I got the job as an assistant at a medical marijuana doctors' office right after graduating college. Before the job I had never given the question of if marijuana is really medicine much thought. I didn't really care. I thought it would get my foot in the door to working on drug policy.
I saw medical marijuana as a place holder for legalization, and I firmly believed in legalization for reasons like our prison population, racial inequities in drug law enforcement, the violent black market, and the effects of US-led crop eradication in Latin America, to name a few.
It's been about a year since I left that job. I was ambiguous about the controversy of if marijuana is really "medicine" before that job. Now I feel ambiguous about what medicine really is in the first place.
I did patient intakes, where I asked intrusive questions to strangers about their medical histories, their medical records, and why they wanted to use medical marijuana. I documented their answers for the doctor. I did this about 20 times a day for a year and a half. Here's how I would break down medical marijuana users in California:
Group A: The largest group, mainly consisting of 18-35 year olds. These patients use it therapeutically and usually have been diagnosed with a condition like anxiety, depression, or insomnia by their primary care physician. Many have previously tried or are currently taking some kind of SSRI, Xanax, and/or sleeping meds.To be sure, this is by no means a scientific breakdown. But it is what I saw. There's also a fourth group, the smallest group, that really had an effect on me.
Group B: Second largest group, mainly consisting of baby boomers, veterans, and young people with serious illness. Group B uses marijuana like we conventionally think of medicine. They are chronically ill or seriously ill, and use it for chronic pain, nausea, PTSD and other conditions that are severely debilitating. They are almost always currently on other meds like opiates, anti-inflammatory meds, chemo, etc.
Group C: Third largest group. Usually in their late teens or early 20s. Usually heavy users with no documented medical condition, and basically use marijuana for the sake of using marijuana. The group that usually comes to mind for most people when they think "medical marijuana," but they actually represent the minority of patients we saw.
Group D: Underage patients. This group needed to be accompanied by a parent and needed to come back every couple months, so they were the patients I came to know the best. Underage patients fell into two categories: young kids who suffered from seizures and severely depressed teens.Our office had a relationship with the San Francisco Children's Hospital, and doctors there would refer children to us who were unsuccessful with conventional seizure treatments. The kids were as young as 3 years old. It was a last resort for the parents when conventional seizure medicines had failed them. The parents were so surprised that a drop of marijuana oil under the tongue in the morning was more effective than anything they had tried before.
I mostly hated my job, but these families made me really proud of the work I did.
Then there were the teens. A couple young girls had anorexia, and they said marijuana improved their relationship towards food. Several teens I met were LGBT, and well, really struggling. Several had histories of suicide attempts and self-harm. They reminded me of friends I had in high school. Except now I was sitting across from their mom and/or dad, asking them about why they were here getting a medical marijuana card. It was surreal, not at all like any parent/teen relationship involving marijuana I saw in high school.
I didn't grow up in a state with a medical marijuana law, and I never thought of my friends with mental health issues as medicating with marijuana. Maybe they were, maybe they weren't. But the way it effected their relationships with their parents never helped. It was always a source of secrecy, misunderstanding, bad communication, and hard feelings. Not like that stopped anyone I knew from using it. It just made hiding it from mom and dad the top priority.
That's why I always felt like something kind of magical was happening when these struggling teens and their moms and dads left my desk and went back to meet the doctor. Parents getting the chance to question a doctor openly without feeling stigmatized. Depressed teens getting the chance to explore why marijuana makes overcoming their demons a little more manageable. And a doctor getting the chance to explain the potential risks of teen marijuana use to a teen whose respect they've earned, and is therefore really listening.
Those visits could last over 45 minutes. I remember wondering what these parents thought about studies covered in popular media saying teen marijuana use makes your IQ drop 8 points and can lead to schizophrenia and will forever alter your brain development. I imagine that if you asked these parents, they would say sometimes medicine is a cost benefit analysis.