Suffering with pain day in and day out can be agonizing. Standing by, helpless, watching a loved one suffer can be worse. Perhaps this circumstance, more than anything else, is prompting Southwest Louisiana residents who would never consider marijuana for recreational use to seek a doctor’s recommendation to purchase marijuana for medical use.
In addition to intractable pain, medical marijuana is being used by patients with cancer, glaucoma, Parkinson’s disease, positive status for HIV, AIDS, seizure disorders, epilepsy, spasticity, severe muscle spasms, Crohn’s disease, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and post traumatic stress disorder.
For Sarah Benny, medical marijuana has resulted in a “practically miraculous transformation,” she said.
In May 2002, Benny was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She is 58.
“No two people experience this disease in the same way,” she said. “My main issues have been muscle spasticity, chronic pain and brain fog. I never thought the pain could get worse. It did. And it was debilitating.”
Benny said it took her hours to get moving in the morning. She didn’t sleep well at night. Sometimes she didn’t even get out of bed, much less go out or clean the house.
“I have been through so many sleep studies and sleep medications, I wouldn’t be able to list them all,” she said.
Six years ago, she purchased a bag of marijuana after telling her family about her plan, what she had read and how it might help.
“I was desperate,” she said, “The relief was instant, but not lasting.”
She was keeping her eye on what was happening in Louisiana concerning medical marijuana legislation, and the opening of Medicis Pharmacy. She obtained a doctor’s recommendation of a baseline dosage of medical marijuana, which can be changed as needed. She put a drop under her tongue and held it there for a minute or so before swallowing.
“It’s the only medication in 17 years that has ever made such a difference,” she said. “I can’t say what happened with me will happen for everyone, but for me it’s been a life changer.”
For one thing, she slept through the night. This was huge for Benny. She remembers the way she felt the next morning so vividly she got excited talking about it.
“I remember opening my eyes without brain fog and thinking, I am going to be able to move,” she said, with a little laugh. “I mostly shuffle, but when I got up to take a step, my right foot came off the floor, it was so exciting. Within an hour or so of waking, I was doing housework and praising God.”
The family of former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco sought a prescription last month when Blanco was “in excruciating pain and appeared to be on the verge of dying from a rare type of cancer known as ocular melanoma,” reported the Advocate. The doctor who made the recommendation is also a nursing home director. He was quoted as saying “he didn’t care if it made older patients who were wasting away, not eating and enduring pain high or not. He wanted to make them comfortable.”
Blanco’s daughter said morphine caused her mother to go into blackouts and made her “want to die.” The marijuana helped her relax and interact with family. She didn’t slip into a coma. “She communicated verbally until two hours before she died,” wrote Advocate Staff Writer Tyler Bridges.
Many members of the medical community have been slow to embrace this alternative to treating pain, according to John Condos, owner of Medicis Pharmacy. His father is local cardiologist, Dr. William Condos. His mother, Carolyn “Coco” Condos, died earlier this year from ovarian cancer. She would have been a perfect candidate for medical marijuana, but she passed prior to the product becoming available to patients.
“My dad has never even thought about using marijuana,” said Condos. “He’s a West Point graduate and an Army Ranger who retired as a Lt. Colonel.”
Condos was making the point that his father, a conservative physician, realized during his wife’s illness that the treatment of pain with opioids, which have many adverse effects, has not evolved much in the last several decades, and other options should be considered.
Medical doctors often cite lack of available results from large-scale clinical trials on their reluctance to recommend medical marijuana to patients.
Condos said the stigma of marijuana and the time it takes to get certified could be other reasons.
“The federal government still considers marijuana a Schedule I drug,” said Condos. “It’s hard to have a lot of reliable data on a controlled substance, but that’s changing. De-scheduling marijuana would facilitate medical research, guarantee patient access and eliminate federal prohibitions.”
Physicians may not prescribe medical marijuana for use under federal law. They can only recommend its use.
Louisiana is the 31st of 33 states to approve medical marijuana. The State Board of Pharmacy awarded nine medical marijuana permits April 27, 2018, according to a previous American Press article by Bill Shearman.
This makes Medicis, at 1727 Imperial Blvd., Building 4, in Lake Charles, the nearest medical marijuana pharmacy for residents in Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron and Jeff Davis parishes.
Condos thought Medicis Pharmacy would be up and running about seven months ago. He expresses frustration with doctors and bureaucrats who might be unwilling to recommend medical marijuana to those who might benefit from its use.
His mother’s suffering impacted him. However, he acknowledges he is an entrepreneur. Medicis was a significant investment. When asked why he got the go-ahead instead of one of the other several candidates, he said it was largely due to his preparation, thorough planning and detailed presentation, that included a talented team of partners along with a consultant familiar with the industry and its requirements.
Physicians must obtain a special license from the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners to recommend medical marijuana. The Medicis website lists 11 physicians.
“It took approximately six weeks to go through the process to register,” said Dr. Dan Butler, Modern Medicine, located in South Lake Charles. “Multiple people come in who have been to Las Vegas or Colorado and tried it there and because of their experience, they decide to see someone here.”
Butler has had a family practice. He has also worked in orthopedic and occupational medicine. Now he is a medical marijuana physician exclusively.
“We’re trying to deal with chronic disease in ways that don’t involve opiates,” he said. “When I was working in occupational medicine, I realized a lot of people were taking four or five pills a day. Medical marijuana has helped some folks remain comfortable in the last days of their lives, giving them time to spend with family and friends and be alert rather than zoned out.”
Butler also noted a patient had used medical marijuana to wean himself off opiates.
“I don’t want to give the impression that it was easy for him,” he said, “but he was able to do it.”
Health insurance does not cover the cost of the doctor’s visit or medical marijuana. An initial visit to Butler’s office may cost around $200. James Thibodeaux, the pharmacist at Medicis, said the most frequent purchase is around $99 per month, with some patients stretching the one-month dosage even further.
Butler said he likes to work in tandem with the patient’s family physician. However, bringing up the desire to try medical marijuana with the family physician can make some patients uncomfortable.
Thibodeaux said obtaining medical records before visiting a registered medical marijuana doctor can be one way to avoid the discomfort. It is not necessary to inform the medical provider or staff with the reason for obtaining the records.
Blanco did not smoke pot during her last days. Using a combustible, which refers to smoking marijuana in any form and using any device, is not part of the medical marijuana protocol at this time, according to Condos. In the state of Louisiana, the currently acceptable forms of medical marijuana are oils, extracts, tinctures, sprays, capsules, pills, solutions, suspensions, gelatin-based chewables, lotions, transdermal patches, suppositories and metered dose inhalation.
Medicis currently sells multiple tinctures that contain varying levels of THC, which is available only with a doctor’s recommendation. They will soon have a larger variety of products consisting of the forms listed above.
They also offer state-approved, quality-tested and regulated CBD products with 0.3 percent THC, for which a prescription will not be required.