illness. The measure allows providers to formulate medications with high levels of THC, the compound in marijuana with psychoactive properties.
The Department of Health’s guidelines require a doctor’s approval to apply for the state patient registry. Patients who receive identification cards from the Office of Medical Marijuana Use need a doctor’s recommendation to obtain products from an approved provider.
Florida does not allow sale of marijuana in a form that can be smoked, though that rule faces a legal challenge. Current rules also don’t allow sale of marijuana-infused foods. (To confuse matters, some retail stores sell edibles containing CBD, marijuana’s non-psychoactive compound, derived from hemp plants.)
Still a stigma
At the federal level, marijuana remains illegal, classified in the same category as heroin and LSD. The four local patients said medical legitimacy has not erased the stigma surrounding the drug.
For that reason, two patients asked to have their names withheld. “Amy,” 34, is a married mother and college student who was diagnosed at age 17 with juvenile myoclonic epilepsy. For her, the disease causes jerking in her hands and also grand mal seizures, with loss of consciousness.
Soon after her diagnosis, the Lakeland area resident was put on two medications to help control the seizures, one for daily use and another for emergencies. Doctors tried different drugs over the years, some of which caused major depression and hallucinations.
Amy finally found a drug regimen without the worst side effects, but last summer tests found she had elevated levels of liver enzymes, a sign of potential liver damage from the narcotic drug. A petite woman, Amy said the medication also caused her to become dangerously underweight.
Amy, who has a 4-year-old son, said she also worried because her prescription drug raises the risk of having a child with birth defects.
Her neurologist wasn’t qualified to recommend marijuana but referred her to another doctor who had completed the state training program. Amy began taking medical marijuana about two months ago.
“So I haven’t been on it as long as some people, but I have been on it long enough to notice the positive effects,” she said.
Amy takes a tincture of cannabis oil under her tongue three times a day. She said the best formula seems to be a ratio of 12 times as much CBD as THC. She said she hasn’t had to take the narcotic since starting on cannabis oil.
“So for me to be able to reduce that medication, it’s just really a big deal, a huge step, I think, for my long-term health,” Amy said. “I felt like I was taking this medication every day so my brain would be OK, but at same time it was attacking my liver every day. So in the long term, it’s like — which do you choose, your brain or your liver? And with this, I don’t have to.”
Amy said she’s careful about those outside her family knowing she uses cannabis oil. She raised the concern that someone might call Florida’s Department of Children and Families to report her as an unfit mother.
Kristi Gray, a DCF spokeswoman, said the agency regards medical marijuana use by qualified patients as they would use of any other legal drug.
Debilitating pain is one of the symptoms that prompted another patient, a 20-year-old college student, to seek treatment with medical marijuana. Mike (not his real name) has Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel ailment typified by abdominal pain, severe diarrhea and resulting malnutrition.
The disease has no known cure, but some drugs can help manage symptoms.
Mike said his symptoms started at age 12. Doctors prescribed various drugs, including prednisone, a synthetic steroid used to reduce internal inflammation. He said he typically endured two or three major flare-ups a year that would require hospitalization.
Crohn’s disease can cause ulcers through the digestive tract, from the mouth to the anus, and the ulcers generate abdominal cramps. The illness prompts frequent and sudden bouts of diarrhea, and Mike said bloody stools are common.
“I have to rush (to the bathroom), so it makes it like I can’t function normally in the classroom or the workplace, if I’m in a lot of pain and constantly going to the bathroom,” Mike said. “So it makes it very difficult to maintain a functional lifestyle if I’m in a flare-up.”
Among many potential side effects, prednisone causes excess liquid retention in the body. Mike said the drug also had affected his mood, causing hallucinations, making him feel “edgy” and interfering with his school performance.
Mike said he discovered the beneficial effects of marijuana by accident. As a college student, he joined peers in trying the drug recreationally, and he found that it suppressed his Crohn’s symptoms.
“I was really scared of altering my mental state with any kind of drug because I was very big about control,” he said. “What I’ve found is that rather than taking control away from me, it actually gives me more control. It’s just another tool I would use to regulate my body like any other.”
Mike obtained his state ID card in the fall of 2017. He eventually settled on a regimen of taking three doses a day, with increasing levels of THC.
He most often inhales concentrated oil through a vaporizer pen, a method that yields effects in minutes. He also uses the oil to make chocolate bars, eating them for a more delayed release of larger doses.
With his abdominal distress reduced, Mike said he feels healthier as his body better absorbs nutrients in food. Discarding prednisone, he has lost 20 pounds of water weight.
“It makes it so I can sit in my classes and I’m not as worried about having to leave twice a period and the professor saying, ‘You’re having to go to the bathroom too much,’ ” he said. “I’m healthy for the first time, and it feels miraculously amazing because I’ve lived my entire life sick. I feel like the whole world has opened up for me.”
Luke Hamiel of Lakeland also faced instability in his life for about three decades. Hamiel, 37, said he developed post-traumatic stress disorder in his childhood and for years took pharmaceutical drugs that caused nearly as many negative as positive effects.
Hamiel said he took Zoloft and Xanax, among other medications, and the drugs caused unwanted weight gain.
“The pharmaceuticals have very, very bad side effects,” he said. “The antidepressant pills make you feel numb. You don’t feel depressed, but you don’t feel happy; you don’t feel anything. The anti-anxiety ones are even worse. They’re very, very bad for your nervous system; they mess with your sleep. Medical marijuana — you don’t have any of that. Zero.”
Hamiel, who works in sales and marketing, said he joined the state medical marijuana registry in February 2017. A doctor gave him a recommendation for oil high in CBD and low in THC, which he began taking sublingually — 10 drops in the morning and again at night.
He also takes a high-THC vaporized oil before bed and in case of a panic attack.
Since he ditched his pills, Hamiel has lost about 35 pounds, and he said he sleeps better and has more energy. In general, he said, he feels more positive and less anxious.
“It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” he said. “I stopped my pills. I threw them in the trash after, I think, three or four days, and I never went back to needing to take them.”
Hamiel said he has encouraged others to try medical marijuana. He said a friend with anxiety problems gained his state card and has also been able to stop taking Xanax. The father of a friend, a cancer survivor, has substituted cannabis oil for pills he was taking for pain.
Hamiel, now a regular at Curaleaf’s Lakeland dispensary, said a visit to a medical marijuana outlet will dispel the misconception that the customers are mostly young people seeking to get high.
“A lot of the folks that are coming are not young people,” he said. “It surprised me when I was first going to another dispensary in Tampa. I noticed as I walked in, everybody’s older. They’re in a walker or have another disability.”
Patterson has likewise become something of an evangelist for medical marijuana. She said four friends have so far taken her suggestion to begin using legal cannabis and have been able to stop taking pharmaceuticals.
Since she went on medical marijuana, Patterson said, her anxiety has declined, allowing her to go from working part-time to a new position as a store manager.
“It’s our duty, I feel, that when you know something is good to pass it on to someone else,” Patterson said. “I want everybody to know all they can about it and unstigmatize it. Please ask questions, and if you’re afraid to ask somebody who’s going to look down on you, call a dispensary, go to a dispensary.”
Gary White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.
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