Worth the risk?: Medical marijuana users in Nebraska ignore the law

Samples of the homemade capsules made by diabetic Bev Smith. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Bev Smith sits in her living room in front of the family's picture wall. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
A joint and pipe used by Vickie. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Empty containers from a Colorado medical marijuana dipsensary. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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July 18, 2013 - 6:30am

As medical marijuana finds greater acceptance in Colorado, individuals who use cannabis in Nebraska claim to have benefited from its increased availability and potency.  Users also risk arrest and the potential ill-effects from a product largely unregulated and of inconsistent quality.

As one expert put it, anyone taking the risk of treating themselves with marijuana “absolutely faces a ‘buyer beware’ marketplace” for a drug that remains illegal in Nebraska.

Nonetheless, all indications are a growing number of people accept the idea of using cannabis as a medical treatment. Ally Dering-Anderson, a professor of pharmacy at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, says one reason may be that within the medical profession “we don’t do a fabulous job of treating pain.  There are incredibly big problems with some of our standard pain drugs. I think that has led some people to attempt to treat pain with this group of chemicals.” 

She means the chemicals naturally occurring in marijuana.

How many? Hard numbers counting the number of identified medical marijuana users are almost impossible to come by.  Doctors and poll takers find people reluctant to admit using an illegal drug.

Dering-Anderson has her own educated guess on those numbers.  She believes more than 10 percent of Nebraskans, and perhaps as high as 20 percent “have used or attempted to use marijuana for personal medical reasons.”  She added that would be “in addition to recreational use.”

Her lower estimate is in line with data collected in states that legalized medical use.  That study put the number at seven out of 100 people who were open about their medical use. 

Friends of Vicki provided her with medical marijuana purchased at Colorado dispensaries.  (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Two years ago a different study by the pro-pot organization, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), estimated one million legal medical marijuana users in the United States.

One of them is Vickie, a 46-year-old Nebraska native diagnosed with multiple sclerosis just over a year ago.  (She asked we not use her last name to protect her privacy). While she is still vigorous enough to attend concerts and go dancing at clubs with her husband, the disease is taking its toll.  There are times she must plant her feet and only move with the music from the waist up.  Even that can be exhausting.

As the MS advances it causes the muscles on her left side to become weak and numb to the point she has difficulty standing.

“I used to have leg spasms all the time and it was hard to sleep because they were constantly moving,” Vickie said.  “Ever since I started smoking marijuana more, I don’t have the leg spasms anymore.”

When providing that explanation Vickie paused a moment before saying smoking “more.”  She and many of her friends were social smokers before MS set in.  She admits it can be a little difficult to mark the line between medicinal and recreational smoking.  Nonetheless, those pot-smoking friends provided a steady, if not always consistent, supply.  She does not have regular access to symptom-specific strains of cannabis now available to legal patients in Colorado.  

“I just have to smoke what I can get,” she said, adding with a laugh, “I can get some pretty good stuff but it may not be directed at what I need at that moment.” 

Vicki and other medical users are breaking the law in Nebraska.  That is the case in most other states. 

WHAT IS NEBRASKA’S POT LAW?

State Statute 28-416. Prohibited acts; violations; penalties.

SECTION 13 Any person knowingly or intentionally possessing marijuana weighing one ounce or less or any substance containing a quantifiable amount of the substances, chemicals, or compounds described …shall:

(a) For the first offense, be guilty of an infraction, receive a citation, be fined three hundred dollars, and be assigned to attend a course …if the judge determines that attending such course is in the best interest of the individual defendant;

(b) For the second offense, be guilty of a Class IV misdemeanor, receive a citation, and be fined four hundred dollars and may be imprisoned not to exceed five days; and

(c) For the third and all subsequent offenses, be guilty of a Class IIIA misdemeanor, receive a citation, be fined five hundred dollars, and be imprisoned not to exceed seven days.

The federal government considers marijuana an illegal drug.  The Office of National Drug Control Policy, an advisory group to the White House, points out on its website marijuana remains a “Schedule 1” controlled substance, meaning, in the government’s view, it has a high potential for abuse and “has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” While other drugs are approved and periodically inspected by the Food and Drug Administration, marijuana, in whatever form, lacks “accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision.”

Bev Smith is another medical marijuana user who knows she’s breaking the law.  She says her health is more important to her than the crime. 

Smith, is a grandmother in her 60s living in Cambridge, Neb. where she owns a popular costume rental business for schools and events.  She talks openly to her friends about using marijuana to treat symptoms of her diabetes. 

For much of her life in Nebraska, her position on recreational drugs was non-negotiable. 

“I was not a drug person,” Smith said.  “I said I’m not going to do that. I don’t want to get in trouble.”

Then came the salve.

Bev Smith in her costume shop during the filming of an NET documentary about the impact of marijuana on Nebraska.  (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

As Smith’s diabetes advanced, the nerve damage from neuropathy in her feet caused constant pain.  One of her children, a former recreational pot smoker, suggested she try a salve he had seen for sale in Colorado.  The ointment, dark brown and waxy, contained a marijuana extract blended with tea tree oil and other herbs.  She said when the pain in her feet all but vanished she began to seriously consider treating her other diabetes symptoms with cannabis.   

“I said this is silly. If I can get something that is going help me and make me feel better I am going to do it,” Smith said. “It’s not going to hurt me and it’s not going to hurt anyone else.” 

When asked how a senior citizen in rural Nebraska found a supplier of medical marijuana, Smith smiled and said, “I know people who know people.”  Her source, as you might expect, is private.  She does acknowledge her supply originates in Colorado.

Smith believes the cannabis had close to instantaneous results on changing the way her body dealt with her high blood sugar.

“I was up to 65 units of insulin every night, plus (I was taking) a whole bunch of pills,” Smith recalled.  “Now I am down to 15 units of insulin and I’ve eliminated one of the blood pressure pills and half the diabetes pills.” 

Her doctor noticed the dramatic change and, according to Smith, did not dissuade her from using marijuana, since the results seem fairly conclusive.  Smith had not changed her diet, exercise regime, or anything else significant in her life.  The only difference was the pot. 

“I was very shocked,” Smith said.

Smith believes having some of the world’s leading developers of medical marijuana strains right across the Colorado border worked to the benefit of her treatment.  Her source supplied her with a strain of marijuana low in THC, the main active ingredient that produces the high sought by recreational users. 

There is no smoking in the Smith household.  In place of a rolled joint or clay pipe, Smith fills small gelatin capsules with the dried plant and takes one before bed time.

Getting high, a feeling she compares to an unpleasant sensation after a surgery under anesthesia, is something she prefers to avoid. 

Plant breeders in Colorado and California have made concentrated efforts to produce some strains that minimize the pot buzz some consumers avoid.  The plant strain Smith likes is called Strawberry Kush.

A pot reviewer on the website Medical Marijuana Strains posted a review which described Strawberry Kush as providing  “a very deeply relaxing feel but still able to function.”   

More importantly for Smith this strain promises to deliver a high amount of Cannabidiol or CBD.  Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) defined CBD as “a major, non-psychoactive component of cannabis that helps shrink inflammation and reduce pain without inducing the euphoria effects of THC.”

The UCSF researchers report marijuana rich in the component has been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases, psychotic disorders and epilepsy.

MORE NET NEWS COVERAGE


This story is part of an ongoing NET News reporting project.  Check out these stories about the impact of Colorado marijuana on Nebraska.

 

COVERAGE FROM NPR

Research released last month by the Harvard School of Public Health seems to support Smith’s contention pot helped her symptoms.  In a paper published in the American Journal of Medicine the researchers “found that marijuana use was associated with lower levels of fasting insulin and HOMA-IR, and smaller waist circumference.”  In other words, the marijuana users they studied were skinnier than the rest of the population. 

It would seem logical with Colorado next door, established as a leader in marijuana cultivation, supply would not be an issue.  Bev Smith is already seeing a trend that concerns her.  It may be more difficult to obtain the cannabis strains helping her the most.  The reason, she fears, is the arrival of legal recreational use.

“Now all the growers have switched to growing it for the pleasure seekers and that means more THC, which is what I personally don’t need,” Smith said.

That higher THC would be good news for other medical users who claim it helps minimize chronic pain and may reduce nausea for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. 

Nonetheless, Smith has made a complete reversal in her position on the topic.  She is now an officer with the Nebraska chapter of NORML and regularly circulates petition to get the legalization of medical mariuana on the ballot as a referendum in 2014.  Her son John is president of the state chapter.

Bev Smith, Vicki and other users have additional significant concerns they need to consider, according to pharmacy professor Ally Dering-Anderson.

“First off a buyer can get busted. It’s not legal.” She quickly added this is an unregulated market place currently.  “We are absolutely in a buyer beware situation.”    

The marijuana being sold has not necessarily been tested for purity or to identify its strength the way prescription medications would be. 

“But more than that you need to know what product you’re buying and from who and how they grew it,” Dering-Anderson said.

While not endorsing the use of medical marijuana, Dering-Anderson urges users talk to their regular physician so he or she can advise the patient on drug interactions and how it might adversely affect a person’s metabolism.

“Make sure you have exhausted more traditional, more legal means to treat whatever this problem is,” Dering-Anderson said.

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