For the past two-and-a-half years I have been struggling with debilitating physical and mental health issues. In November 2015, I was targeted and physically and sexually assaulted by police officers in Washington, D.C. because I’m a well-known transgender activist. In the aftermath, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and PTSD. I was in a wheelchair for two months and on a cane for over a year; I’ve only regained my ability to walk unassisted in the past year. I also struggled with traumatic flashbacks that make it impossible to go outside, let alone accomplish any tasks. I was paranoid about people betraying or abandoning me.
Though I tried different pharmaceutical medications, I wasn’t able to find anything that significantly helped me—until I discovered medicinal marijuana. It wasn’t my first experience with marijuana: I used to smoke regularly to get high and navigate autism-related social anxiety. However, I decided to stop smoking because being too high often increased my paranoia. I hadn’t regularly used a marijuana product in over three years until a friend gave me a bottle of CBD oil. I didn’t know anything about CBD at the time, and I was nervous about using a marijuana product again. But my friend told me that vaping CBD had seriously helped with their pain and anxiety, so I decided to give it a try.
I’m so glad I did. Using CBD products vastly improved my quality of life. I barely have fibromyalgia flare ups, so now I can be much more active. In turn, this helped with my depression. My anxiety is also much less debilitating; when I start feeling anxious, I can simply take a puff from my vape and it calms me down, allowing me to be social in ways I’ve never been able to be before. CBD has also helped with my paranoia and PTSD symptoms; I haven’t had a serious flashback in months.
The past few months have transformed my life in ways I never imagined possible. Marijuana has made me feel like a new person. The psychopharmacology of marijuana is complex, but CBD and THC are the two main compounds in marijuana. CBD is a non-psychoactive chemical with known medicinal benefits for a variety of issues including chronic pain, anxiety disorders, and even cancer. THC is a psychoactive chemical that has medicinal benefits as well, but it also causes the “high” most commonly associated with marijuana use. I started using products that only contained CBD, but eventually discovered that products with a low level of THC help even more with my pain, and can even have an antidepressant effect that I can’t get with pure CBD products.
So I began microdosing products that contained THC, taking just enough to help medically without making me feel stoned. Finding high-CBD, low-THC products was easy for me while visiting states, like Oregon, where marijuana is legal. However, it’s much more difficult in Philadelphia where I currently live. Marijuana is still considered a black-market product, so people can only get what dealers are selling and dealers often have a lack of product choice. In addition, dealers don’t always know what strain they’re selling; even when they do know, it’s usually a high-THC, low-CBD strain that caters to people who want to get stoned.
As such it’s incredibly difficult for me to find marijuana products that are actually beneficial. Since marijuana is illegal, I’m forced to get higher than I want to be in order to access weed’s medicinal benefits. Thankfully, Pennsylvania started opening medical marijuana dispensaries in February, but the law is restrictive. While the law allows for the sale of pills, salves, tinctures, and vape-able oils, it explicitly prohibits the sale of plain leaf. Leaf is often the lowest concentration form of marijuana, and so banning it makes it harder to find low-THC products. Pennsylvania has also limited the use of medical marijuana to 17 specific diagnoses. I am lucky enough to qualify under two different diagnoses–autism and PTSD–but many others who could benefit from medical marijuana, such as those with Anxiety Disorder, are ineligible.
Medical marijuana laws completely reinforce medical gatekeeping.
Before a person can qualify for medical marijuana for any chronic pain disorder, they have to first use prescription opiates and have them proven to be either ineffective or contraindicated. Since America is going through an opioid epidemic that’s killing more Americans than breast cancer, forcing patients to use opiates is highly irresponsible. Perhaps the largest unaddressed problem with all medical marijuana laws, however, is that they completely reinforce medical gatekeeping. The medical gatekeeping industry gives physicians 100 percent control over official diagnoses, which are often required for access to medical marijuana and other treatment.
The biases of physicians make it hard for those with marginalized identities to convince their physician that their health issues are real. For the trans community, this issue is so prevalent that it even has a name—“Trans Broken Arm Syndrome.” Trans Broken Arm Syndrome refers to the ways in which any health problems trans people face–including a broken arm—are all too often blamed on the fact that we are transgender or on the hormones we are taking by physicians who are either ignorant or hostile to trans people. People without insurance and/or access to disposable income often find it too financially burdensome to even get emergency medical care, let alone see specialists for the period of time that it would take to qualify for medical marijuana.
In addition, there are certain conditions that are difficult for a doctor to diagnose. Many physicians don’t believe that fibromyalgia even exists; as a result, I and others I know with the condition have struggled greatly with getting diagnosed. It’s also difficult for people who are assigned-female-at-birth to get diagnosed with autism because it’s commonly seen as a disorder that only affects boys. And since autism is also seen as developing in childhood, if someone is unable to get a diagnosis as a child because of institutional sexism, it is even harder for them to get diagnosed as an adult.
This is a huge problem, especially since a formal diagnosis is necessary for an autistic person to get access to medical marijuana in Pennsylvania. Medical marijuana laws are woefully inadequate for meeting the needs of the people who would most benefit from legal access.
However, the solution is simple: In order to truly legalize medicinal marijuana, we have to legalize recreational marijuana so that people with mental and physical health conditions will be able to access weed without dealing with medical gatekeeping. They’ll be able to go to a dispensary, talk with a trained professional, and buy products that will benefit them instead of settling for an unknown product on the street. Currently, insurance companies aren’t allowed to cover medical marijuana purchases as they aren’t FDA approved.
Legalizing recreational marijuana means that insurance companies could cover the cost of getting a medical marijuana card and purchasing medical marijuana, just as they do for other prescribed medications. After all, marijuana can be expensive! It’s time to stop seeing medical marijuana and recreational marijuana as separate battles; they are intrinsically intertwined. Only by legalizing recreational marijuana can we truly gain the autonomy to treat our medical conditions in the ways that work best for us.