The use of cannabis across the United States has changed drastically over the last ten years:
- More than 30 states have legalized it in some capacity, with eight of those states legalizing recreational use.
- Over 128 million people — more than half of American adults — have tried it.
- Public support for the legalization of cannabis has grown from 12 percent in 1969 to 64 percent today.
Perhaps most notably is cannabis’ impact on those with substance use disorder. It has proven to be successful in the treatment of those with opioid use disorder, and research has shown that in states where cannabis is legalized, there has been a 25 percent reduction in opioid-related deaths.
The benefits of marijuana are not limited to health. Cannabis has also had a positive impact on the economy. Despite these wide-ranging benefits for Americans and the national economy, misconceptions still persist about the types of people who use cannabis — namely the stereotype of “potheads,” young people whose sole purpose is to get high and be a drain on society. Such judgments overlook and minimize the experience of those who find using cannabis a crucial part of their well-being and ability to function.
With those misconceptions in mind, we began interviewing those who use cannabis in a medical capacity to get a more realistic picture of who is using the drug and for what reasons. Last month, we spoke to Rita, a 75-year-old woman who for the past year has used cannabis medicinally to address numerous ailments, including fibromyalgia, arthritis, and insomnia. Rita reported that the benefits have been astounding; her sleep and arthritis have improved, and she has experienced such relief of her pain that she has significantly reduced her dose of the strong and potentially addictive pain reliever Vicodin to only occasional use.
This week we speak with Jill, a 68-year-old woman who has grappled within insomnia for years. She had been prescribed Ambien over the past ten years and reported no ill effects. Recently, however, her doctor told Jill that because of her age, and the potential risk of memory loss, they could no longer prescribe Ambien, despite the fact that it is considered to be a safer medication than the potentially addictive benzodiazepines.
While Jill didn’t suffer any side effects from Ambien, she did acknowledge that her body had become dependent upon it after taking it for such a prolonged period of time.
“I know it is the best and I definitely recognize that I was addicted to it. I couldn’t go to sleep without taking it,” says Jill.
Fortunately for her, these medications have never been habit-forming for her beyond physical dependence. She told me that she was once prescribed Vicodin, which she took for a while and abruptly stopped, with no withdrawal symptoms. Not everyone is so fortunate when using — and ceasing use of — such highly addictive drugs.
Jill’s doctor replaced her Ambien prescription with the highly addictive benzodiazepine temazepam. They teamed this prescription with trazodone, an antidepressant that has a sedative effect. Both of these medications carry a U.S. Food and Drug Administration black box warning which is used when there is reasonable evidence of an association of a serious hazard with the drug.
Fortunately, Jill suffered no side effects from the prescribed combination, but she found the drugs to be ineffective at treating her insomnia. Around the same time, Jill’s neighbor mentioned that her son ran an online medical marijuana business and introduced her to a dark chocolate bar they sold, saying it could help alleviate her insomnia.
“I’ve tried a square of this dark chocolate bar, which tasted really good, and it worked,” says Jill.
When she informed her doctor of the failure of the new medications and the success of medical marijuana, they recommended that she continue to use what worked. Jill reported that she continued to use the chocolate bar, eating one square a day. The bar has 120 mg cannabinoid content, with a 50:50 ratio of THC and CBD. While she tells me that it hasn’t been as effective as Ambien, sometimes “taking longer than an hour to work,” she is comfortable taking something more natural than a prescription medication.
Unfortunately for Jill, even though she lives in California — a state where medical marijuana is legal — she ran into difficulties at a new job.
“it’s just a part-time job, eight to 16 hours a week at a nonprofit,” she explained. After working for a few hours on her first day, she was taken to have her fingerprints taken and to undertake a drug test.
“I told the manager that I use medical marijuana and asked if that was an issue, and she said that she had no idea.”
Thinking not much of it, Jill proceeded to take the urine test and asked the technician if her use of medical marijuana was an issue and he said that he didn’t know either.
She continues: “The next day, I got a phone call from the corporate office that said, ‘I need to let you know that you failed a drug test. So we are unable to continue with your employment.’”
Jill said that at first she was shocked, then started laughing. “I asked, ‘Are you kidding me?’ The woman explained, ‘Sadly, I’m not.’”
Perplexed by what had just happened, Jill explained that her use of marijuana was not only legal, but that it was recommended by her doctor. The company representative told her that it was just their company policy and they had to follow it. Frustrated, and curious to see how this applied to other, more harmful drugs such as alcohol, Jill said, “I asked her if they tested for alcohol and they said no. I told her that was a far more dangerous drug.”
Justified in her frustration at the ill-considered response, Jill explained to the corporate representative, “In all my years of management, I never had an issue with anybody using marijuana. But I absolutely had problems with people and alcohol!” The corporate office told her that even though she was a great worker, and that this was a sad situation, they had to stick to their policy.
Asked how this situation made her feel, Jill said, “I was really pissed.” And rightly so! Cannabis has no lethal dose, yet alcohol, which kills 88,000 Americans every year, is permitted and is not subject to testing in the workplace.