Stronger Medicine: Patients seek Alternatives to Traditional Pharmaceuticals

Connecticut is getting a new kind of medicine, and some towns are having a harder time swallowing it.

As the state’s Department of Consumer Protection prepares for the January rollout of up to five approved medical marijuana dispensaries and three growing facilities, it has already seen municipal backlash. West Hartford issued a 9-month moratorium on local dispensary and production operations in October, and while other towns have not pushed back to that extreme, there is concern among residents.

In Newington, where there is a proposal to change an ordinance barring the set up of medical marijuana dispensaries and manufacturing facilities within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, residential areas, and places of worship-applicants are arguing that the rule makes it impossible for a business to open even in the industrial designated parts of town-one apprehensive resident, speaking before the planning and zoning board, compared such operations to pawn shops and adult entertainment stores.

While medical cannabis carries a stigma, it’s not about cheap thrills for Andres Reyes, a Marine combat veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder-it’s a matter of whether or not he can find the peace of mind to go to sleep at night.

“I’m prescribed trazodone, which I don’t take to sleep,” Reyes said during a phone interview. “I’m not afraid to say I take cannabis to sleep.”

For Don Montano, a New Haven resident, the problem was less about going to sleep than the nightmares he had when he finally did.

“It [marijuana] puts me to sleep in a way that I don’t dream,” Montano said. “You wake up from a nightmare and your whole day is shot.”

While cannabis helps with PTSD-induced flashbacks-symptoms he sustained from childhood abuse-for Montano it is an all-encompassing remedy. He also suffers from chronic back pain, which is alleviated when he smokes.

“I smoke in the morning, and my back doesn’t hurt the whole day,” he said.

Reyes got out of the military in 2012. At the time, he never would have even thought of using cannabis to treat the anxiety that plagued his restless nights.

“I started going downhill with alcoholism,” he said. “I took the pills the VA gave me, and people said I became a totally different person.”

Off the medicine, he was jumpy. On it, he became a zombie.

“I was taking half of a tiny little pill,” Reyes said. “You would feel spaced out. It’s like I’m not there.”

He has seen it do far worse to others. This past Veteran’s Day, he and a group of friends from the Marines traveled to New Jersey to talk a fellow Marine out of committing suicide-not the first time a wife or significant other of somebody he served with has asked him to do so.  Like Reyes, he was also prescribed trazodone.

“Since I got out of the service, I’ve seen more veterans commit suicide from the pills,” Reyes said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen people overdose or commit suicide on cannabis.”

Antidepressants like trazodone-which is designed to treat symptoms such as depression and panic attacks-are also known to cause suicidal thoughts. Then again, so is PTSD.

While the condition itself certainly makes it difficult, many of those Reyes has had to talk out of suicide seemed to worsen after being prescribed medicine by the VA, he said.

“They were fine-as soon as they go the VA, they become totally different people,” Reyes said.

Whether or not trazodone was the X factor in the cases he’s describing might be debatable, but one thing Reyes is sure of is the impact cannabis had in his own battle with PTSD’s ailments.  When he started smoking it, he did a 180.

“The VA’s real quick to push pharmaceutical pills for things-be it physical ailments or mental ailments,” Reyes said. “I think cannabis offers a healthier solution.”

It has for Montano, who gave up on the pills prescribed to him two years ago.

“I’m real susceptible to side effects,” he said. “If it says ‘may cause dizziness’, I’m getting dizzy. I’ve had pills that made me shake-heart pounding, sweating.”

Short of risking arrest-or, in Connecticut’s case, a $150 fine for possessing less than half an ounce of marijuana-prescription pharmaceuticals are the only options many patients have. When Connecticut’s program initiates, a Department of Consumer Protection reported 1400 patients throughout the state will qualify, but if veterans like Reyes want to join them, they won’t get any help from the VA-they told him to consult an outside physician to undergo the screening.

Meanwhile, the state is expecting the impending approval of the five dispensaries and three production facilities to be only the first wave of licensing as the number of qualifying patients-those suffering from PTSD, cancer, glaucoma, immune deficiency syndromes, Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, nerve tissue damage, epilepsy, Cachexia, Wasting Syndrome, and Crohn’s Disease-is expected to grow as more physicians participate and the remedy becomes more readily available.

So it’s happening, but for Broderick Moose, a former Connecticut resident who runs a caregiver/patient collective in Warwick, Rhode Island, it wasn’t happening fast enough.

“Rhode Island has actually made the path to caregiving accessible in comparison to the nightmare scenario in Connecticut,” Moose said. “There’s always the cultural taboo issue but I find Rhode Island is far more open about caregiving than any other state I’ve seen.”

As one of 20 states that have a medical marijuana program, Rhode Island requires caregivers to be designated by physician-approved patients, according to the Rhode Island Department of Health website. In Connecticut, petitioners for both dispensary and production licensing need proof of a business plan, financial backing, a licensed pharmacist on staff, approval from the zoning and planning board in the municipality they are seeking to open in-hence, the ordinance controversy in Newington-and a $25,000 application fee.

Moose worked “under the radar in Connecticut for years” before taking his work to Rhode Island, where he administers THC and CBD preparation capsules.

“Myself and the caregivers I know see a range of patients with varying conditions,” he said. “One of our patients is an amputee seeking to quell phantom limb pain and having great success with the THC/CBD preparation capsules. Another patient we have has had surgery for aggressive scoliosis and uses the capsules for post-operative pain.”

Moose has also advised other caregivers on capsule preparation for patients dealing with Crohn’s Disease, eating disorders, rheumatoid issues and insomnia among others.

“The patients we’ve seen range in age from 65 to 21,” Moose said. “They come from all walks of life and all professions. You’d be truly surprised to see the vast range of people treating with medical cannabis.”

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