EAST BURKE, Vt. — After the pain in his back became too much for him to handle during his junior year in high school in the Northeast Kingdom, Kevin finally saw the doctor.
It took a full eight months for them to eventually determine that he had a Pars Fracture and had actually broken his back and would require a spinal fusion to repair the floating bone and subsequent damage. While the cause wasn’t immediately clear, his suffering was obvious, so his doctors started Kevin on the default solution: prescription pills.
“In the meantime, I was on painkillers, muscle-relaxants, steroids, everything from Valium to Vicodin. Right before my spinal fusion, I was taking morphine before going to school every day … And no one batted an eye.”
The effects of the morphine and the other heavy pain-killers weren’t subtle — Kevin still remembers specific incidents when his high school classmates were clearly aware of his drowsy and dazed demeanor during library study halls and classes.
Still, with the intense pain that accompanied his floating bone fragments pre-discovery and pre-surgery, his options were limited.
“I had no other way to treat the pain, it was either go to school on morphine, or don’t go to school at all, so I had to choose the lesser of two evils.”
He describes the physical effects of the opiates as being an alien experience:
“You feel a lot less awareness in your arms and legs. You kind of feel like a husk inside you and that your body isn’t yours, or is like a third person’s to the touch.
“You get very sleepy and want to just curl up in the couch and not do anything. It’s hard to keep control of the present moment. For me, if someone was talking to me, I could lose my train of thought every other word.”
As if that weren’t hard enough, the side effects of the opiates were almost as bad as the pain being treated by the pills in the first place.
“I had lost about 25-30 pounds in about two months because I wasn’t eating. I was constantly constipated, it was shutting down my internal organs, I wasn’t able to urinate either. I was constantly itchy, always wanting to sleep — I was always a wreck and the pills were making me lose my mind.”
It’s a sad but encouraging fact that over the past five years, communities and individuals around the state, region, and country have not only developed an awareness of the seriousness of opioid addiction, but are even aware of its common narratives and causes.
Even as a high school student, Kevin was well aware of local tragedies that had resulted from opioid abuse and addiction, sometimes along the path of prescription painkiller addiction to street heroin — a path he worried could potentially face him unless he rid himself of the pills altogether.
“By the end, I had to flush multiple bottles of pills down the drain because I didn’t need them anymore but they were just laying around. Black market, it was hundreds and hundreds of dollars-worth and I can see where it’s tempting and why people would want to continue it, but I made a decision right then and there not to do it because it starts when you’re young with the painkillers, then you find the cheaper alternatives, then it goes to heroin and you get hooked on heroin and then you die.”
“It’s becoming such a horrible epidemic here in Vermont, I didn’t want to become another number, another statistic.”
For Kevin, the breakthrough in his recovery, and subsequent key to his liberation from opiate painkillers (and their side-effects) was the introduction of medical marijuana into his life from a close friend.
One day, a close friend had noticed how much weight Kevin had lost and commented on how unhealthy he looked. His friend suggested trying marijuana to improve his appetite and allow him to eat again.
“I started smoking because it gave me appetite I was able to gain weight again and eat for the first time in three days. It started with appetite, but then I noticed it was getting rid of my pain too, and that I was able to rely less on painkillers.
It certainly did get me high, but the high was less of an effect than the opiates, it was still controllable and I was able to function and talk and smile and be happy.”
Like many other Vermonters, Kevin admits that he had first tried marijuana in high school, but only socially and that he hadn’t considered it as a potential medicine until he actually needed it.
“A lot of people don’t realize that it is a medicine too, even myself. Back then I didn’t think about it because here’s the doctor telling you, take these medicines, it’s going to be what’s good for you. It takes a step to be willing to try something else.”
After some consideration, Kevin decided to have a conversation with his doctor, in this case, his longtime pediatrician who had been treating diligently, but unsuccessfully, treating his back pain for years.
The doctor was also exasperated and frustrated by the lack of progress via medication or resolution to his pain so when Kevin shared his success in managing the pain with medical marijuana and without other untested options, the doctor agreed.
“I told him [the doctor], I’m using this to treat myself, I want a legal card to protect me because it’s working. I had told him that at that point I was off opiates altogether — I was still taking non-opiate painkillers, which I’m now off altogether — and that the medical marijuana worked better than the prescriptions and that I wanted legal protection and he was willing to give it a shot.
He looked over the forms and realized that it wasn’t a prescription or recommendation, or medically-binding to him, so he was willing to give it a go and filled out the paperwork. About a month later, I got my card in the mail.”
As with most medical marijuana patients, the process for Kevin of finding the right balance of type of cannabis and how to use it was experimental, not diagnostic. Unlike the myriad prescriptions he had previously taken, the difference is that experimenting with different kinds of medical cannabis didn’t have the kind of negative side effects that come with narcotics.
“It doesn’t happen overnight and takes awhile — to this day, I’m always looking for a new strain or product that’s going to help treat my conditions more effectively. I started out smoking different buds (dried ‘flowers’ of the plant) because that was what was available. Then I learned the difference between sativa and indica types of strains — I found as a medical patient that indica was great at night because it relaxed my body and let me sleep, and that sativa was great because it helped me get my daily chores done without getting couch-lock and being too drowsy.
So I started with the bud, found my preferences between indica and sativa, and that’s when I got dispensary access. For my chronic pain, I knew that I wanted to try salves or skin creams, and I found that they did work — it kind of feels like icy hot and you don’t get high off of it, but you rub this cream (for me, on my back) and it gets a little hot, then it relaxes your joints and muscles.
I found that tinctures worked really well, they were easy to dose and worked immediately. It was discreet, easy to use and good if I was somewhere where I couldn’t smoke.
Then I found my love for edibles. I found that low-dose edibles were great during the daytime because your high lasts longer, is time-released and the medicine is in your body longer during the day. It especially made it easier when going on long car rides — my back hurts being in the car for more than an hour.”
Since getting his card, having legal protection has already benefitted Kevin, who has been pulled over with his medical cannabis in his car, and described a great interaction with law enforcement, who smelled his medical cannabis in the card, checked his patient card, asked him a few questions to make sure he was driving sober himself, and let him go with no issues.
“I could still be treating my back pain with marijuana without the medical card, but in that instance, best case scenario is that I would have gotten a civil infraction and had to pay a few hundred bucks for a ticket.”
With his own medical cannabis success, Kevin is now finding different ways to give back to the community and is on a mission to help fellow Vermonters get registered as legal medical marijuana patients.
“I’m here to help patients connect with doctors who will sign their forms and help them become legal patients. I know someone who will help you set up your grow if you opt for home grow. If S.16 passes, it will allow for dispensaries and home use, right now it’s only about 20% of patients who grow at home, and if that passes, that number will increase so I want to help future patients get access to those skills.”
Kevin says that he’s been impressed by the community of patients around the state, and the willingness of people to share information and advice with each other and with prospective patients. He made sure to ask us to include a plug for patients — present and future — to reach out to him via Heady Vermont (firstname.lastname@example.org for an introduction) and notes.
Like many patients and reform advocates, Kevin pays close attention to what’s happening in Montpelier and is a strong supporter of the bill S.16, which he thinks will help increase the number of Vermonters who find relief with medical marijuana (esp. fellow chronic pain sufferers currently using other painkillers).
He had previously been a dispensary patient, and thinks that they have much to offer, especially for new patients.
“I can make a really nice batch of edibles myself, but I’d rather go to the dispensary because I know that it’s in a tested, certified kitchen, I know that the dosage is going to be correct, and honestly, they have a wider selection and more flavors. I can buy one or two of different kinds of cookies instead of making an entire single batch at home myself.”
Still, he believes that the medical system needs reforms and is throwing his weight and experiences behind S.16, especially the provisions for allowing patients to become registered for new specific conditions (PTSD and Crohns are both on the list), to register more quickly and without needing a new doctor, and to open up more dispensaries while increasing plant counts to allow patients to be more self-sufficient in providing their own medicine.
Don’t be afraid of what your doctor is going to think … All the doctors who I’ve ever spoken to about my medical marijuana have been very supportive and happy that it’s working.
As a resident of the Northeast Kingdom, Kevin notes that while delivery services from existing dispensaries do exist (the closest ones are in Montpelier or Burlington, both at least 90 minutes away), most new medical marijuana patients are baby boomers who would rather have a longer discussion and consultation than many dispensaries are able to provide, due to their increasing number of patients.
“A lot of the patients I’ve met, they’re my parents and grandparents age — people don’t expect that and think that it’s young people getting medical cards as an excuse, but that’s so far from the truth! When I used to go to the dispensaries, I would meet people in wheelchairs, cancer patients — it’s really mostly sick people and older people who are getting relief from this … there’s promising research coming out about Alzheimers and dementia and cannabis as a neuroprotectant.”
“I’m willing to help whoever is reading — I’ve helped patients with things just as simple as filling out the forms, guiding them to the different dispensaries, looking at home grow as an option.”
Still in his early 20s, Kevin is interested in exploring a career in the world of medical marijuana and is disappointed that Vermont is farther behind its neighbors in Maine and Massachusetts, both in the accessibility of the medical program and in building a framework for a regulated market for all adults. He’s been engaged with his representatives in the Northeast Kingdom, whom he’s said are receptive to hearing from patients about both S.16 and the H.170 legalization bill being considered by the House.
When asked to summarize his advice to cannabis-curious potential patients about becoming a medical marijuana patient, he concludes our interview with this:
“Don’t be afraid of what your doctor is going to think. I’ve had a lot of people who say they’re afraid to discuss it with their doctor because he or she is going to think they’re a drug addict, or will stop taking them seriously. All the doctors who I’ve ever spoken to about my medical marijuana have been very supportive and happy that it’s working. If you show them how it’s working, if you’re using it currently and it’s helping your medical ailments, tell them that it’s working — asking them is definitely better than not asking them.”