"Hey, can I get a hit of that?" inquired a gentleman dragging on a cigarette nearby. I was standing in the smoking area puffing on my vape.
"Sorry. I'm a medical marijuana patient," I replied.
"That's so cool," he cooed. "You're soo lucky!"
"Or really, really unlucky," I replied. "Do you know how medically fucked up you have to be to qualify for cannabis in New Jersey?"
Variations of this scenario play out daily for patients around the country. And considering almost half of the US is still living under prohibition, I do acknowledge that I'm fortunate to have legal access. I need MMJ for a traumatic spinal injury I sustained while working as a hospice nurse. I haven't lived a day without pain since the accident four years ago, but MMJ helps. It's horrific that others are forced to turn to deadly prescriptions when a safer, more effective alternative is available.
But when an able-bodied, healthy human says that I'm "lucky" just because I can smoke pot, I have to stop and let them know the truth about the pot-patient lifestyle: We give up a lot of basic rights just to access our medication. It costs a freaking fortune; the financial burden is a massive hardship because health insurance doesn't cover any of it. Plus, when you smoke weed all day every day, tolerance dampens the euphoric fun of being high.
Out of the 8.9 million people living in my home state, only approximately 12,500 patients are enrolled in NJ's medical marijuana program. That's 0.14 percent—a tiny, frequently ignored fraction of the population. You have to be really sick, seriously injured, or close to dead to qualify. I would absolutely trade my MMJ card for the perfectly healthy body I once enjoyed.
As grateful as I am to have a medication that actually helps, I'm also frustrated by the limitations and discrimination associated with being an MMJ patient. Something as simple as going to my kid's hockey game (his team often plays others in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York) could result in a federal drug prosecution. Federal law prohibits patients from bringing their medicine to another state, which is oppressive when you live on a state border like I do. My medical status precludes me from participating in many of my children's activities due to logistics.
State laws can also restrict medical marijuana patients from driving at all—even when they aren't under the influence. Seven states have zero-tolerance, or DUID policies. This means driving with any amount of THC in the blood violates state law. But "THC levels in blood do not closely correlate with impairment,' says Thomas Marcotte, associate professor of psychiatry and co-director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis at the University of California San Diego. "Individuals who are frequent cannabis users—for example, medical marijuana users—may have detectable THC levels for many hours, and even days, after they last smoked…. In these individuals, zero tolerance would in effect dictate that MMJ users would not be able to legally drive."
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Don't be fooled into thinking that patients are completely safe in their home states, either. Even when patients follow the law perfectly, confusion about the intricacies of legislation—combined with a poorly educated police force (regarding current MMJ laws)—has resulted in numerous accidental arrests. In NJ, the Attorney General's office merely distributed a 44-page (difficult to understand) legal document informing departments about law changes. Yet videos compiled by NJ Cannabis Activist Group Sativa Cross document countless state employees demonstrating that they have not been educated about current medical marijuana laws. This is unfair to patients and unfair to our police force who are unknowingly violating the legal rights of suffering citizens.
I haven't been able to locate statistics on how many patients have been arrested in NJ, but I'd love to know. I'd also love to know how many of those arrested patients were white. Patients in racially marginalized groups are more at risk. No matter your appearance though, your fourth amendment right is fractured when you become a marijuana patient. The Constitution guarantees the right against unlawful search and seizure, but the State of NJ contradicts that by declaring the "smell of marijuana" is enough to warrant a legal search. The problem is, even if a patient is not actively using cannabis—even if they aren't carrying their meds, they can still smell like weed. Regular marijuana users sometimes produce a body odor that smells like cannabis (this is a real phenomenon).
MMJ patients don't have second amendment rights either. In July of 2016, the 9th Circuit United States Court of Appeals declared that medical marijuana patients are not entitled to own firearms. They suggest that we're "unlawful drug users." Look, I'm not trying to promote gun ownership, but—just sayin'—there are no restrictions for legal opiate users. The argument of "unlawful drug users" has also been used to refuse employment and terminate law-abiding medical marijuana patients around the country. Employers argue that a patient's need for weed violates the Drug Free Workplace Act of 1988.
Nonetheless, the most lethal discrimination patients face is the denial of adequate medical care. Hospital admissions are routinely rebuffed by patients because we cannot use medical marijuana in the hospital. I know several patients who've refused elective treatments because the hospital would use heavy narcotics to replace cannabis. Other patients have been excluded from pain management clinics or treatment centers for using prescribed medication and then testing positive for THC. In the most horrific instances, medical marijuana patients are refused life-saving organ transplants.
We sacrifice our rights, not because smoking pot is fun, but because this plant is a remarkable medication. Granted, getting high can be fun. But medical marijuana isn't about getting high, it's about getting through each day with a reprieve from devastating symptoms.
So listen, next time you hear someone is a marijuana patient, don't tell them they're lucky. Sure, you have to be really privileged to get this medication. But keep in mind, you also have to be really fucking sick and desperate enough to trade your basic rights just to access a plant. And after all that, marijuana isn't even that fun anymore. Still, with all the cons, this medication is remarkable. If you're suffering and live in a legal state, the trade-offs for this treatment might be worth pursuing.
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