Alibi V.24 No.4 • Jan 22-28, 2015 

Feature

Erasing Stigma

An interview with an unlikely medical cannabis patient

As I sip on my cranberry juice and wait for Joel White to meet me, I am unsure of what to expect. Many folks who are card-carrying medicinal cannabis patients are reluctant to share their story. They fear their jobs could be at risk or that their peers will judge them and make a painful mark on an already difficult circumstance. There are still plenty of people who believe cannabis is strictly an illicit drug that stoners and deadbeats smoke on their parents’ couch. And while the cultural attitude toward marijuana is steadily shifting, there are still plenty of people who aren’t on board with cannabis as medicine.

When White arrives, he’s dressed professionally, wearing a burgundy turtleneck beneath his suit jacket. He’s slender and jovial in his demeanor. A far cry from the Deadhead wearing John Lennon glasses and flip-flops one might expect from a marijuana legalization advocate. As we begin our interview, it’s obvious that cannabis is no joke to him.

“I had never tried any drug, hadn’t even had a glass of wine until I was 40,” White confesses. As a boy White had enthusiastically participated in anti-drug campaigns and later as an adult and registered Republican, attended D.A.R.E. assemblies with his children. Once after finding marijuana in his teen son’s possession, he took his pipe and smashed it against a rock in their backyard, condemning him for using drugs.

But after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 25, White was prescribed a regimen of medications to manage attacks and reduce inflammation and pain. MS is a lifelong disease in which nerve cells in the brain and spinal chord are damaged, impairing a variety of nervous system functions.

“Sleeping is always the hardest part. It isn’t really pain I feel in my right side so much as an annoying tingling and deep body ache, almost like when you have the flu and your muscles are sore,” he explains. To combat this, he was prescribed Temazepam, a drug that is used to treat anxiety and lengthen sleep time, which he took for several years despite its troublesome side effects. “I would wake up so groggy. Just really out of it. It made functioning professionally very difficult for me because I was struggling to put words together and think straight the morning after taking it.”

When White arrives, he’s dressed professionally, wearing a burgundy turtleneck beneath his suit jacket. He’s slender and jovial in his demeanor. A far cry from the Deadhead wearing John Lennon glasses and flip-flops one might expect from a marijuana legalization advocate.

I nod sympathetically when he tells me this. I had been prescribed a similar drug, Lorazepam, and while it made sleep effortless, I would often spend the next morning piecing together how to function. “Because sleeping was so difficult without it, I had to kind of choose between discomfort or clear headedness,” White says. As a business professional whose career has spanned several decades in finance and real estate, White really couldn’t afford to feel so out of sorts every morning.

When a friend suggested White try smoking cannabis to treat his symptoms, he was doubtful. “It was given to me in a jar, and I hid it in my closet behind a bunch of clothes. It stayed there for over a year. I didn’t touch it and was afraid to.”

But after an especially difficult attack that left him feeling depressed about his overall quality of life, White decided to try the now-year-old cannabis. “I hid on my balcony and just sort of guessed how to smoke it. I was so paranoid! My neighbors were outside doing something, and I was so afraid they would see me.” But what began as a nerve-racking, possibly even shameful experience, quickly dissolved into a pleasant and overwhelmingly life-changing decision.

“Suddenly I realized my legs weren’t hurting. I could walk around easily, and I was totally able to articulate and think clearly.” For White, the ability to reduce discomfort and remain lucid was shocking. White began researching how to acquire a medicinal cannabis license so he could legally help treat the symptoms of the disease that had at times left him unable to do everyday physical activities.

When White acquired state licensure in 2010, he admits he felt totally clueless as to how dosing would work. “No one gives you a guide on dosages, so you just kind of guess. The people at the dispensaries were very helpful though. They gave me good guidelines to follow.” Still, one can imagine the perplexity and surreality of going through four decades of not tasting so much as a drop of alcohol and then suddenly using cannabis daily.

White is not the only one whose opinions have changed over the years. As we move beyond the 20th Century’s “War on Drugs” mentality, we find ourselves applying new logic toward reasonable usage and practical regulations on what was once considered a gateway drug to heroin. And just like any monumental shift in policy, the patients using cannabis are faced with complicated legislation that leaves them legitimized in the state’s eyes but criminal in the federal government’s.

As cannabis becomes increasingly relevant, folks like White are doing what they can to eliminate the stigmas. “I’m the vice president of New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patient's Alliance, and right now we are just trying to present the patients as a viable community within the state of New Mexico. We do outreach. We teach classes at the North Domingo Baca Multigenerational Center for new patients. We’re not freaks, and we’re not doing anything weird. ... We are productive citizens; we are tax payers; and there are a lot of professionals like me that are part of the alliance, but not willing to be as open at this time.”

Contradictory federal and state laws, decades-long stigmas and hesitant physicians all create a difficult landscape for medicinal cannabis patients. Still White is hopeful for change and commited to moving forward in the legalization process. “We’re trying to get past that initial stigma. There’s a lot of work to do, but I know someone has to do it. So I’m doing it.”