Top Three Myths of the Medical Marijuana Patient


Bangor Daily News

By Bryan Punyon
Special to Toke of the Town

It’s turned into a joke, you know.  
I listen to standup comedians all the time, cracking jokes about how easy it is to get a cannabis medical authorization, how “anyone” can just waltz into a clinic and pay for a Green Card.
Sure, they usually go on to talk about how harmless pot is, and it makes for effective humor because it’s widely accepted at this point that cannabis isn’t as bad as some people and organizations have made it out to be.  Even in rural towns in Tennessee that I’ve visited, when people hear about me being an MMJ patient, their reactions are more of curiosity and interest than treating me like a drug addict.
For the most part, one of the biggest victories for the legalization movement has been the public shift in mindset from cannabis being a horribly addictive substance used by pushers to hook kids into a life of crime and debauchery (thank you, Reefer Madness: The Musical), into a more constructive mindset where the majority of the public have realized that it has medicinal benefits and isn’t as bad as other drugs in recreational use.
One of the major causes for this shift has been the rise of more publicly available MMJ resources. As public awareness of dispensaries and authorization clinics has risen, so has public knowledge about qualifying conditions and acceptance of the medicinal use of cannabis.
This reduction of social stigma for all cannabis users, recreational and medicinal alike, has been a major boon for the cause, as some who were previously cautious now have an avenue to show support for the cause without automatically being labeled “counterculture” or “hippie,” and others, seeing the effects of medical marijuana on those they know and care about, begin to change their minds about the plant. If political progress on a cause means causing a cultural and perception shift in the minds of the public, then congratulations: the Pro-Cannabis team has largely won that battle.

But the shift in public perception and the rise of a more publicized MMJ industry have brought some assumptions and stereotypes about Med Patients themselves, many of which are unfortunately reinforced and spread by members of our own cause. I would like to address the three biggest Myths of the Med Patient that I see most prevalent in the cannabis community and public perception.

The first Myth of the Medical Marijuana Patient is the perception that all legitimate medical patients are chronically ill, routinely hooked up to machines and pumped full of drugs, taking a hit off a joint that helps relieve and manage their excruciating pain as they lay infirm in bed.
There are a lot of snide remarks made on the sly about people who have an MMJ authorization but lack one of the Big Diseases; if you’re not a Cancer, AIDS, Crohn’s, or have some other media-publicized disease, then you’re immediately suspected of not getting any “real” benefit from it. The truth is that many of the conditions that cannabis treats and relieves are what are known as “invisible illnesses”, conditions like Lupus, PTSD, or back and body pain, and many others are “undiagnosed”; medical professionals cannot find a definite reason for a patient’s pain, nausea, or other symptoms, even though the patient is undeniably in suffering.
Medical marijuana patients use cannabis for lesser known or less severe symptoms that are still no less painful; the Pain Scale is a subjective thing, and even low levels of pain can be distracting and affect your quality of life.
Not all Med Patients look sick, and not all recreational users are necessarily healthy.
Here is the exact wording of the legal statement that’s quoted on my Medical Authorization:
Purpose and intent.
(1) The legislature finds that:
     (a) There is medical evidence that some patients with terminal or debilitating medical conditions may, under their health care professional’s care, benefit from the medical use of cannabis. Some of the conditions for which cannabis appears to be beneficial include, but are not limited to:
     (i) Nausea, vomiting, and cachexia associated with cancer, HIV-positive status, AIDS, hepatitis C, anorexia, and their treatments;
     (ii) Severe muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and other seizure and spasticity disorders;
     (iii) Acute or chronic glaucoma;
     (iv) Crohn’s disease; and
     (v) Some forms of intractable pain.
     (b) Humanitarian compassion necessitates that the decision to use cannabis by patients with terminal or debilitating medical conditions is a personal, individual decision, based upon their health care professional’s professional medical judgment and discretion.
     (2) Therefore, the legislature intends that:
     (a) Qualifying patients with terminal or debilitating medical conditions who, in the judgment of their health care professionals, may benefit from the medical use of cannabis, shall not be arrested, prosecuted, or subject to other criminal sanctions or civil consequences under state law based solely on their medical use of cannabis, notwithstanding any other provision of law;
     (b) Persons who act as designated providers to such patients shall also not be arrested, prosecuted, or subject to other criminal sanctions or civil consequences under state law, notwithstanding any other provision of law, based solely on their assisting with the medical use of cannabis; and
     (c) Health care professionals shall also not be arrested, prosecuted, or subject to other criminal sanctions or civil consequences under state law for the proper authorization of medical use of cannabis by qualifying patients for whom, in the health care professional’s professional judgment, the medical use of cannabis may prove beneficial.
     (3) Nothing in this chapter establishes the medical necessity or medical appropriateness of cannabis for treating terminal or debilitating medical conditions as defined in RCW 69.51A.010.
     (4) Nothing in this chapter diminishes the authority of correctional agencies and departments, including local governments or jails, to establish a procedure for determining when the use of cannabis would impact community safety or the effective supervision of those on active supervision for a criminal conviction, nor does it create the right to any accommodation of any medical use of cannabis in any correctional facility or jail.
[2011 c 181 § 102; 2010 c 284 § 1; 2007 c 371 § 2; 1999 c 2 § 2 (Initiative Measure No. 692, approved November 3, 1998).]
     Intent — 2007 c 371: “The legislature intends to clarify the law on medical marijuana so that the lawful use of this substance is not impaired and medical practitioners are able to exercise their best professional judgment in the delivery of medical treatment, qualifying patients may fully participate in the medical use of marijuana, and designated providers may assist patients in the manner provided by this act without fear of state criminal prosecution. This act is also intended to provide clarification to law enforcement and to all participants in the judicial system.” [2007 c 371 § 1.]
The Language of the legislation needs to be broad, because from a medical perspective, cannabis is an effective treatment to a broad range of symptoms that apply to many different conditions. There’s plenty of historical precedent to back that up, too. I’m not going to get into the full history of cannabis here (there are plenty of other resources for that), but the earliest known recorded use of medicinal cannabis was in Chinese medical documents written more than 2,000 years ago. This isn’t n
ew knowledge to the world, but it’s now being revitalized and rediscovered through the efforts of the Legalization movement and push for more medical studies, which is a huge step toward legitimizing it for recreational use as well.
The second Myth of the Medical Marijuana Patient is that they and they only should be allowed access to Cannabis for necessary medical use, and that all forms of recreational usage should still be looked down on as “getting high” and a form of addictive behavior.

High Desert Wellness

Even if it’s legal as an essential medicine, we have to constantly be suspicious that someone might be abusing the pot laws just to get stoned, because even if sick people need it, certainly there’s no reason for a healthy person to smoke pot! I look at it like this: Cannabis has psychoactive properties that cause a head-change and relaxation.
Even if the medical properties of cannabis don’t directly affect your ailments and illnesses, isn’t relaxation a medical necessity when you’re sick or stressed? If your sober headspace is filled with illness or negativity of any kind, what’s wrong with wanting to change that using a natural substance?
People already do it with alcohol in a publically-approved way, and that causes far more social and legal issues than cannabis ever has (other than to the people arrested and prosecuted for pot, of course). The therapeutic benefits that many people get from cannabis are one of the reasons that I fully believe in full legalization and regulation.
In my dream world of legalization, you should be able to walk into Bartell’s or Safeway, find the “Cannabis Aisle,” and pick out a strain and quality that’s professionally packaged in a child-safe container, with “WARNING: KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN. Some people may have the following side effects to this product: blah blah blah” printed on it.
It should be as available to grow in your garden as any fruit or vegetable, with kids being taught that if they mess around with the pot plant, they’re going to feel funny, get sleepy and hungry, and be grounded for a week.
In my vision of the final outcome of our efforts in the movement, Cannabis should be THAT legal.
From my own use and research on the subject, I’ve found that it’s that safe when treated responsibly. You can already purchase aspirin and NyQuil without a prescription, and if you take too much of those, you’ll end up in the ER; cannabis is far safer than both. 
With fully regulated, safe access, and the right to grow your own at home if you choose, to use or not to use is a personal choice that every person gets to make. Just like with alcohol, it should be regulated so that kids can’t get to it, but at the same time, if you choose to grow your own, it’s on you to be responsible when it comes to your offspring.
Sure, some people are going to be dumbasses while stoned, just like some people are dumbasses when drunk. But at least the stoners aren’t going to smoke themselves to death in an idiotic hazing prank.

The third Myth of the Medical Marijuana Patient is that MMJ patients are all somehow complicit in the business model of the MMJ industry.
Look, for years I had to self-medicate on the sly, because even though I was in pain, I had no access and no way to get access to a Medical Authorization, and the dissemination of the knowledge of how to find a cannabis-friendly doctor was so “insider” and limited, I had no idea that I even qualified.
Once the authorization clinics and dispensaries started opening, more information started getting out, and I was able to finally get safe and legal access. So, is it my fault, as an MMJ patient, for seeking out treatment and relief when it’s finally openly available to me? Am I at fault because they’ve chosen to operate in a business model that the state, for the most part, seems to be okay with?
Of course dispensary and clinic owners are worried about their business interests, but that’s the only business model they’ve found that works in the current political climate of the MMJ world.  They have every right to be worried about their bottom line, but instead of trying to talk to them and help find ways for both medical cannabis and recreational efforts to function together and be jointly profitable (because isn’t that the idea? That everyone gets what they want in the end?), I see attacks against the industry, accusations of greed and “exploiting” patients.
That may be true in some cases, but the majority of the people I know who run dispensaries and work in the industry generally seem more concerned about my health and well-being than just taking my money. I’m on a first-name basis with most of my budtenders, and they’ve gotten to know my preferences. It’s much like having a personal relationship with a pharmacist you see often, or a doctor, except with the current model, the budtender is actively involved in helping me choose the strains that will do what I’m looking for.

THC Finder

I’m fully aware that I don’t go to every dispensary in town, and that some of them are shady, but I’ve heard about efforts wi
thin the industry to cover their own regulations and deal with issues of taxes and legitimacy. They aren’t trying to “just make a quick buck,” they care about keeping access points real and legitimate so that medical patients can follow the laws and get their buds.
There’s no reason why both Recreational and Medical models can’t work cooperatively to provide service to everyone who needs it.
For the record, there are also some parts of the MMJ industry that I personally don’t like; in my opinion, if a dispensary can economically afford it, they should eat the cost of the sales tax in order to provide financial relief to low-income patients. There have been a few times that I’ve overheard someone talking loudly and casually about things in the middle of the waiting room that I felt was inappropriate and should have been kept private, without any word about it from the dispensary employees.
I also think that the authorization industry should be treated more like legitimate medical businesses than the casual atmospheres I’ve seen at some offices. As evidenced by sly comedic jokes, the public perception of medical patients and the industry centers around the idea that it’s easy to play the system, and our failure to address and dispel these perceptions have led to some of our current difficulties with having medical concerns respected or seen as legitimate in some recent legalization efforts.
Even with the changes in public opinion of cannabis, these jokes speak to a mainstream idea about the ease of getting a Green Card, and this actually does damage to our cause; but it’s not the legitimate Med Patients’ fault. That issue is related to trying to keep state laws within the guidelines of federal regulations, and the business models that have resulted from that are the only viable way that people have found to practically and usefully act in accordance with the Law.

THC Finder

Medical Necessity is something that gets put into predominance in just about every aspect of American life; we have the Americans With Disabilities Act, which guarantees accommodations and fair treatment for people living with disabilities; Schools have disability accommodations for students that qualify; and in our state and federal laws and judicial rulings, it’s been found and upheld as illegal to arbitrarily discriminate against someone based on a medical condition.
Obviously, there are limits to “reasonable accommodation.” There are some circumstances that it’s not appropriate for someone with a disability to perform certain job duties — I certainly don’t want my commercial airline pilot having a seizure and blacking out at 10,000 feet!
But for the most part, medical necessity is something that gets heavily favored and accounted for.  When you make a sweeping accusation against the MMJ Industry and lump Med Patients in with that, you’re basically saying, “You’re wrong for using the method that have been found to work.”
I have a feeling that’s not actually what you’re meaning to say, but that’s how it comes across.  When you look at the realities of Drug War politics, these are the best methods that MMJ patients and providers have found to make safe and affordable access possible.
If there’s some corrupt individual or group that’s profiting off of Med Patients and are engaging in unlawful behavior by providing an unsafe product, then by all means they should be rooted out and dealt with. If someone is obviously using their Green Card to supply a drug dealing operation, that’s an abuse of their medical status and should be prosecuted.
But don’t throw the bowl out with the bong water; there have been some clear and positive successes for the movement as a whole because of the victories in the MMJ industry.
The biggest danger of the Myth of the Med Patient is that it hints at the delegitimization of the needs of MMJ Patients.  With the greater establishment of the reality of medical Cannabis use in the minds of the public, the argument that recreational consumption is also low-risk and acceptable becomes more reasonable; if the perception of a Medical Authorization as a legal loophole persists, it impedes that route of progress and endangers the sickest members of our community, whom we’ve worked so hard to protect.
Even if they only make up 10 percent of the total cannabis users in Washington State, they are the minority of people that have greatly advanced the cause of legalization by demonstrating that cannabis is medicinally helpful, in complete opposition to the disinformation campaign that was perpetrated in the 1930s and led to widespread hysteria and draconian prohibition.
Of all the things that have led to the acceptance of marijuana, the medical angle has been one of the most successful. When concerns about the MMJ Industry in discussions and debates about the “correct” route to recreational legalization arise, those who spread and reinforce the negative stereotypes about MMJ Patients and lump them in with the industry that provides them with their medicine do damage to our efforts as a whole.
It suggests that all of our work to help medical marijuana patients might have been simply a political tactic to gain legitimacy in the first place, and if the public believe that cannabis activists may have been deceptive about the medical benefits of the plant, it makes them less likely to support the idea of responsible recreational use.
Perpetuating the Myths of the Medical Marijuana Patient only serves to strengthen the Myths of the Recreational Cannabis User.

Bryan Punyon/Facebook
Bryan Punyon, a cannabis activist who works with Seattle Hempfest, wrote this piece for Toke of the Town. Seattle Hempfest itself is neutral on I-502.

Editor’s note: Bryan Punyon has worked for Seattle Hempfest for 11 years and thinks too much. Sometimes he writes his thoughts down in his blog, Rant Rant Revolution. Sometimes he posts interesting things on Twitter too.