Patients Who Need Medical Marijuana in Wyoming Have Tough Choice

WYOMING:  Five years ago, a 60-year-old Casper resident, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of prosecution, experienced spontaneous retinal detachment in both eyes. He had 25 corrective surgeries, and as a secondary result, developed glaucoma. Then he lost all vision in his right eye.

A specialist prescribed Diamox, a diuretic that is typically used for short-term treatment, to control his eye pressure and preserve the little sight remaining in his left eye. But the monthly prescription cost is expensive — about $1,000 without insurance and $100 with assistance. It’s also unpleasant.

More side effects

Aside from some nausea, the worst side effect is “extreme” ringing in the ears, he said. It makes it almost impossible to listen to anything.

“That in and of itself is enough to make my one pastime unenjoyable,” he said. “That’s why I decided to try the marijuana.”

When he mentioned the desire to use cannabis during casual conversation, a longtime friend mentioned connections to a supplier. The 60-year-old would never have considered it during employment — his former job had strict policies regarding drug use — but his disability made him jobless.

He did not want to support drug cartels or smoke pot with pesticides or other potentially unsafe chemicals, so it reassured him to know his friend bought the marijuana legally in another state. He accepted the offer that day.

“The relief is almost immediate,” he said.

The high lasts a few hours but the pain goes away for several days, and his remaining eyesight becomes clearer. There are no unpleasant side effects, he says. No downside — except the fact it’s illegal in Wyoming.

The Cowboy State still prosecutes marijuana offenses, despite the growing number of states that have decriminalized or legalized the drug.

No defense for possession

Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen said using cannabis for medical treatment is no defense for possession. Neither is a legal purchase in Colorado or Montana.

Yet, Blonigen said defendants who claim to use marijuana for medical treatment are few. The cases that have been legitimate, he said, are dealt with leniently.

In Wyoming, police made 2,254 arrests and spent about $9.15 million enforcing marijuana laws in 2010. Ninety-three percent of the arrests were for possession, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming.

Blonigen, though, said most arrests for marijuana possession are made during unrelated stops, and few extra resources are expended.

“They’re mainly just by happenstance,” he said. “They’re not because the police go out and work a possession of marijuana case.”

An ACLU report released in June shows marijuana-related arrests nationwide increased between 2001 and 2010. In that decade, law enforcement made more than 8 million marijuana arrests, 88 percent of which were for possession.

Linda Burt, executive director of the ACLU in Wyoming, said if the state won’t legalize it, leaders should at least consider decriminalization.

“We have drugs that are much more dangerous like Vicodin and Oxycodone and Percocet and morphine,” she said. “All of those drugs would be legal if you had a prescription for them, but marijuana is not.”

Jail time

Cannabis is still a Schedule I drug under federal law, which is reserved for drugs with a high tendency for abuse and no recognized medical use. A person caught using marijuana could face fines or jail time. First offenders may have charges dismissed after completing probation.

For a law-abiding Casper resident with impaired vision and glaucoma, it proved a tough decision: Take expensive legal medicine, with the side effects, or use marijuana and risk imprisonment.

“It’s a real frustrating thing — do you want to risk your freedom or do you want to lose your vision?” He said. “It’s not a choice you should have to make.”

He’s not the only one to make that choice. After a motorcycle accident in 1997 shattered his pelvis and crushed his left leg from the knee down, Charlie Lake underwent 13 surgeries that left him in chronic pain.

He started taking morphine and became addicted. Lake said it caused “mental anguish” and other health problems until he began using marijuana.

“I was able to manage my pain more effectively,” he said.

He began smoking a year after his accident and stopped in September 2012, when he was arrested for possession. Now he’s taking nothing for the pain — neither weed nor morphine.

“I would much rather suffer than go through the side effects and misery of an opiate addiction,” he said.

Ongoing debate

Health care practitioners, legislators and the public have debated the medicinal use of marijuana for years. The plant has been touted as an alternative to pharmaceutical drugs and treatments, which may be ineffective or have unwanted side effects, but the jury is still out on whether it does more good or harm.

In 2010, researchers at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, Canada, released a study that showed cannabis may relieve chronic neuropathic pain. Patients who smoked low, 25-milligram doses of pot with at least 10 percent THC – the drug’s active ingredient — reported reduced pain, improved moods and better sleep.

The following year, the American Medical Association revised its policies on medical marijuana and requested its removal from the list of Schedule I drugs. Their report concluded that cannabis relieves pain, improves appetite and relieves muscle stiffness in patients with multiple sclerosis, but it also says state regulations may not adequately regulate the psychoactive drug.

Both studies suggested further research needed to be done to understand the potential uses of marijuana or its derivatives in medicine.

The Casper resident living with glaucoma said he already understands marijuana’s medical benefit.

When both his retinas detached and inner eye pressure developed, his ophthalmologist refused to prescribe Diamox because the doctor thought it was unhealthy.

“The pressure continued to the point where the optic nerve died,” the Casper resident said. “So I have no vision in that right eye at all.”

But the Casper resident said he only needs a little marijuana to feel relief. He limits his marijuana use because of the risk in obtaining it and the cost, although it’s still cheaper than his legal prescription. It costs him $40 to $80 for bud that will last him months.

“I don’t care what anybody thinks — what a politician thinks, or what the (Drug Enforcement Administration) thinks — or anything else about its efficacy as a medical product,” he said. “I know what it does.”

5 failures

Keith Goodenough, a former state senator and representative, was the last legislator to propose legalizing marijuana for medical use in the early 2000s. He failed five times. Goodenough is a Casper City Council member.

His proposal made it out of committee in the Senate, but the majority floor leader never let the full assembly vote. A different approach, which would have removed marijuana from the Schedule I drug list in Wyoming, gained approval by the House but failed in the Senate.

Although he calls it “irrational” to arrest and jail people for minor marijuana offenses, Goodenough never proposed decriminalizing marijuana. He said his proposals were sometimes misconstrued.

“Any time you deal with the subject, you get nailed with all the rumor-able offenses,” he said.

The newest legislative effort to legalize marijuana comes from the Wyoming chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). The group, which formed in April, is attempting to place an initiative on the 2016 statewide ballot to legalize hemp and cannabis.

Petition draft

Executive Director Chris Christian said she is in the process of drafting a petition, with the help of lawyers, to submit to the state. They want to avoid the legal confusion Colorado faced by writing a clear and consistent law.

“We’re going to try to do a better job,” Christian said. “We have some precedent to go by now.”

The group must collect signatures from 15 percent of the registered voters who voted in the last statewide election.

That would have required 37,606 signatures for the 2014 election.

Although online signatures can’t be submitted in the legislative process, the group’s petition for the same cause had garnered 1,184 signatures by Tuesday. Christian, a Jackson native, said it helps show state representatives the level of support for marijuana legalization.

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