Think you know cannabis users? Meet Nonni

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The landscape of cannabis use has changed significantly across the United States in recent years. More than half of American adults — over 128 million people — have tried it , over 30 states and the District of Columbia have laws legalizing it in some form, and eight of those states allow its recreational use. Public support for the legalization of cannabis has grown from 12 percent in 1969 to 64 percent today. Yet despite this support, and its reported benefits — the reduction in opioid-related deaths, the successful treatment of those with opioid use disorder, the lessening of strain on the judicial system, and a positive impact on the economy — there are still misconceptions about who uses cannabis. These judgments appear to overlook those who find using cannabis a crucial part of their well-being.

This disparity raises some crucial questions: do we really know who uses cannabis? Or do we still have misconceptions that it is a drug used by teens, or those who only want to get high and drop out of life?

I spoke to Rita (called Nonni by her son), a 75-year-old woman who has used cannabis therapeutically for the past year, to address these misconceptions. We discussed her reasons for using cannabis, the effects she has experienced, and what she says to naysayers who don’t approve of her use of the drug.

Rita has suffered with various ailments for years: fibromyalgia, arthritis in her hands and knees, and difficulty sleeping at night. To manage her pain, she has been taking the highly addictive and powerful narcotic medication Vicodin, as well as high doses of ibuprofen, for over ten years.

Last year a close family member recommended that Rita start using cannabis to manage her pain. After some debate, she decided to give it a try. After obtaining her medical marijuana license, she visited a doctor, who treats a number of patients with cannabis.

“She was very thorough; she reviewed all of my medications and ailments for an hour and then made her recommendations. I’ve been very happy with my treatment plan,” says Rita.

Initially, Rita began using a CBD/THC spray that was 18 parts CBD — the cannabis plant’s non-psychoactive component that is useful for the relief of chronic pain, anxiety, and inflammation — and one part THC, which is known for its powerful pain-relieving properties and its ability to improve sleep disorders. She experienced immediate pain relief and was blown away by the spray’s powerful properties.

Rita now uses a sublingual liquid, in the same 18:1 CBD/THC formulation, which she has been more than happy with. She also uses a topical CBD cream for her arthritis in one knee and both hands. The cream is a powerful topical compound with 120 mg of CBD, which is said to soothe and relieve discomfort from arthritis, autoimmune
diseases, carpal tunnel syndrome, digestive disorders, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, skin disorders, muscle aches and pains.

Users of this cream report that it is far superior in pain relieving properties than acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and even tramadol. So popular is this cream in her area that Rita struggles to keep a regular supply as dispensaries can’t always maintain stock. “I went to a couple of dispensaries and everybody was out of it,” she says. “It is so popular that it just flies off the shelf.”

For Rita, the benefits of cannabis therapy have been astounding. Her sleep has improved, her arthritis has been ameliorated, and she has experienced such pain relief that she has significantly reduced her dose of the strong and potentially addictive pain reliever Vicodin to just occasional use. With cannabis, she explained, her pain relief is much longer-lasting, whereas the other medications wear off in just four hours, requiring a greater number of pills. Rita also was unhappy with some of the side effects of Vicodin, such as constipation. She had been developing an increased tolerance to the drug, meaning she had been gradually increasing her dose to obtain pain relief.

Rita told me that her views on the type of person who uses cannabis have drastically changed. She used to believe that only certain “bad people” used the drug, and that “you had to obtain it from a drug dealer.” Now she realizes that the whole concept and purpose of cannabis use has changed. She largely sees a wide demographic using cannabis for medical purposes, from “people with grey hair, in wheelchairs or walkers” to young children.

“Dr. Goldstein told me that her youngest patient was four and was suffering from seizures, which she treated with a very low dose,” explains Rita.

Rita related the story of her friend’s daughter who has Rett syndrome, a genetic disorder. This patient’s quality of life has drastically improved thanks to the use of cannabis.

Doctors “have been able to control her seizures with cannabis,” Rita says. “For the first time in her life, she doesn’t have seizures anymore! Her family is just ecstatic.”

Across the medical profession, however, views vary. Rita explained that while her primary care doctor can’t provide specific guidance on cannabis use due to a lack of training, she has said that if it is useful, she advises Rita to continue it. A relative of Rita’s had a very different experience. Rita reported that when this person told their primary care doctor, the doctor “very clearly stated that if they used cannabis, they won’t be accepted as a patient any longer.” Rita believes there is much education still to impart in order to change the understanding of cannabis’ therapeutic use. 

Lastly, I asked Rita about how she handles any negative criticism of her own use. Calmly, she tells me, “People may disagree with me. But it works for me and I am going to continue to do what is best for me. They aren’t going to change their mind and I may not change theirs. I am not looking for others’ approval.”