Although marijuana has been used to treat illnesses for thousands of years, many patients still experience a backlash from friends, family and colleagues. Medical marijuana users might have to endure friendly neighbours gone sour, disapproving parents or unsympathetic employers.
Moral indictment can be a nasty side effect of being a medical marijuana user. But that’s not stopping these cannabis advocates from using the medicine they need for their ailments.
The stigmatization of medical marijuana users is difficult to quantify. But a group of Canadian researchers led by Dr. Joan L. Bottorff, a professor at the University of British Columbia, set out to do precisely that, publishing their findings in Harm Reduction Journal.
“[Medical marijuana] stands as one of the few treatments where users are directly stigmatized for their use of it regardless of their particular illness,” Dr. Bottorff states. She says there is an effect on patients’ “physical and emotional well-being as well as the impact on health care interactions.
“This stigmatization… is related to the ambiguous status of cannabis (an illegal substance and a legal therapeutic agent at the same time), and to the lack of knowledge about medical cannabis among the public, physicians and law enforcement personnel,” Bottorff continues. She concludes that the results of her team’s research “reinforce the urgent need for finding better solutions and strategies for reducing stigmatization associated with use of [medical marijuana].”
Even in U.S. states where medical marijuana is legal, employers are often allowed to fire workers who test positive for the drug. In Denver, Colorado, Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic who worked at Dish Network as a telephone operator, made national headlines. Coats was fired for off-the-job medical marijuana use; despite being protected by the state’s Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute, an appeals court ruled that Dish Network was justified in terminating Coats because marijuana is illegal under federal law.
While his case did not make national headlines, Larry Peterson, 45, of Arab, Alabama, was also fired for using medical marijuana. Peterson, who suffers from multiple sclerosis (MS), worked for Reed Printing, producer of the Arab Tribune, a small community newspaper.
“I had responsibilities that I was really good at. I really liked the people I worked with and the people I worked for,” Peterson told The Medical Marijuana Review. But one day, a company vice president informed Peterson and his coworkers that they would all be taking drug tests and no one was allowed to leave the premises.
“I went straight to his office and told him I would test positive for marijuana,” Peterson says. “He knew about me having MS, so I was hoping for some understanding.”
There would be none from Peterson’s employer. Peterson recalls being summoned to the vice president’s office and informed he would be fired.
As difficult as dealing with the disapproval of employers can be, medical marijuana patients who face stigmatization by friends and family often report feeling more intense, personal pain. Shona Banda, a 36-year-old Crohn’s disease survivor from Garden City, Kansas, says her family made her feel like a “pothead” for using the cannabis oil which she claims literally saved her life. Banda’s dramatic recovery is detailed in a book, Live Free or Die, published in 2010.
“When I was sick, my family was okay with me smoking marijuana at their home. I could smoke in my parents’ kitchen and it was no big deal,” Banda says. But later, after her health improved, her family’s attitude changed.
“I was looked at as a pothead,” she says. “But I do have a sister… who is a complete supporter. But she just happens to be the only one in my family who’s read my book. So she gets it. And until the rest of my family reads my book, they just won’t get it.”
Family disapproval or not, Banda wouldn’t dream of going back to using prescription medications.
“The drugs they give you [for Crohn’s] are Prednisone, Remicade and Humira,” Banda recalled. All three of those drugs carry the risk of serious, and in the case of Remicade and Humira, potentially deadly side effects. “As far as I’m concerned, all [my doctors] did was try to kill me.”
Doctors, too, may shun medical marijuana patients. Seeing this firsthand was Erica Rollins, a 32-year-old mother who relocated from Indiana to Colorado so her epileptic four-year-old daughter could have access to medical marijuana.
“Honestly, the only people who I feel are judging us are the doctors,” Rollins told The Medical Marijuana Review. “[My daughter’s] current pediatrician laughed when I told him what we moved here for. But after 13 failed medications, what was I supposed to do, let her die?”
Rollins says she tried four different antiepileptic drugs, to no avail. Then, like Banda, she discovered cannabis oil. Rollins uses a strain called Charlotte’s Web, a high-CBD, low-THC variety prepared into oil by her grower. And she isn’t alone – dozens of children across Colorado are getting desperately needed relief from debilitating seizures by medicating with the strain.
“I feel great about the choice we made. I regret not doing it sooner,” Rollins insists. “Why is it acceptable to give my daughter medication with the side effects list pages long, including the risk of death? Why is it not acceptable to give her a plant with no recorded deaths and side effects which can be counted on one hand? I will take increased appetite and better sleep over vision loss, muscle wasting, loss of appetite and death any day.”