On the very last day of her life, my sister got stoned. It was early in 2014 and I had been staying with her for over a week as she succumbed to the cancer that had defined the final three years of her life. She was well loved in her Seattle neighborhood and beyond, and there had been a steady stream of friends stopping by that I met and quickly came to treasure myself. That morning, though, she told me she could no longer take visitors. As much as I hated to do it, I spent the day turning people away at the door. They were understanding. But it still hurt.
The hospice that oversaw her care had been compassionate, but the morphine pump they had given her was not easing her pain. I felt helpless watching her desperately press the button on the pump as often as it allowed. On top of all her other difficulties, I quietly realized that she had become a morphine addict. A drug intended to provide comfort and relief in her final hours was adding to her misery. Alone with her on that final day, there was little I could do but watch her suffer.
That afternoon a woman I had not previously met knocked on the back door. When I answered, she told me she had a vial of cannabis oil that would help ease my sister’s pain Wishing to honor my sister’s wishes, I told her I couldn’t let her in. She was insistent. I paused. Sometimes you have to trust a hunch, and my hunch was that my sister, a lifelong pot smoker, would appreciate it. I let her in. It was the best decision I made during ten days of caring for my lone sibling as she reached her end.
The friend entered my sister’s bedroom. My sister was barely conscious and moaning in her pain. The woman, who I had previously not met, explained that she could put some drops of the oil on my sister’s tongue. My sister quietly said yes.
It didn’t take long. As I sat and quietly talked with the newcomer, my sister began to perk up. Her face, so wracked with pain that I could hardly recognize her, fully relaxed and was beaming. She was the person I had known all my life again. Throughout the afternoon, she and her friend and myself talked and laughed. And she wasn’t hitting the morphine pump. She didn’t need it. Her face showed that she was not in pain.
Slowly she dropped back down. Some eight hours later she was gone. That last afternoon, however, is etched in my memory.
I’m telling this story because Dr. Bridget Williams, an Ohio physician who overcame her resistance to cannabis and now treats patients with medical marijuana, wants her readers to tell their stories. It’s a request she and the contributors to her brief collection of testimonials, Courage in Cannabis, are making.
Williams, a Black female family medicine physician in the Midwest, writes that she wanted to serve her patients holistically and not just in fifteen minute visits. When a patient of hers developed diabetes after surviving breast cancer, she asked Williams about cannabis. Williams set aside her negative views on the plant and decided to investigate it rather than dismiss it. Doing so altered her career trajectory. Her patient lost weight, and with cannabis and dietary changes was able to wean herself off of pharmaceuticals. When Ohio legalized medical marijuana, Williams became certified as a cannabis educator and life coach and opened Green Harvest Health. She still practices family medicine, and when medically justified, she guides patients to cannabis.
In Courage in Cannabis, Williams has gathered together an assortment of people who tell their stories of how cannabis aided them where pharmaceuticals failed. Most are medical marijuana patients, and most live in Ohio, where recreational marijuana remains illegal.
Candy Flores is one. She was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and found herself suddenly chained to multiple pharmaceuticals, including several opioids. Her body wracked with pain, she was eventually given a morphine pump in 2011 and remained on the drug continuously until 2016. Early in 2017, a friend who had survived cancer introduced her to cannabis, which Flores had long dismissed as a street drug. It relieved her pain, eased her withdrawals, and settled her mind. She felt like herself again for the first time in years. She’s now free of opioids.
Charlana McKeithen broke barriers as a Black woman in the tech field, but struggled with depression. Antidepressants provided brief relief, but were soon ineffective. She had suicidal ideations. Her depression was compounded by fibroids on her uterus that led to severe pain and excessive bleeding. Neither surgery nor blood transfusions resolved her condition. As her health deteriorated, she became homebound and had to employ a care giver, which only worsened her debilitating depression.
Growing up in a city hard hit by the War on Drugs, McKeithen knew the carnage it inflicted on minority communities, but she absorbed the government’s claims about cannabis nonetheless. So when a relative introduced her to medical marijuana, she was hesitant and unprepared for the results. She says it allowed her to reenter normal life. Not at 100% of her previous level, but she was sufficiently relieved of her symptoms to be able to reengage with things beyond her immediate circumstances. As her health improved, she became an advocate for legal cannabis, and for reparative justice for communities across the nation that lost lives and freedom to the government’s onslaught.
Broderick Randle, Jr., who, along with his sister, inherited Sickle Cell Anemia (his parents were unaware that both carried the recessive gene), provides the most moving selection. He pushed through it and spent ample time outdoors, making the varsity tennis team in high school and playing baseball at Ohio State University-Lima. But this was intermingled with periodic hospitalizations and heavy pharmaceuticals. He turned to cannabis and his symptoms were deeply reduced, but like several other writers here, he kept it quiet because of his religious family. His sister, meanwhile, was still on pharmaceuticals, and was becoming lost to painkillers. Randle makes it clear that cannabis didn’t cure him of Sickle Cell Anemia. What it did do, he writes, is drastically reduce his symptoms, to the point where he can enjoy a mostly normal life.
There are numerous other contributions, some quite touching. The common denominator is the difference cannabis has made for each author. It’s anecdotal evidence, but there’s plenty more of it. What it indicates is a serious need for study. Endless claims have been made about the medicinal benefits of cannabis. Some are complete hogwash. Others, however, have been made by so many people discussing their own experiences that there is reason to investigate. The human endocannabinoid system — a network of naturally occurring cannabinoid-like molecules and cell receptors that regulate many of our critical body functions — was discovered just four decades ago. While we know that CBD reduces seizures for some forms of epilepsy, the myriad ways in which THC and CBD interact with our endocannabinoid system have yet to be fully explored. All of this calls for research, and removing cannabis from its present Schedule 1 status would drop a needless barrier to making this happen.
This leads to the closing piece by AJ Warren, who grew up in a family where cannabis was used as medicine. In one year, he lost his mother and several close relatives. Still fairly young, he offers the most impassioned plea for legalization in the book. A close student of cannabis prohibition history, his call is for all of us to make our voices loud. Change has finally begun, but the job is far from finished.
Meanwhile, I have the memory of those few hours during her final afternoon when my sister was the person I had known all my life again. She could hardly move, but she was laughing and interactive. There were some very funny moments when her humor bubbled out. She was enjoying the moment she was in, still here, not letting her impending last breath rob her of some final moments of happiness.
There is no question in my mind that without the cannabis oil, those few hours would never have been so joyous. And I will treasure that last afternoon with my sister until I draw my own final breath.