Don Lisk, 57, of Kalispell has spent at least 20 years in pain from back injuries. A year ago, Sarah Baugh, 25, of Billings suffered 12 seizures a day while taking 14 medications that cost $2,000 a month. Both say medical marijuana has changed their lives for the better. They shared their stories to a Montana newspaper to get the word out about the benefits of marijuana to counter the recent wave of negative stories.
“People don’t understand how much it’s helping people – it’s changed everything for me,” Baugh said. “People always focus on pain and cancer but it helps so many other diseases.”
Baugh, who grew up in South Carolina, first was diagnosed with epilepsy at 15. She suffered both grand mal and petit mal seizures as well as uncontrollable tremors between seizures.
“It caused me to lose my handwriting,” she said.
Because the stress of exams worsened her condition, Baugh was forced to drop out of college just a few credits short of graduation. As a side effect of one of her many medications, she gained 150 pounds. On two occasions, her fiancÃ© had to resuscitate her when she failed to start breathing after a seizure. Even when she started breathing on her own, Baugh suffered horrible nausea and muscle aches in the recovery period.
“It’s the worst part of having a seizure,” she said.
While experimenting recreationally with marijuana, she discovered the drug helped without the side effects and expense of her prescription drugs. She and her fiancÃ©, Shane, researched the states in which medical marijuana was legal, then moved to Billings in 2008 where retired physician Dr. Edwin Stickney gave her the recommendation needed to receive the card that changed her life. By using marijuana, she weaned herself off most of her medications and now takes just a small dose of anti-seizure medication. Baugh trimmed her drug costs from $2,000 to less than $600 a month. She dropped 150 pounds, lost the tremors and seizures. Baugh had one setback when she came down with swine flu in November and couldn’t smoke or eat her cannabis. She had two seizures that stopped as soon as she could again ingest marijuana.
“Now I’m fully healthy and planning a wedding,” Baugh said.
With her epilepsy controlled, she fears the negative headlines tied to medical marijuana may turn the public against the legal use that Montana voters passed by a large majority in 2004. Several local governments around the state have passed laws banning or restricting the sale of medical marijuana inside city limits. She said she can’t face returning to a life of uncontrolled seizures without medical marijuana.
“It’s as critical to me as blood-pressure medication is to a heart patient,” she said.
Lisk of Kalispell has the same fears about losing legal access to the drug.
His journey with medical marijuana began last September. He received a Montana medical marijuana card so he could use the drug to dull his back pain enough to let him sleep at night. Lisk said the drug takes the edge off the pain and he doesn’t suffer the withdrawal he experiences with opiates such as Lortab. He uses marijuana mostly in the evenings and never drives impaired.
“I don’t get up and get high all day,” he said. “I don’t think most people do.”
According to Lisk, the drug relieves muscle cramps and gives him some relief from the chronic pain that he said has driven him to the brink. He said he doesn’t know all the potential side effects, but points out his prescription drugs have long lists of side effects up to and including severe liver damage. Lisk keeps his marijuana locked up and he has discussions with his teenage children about the difference between medical and recreational uses of marijuana. Like Baugh, he wants to present his point of view with the goal of improving the system before abuses turn the public against medical use.
“It’s way too easy to get a marijuana card now,” he said.
Lisk wants to see the regulations changed to narrow the conditions that qualify for marijuana cards. He said people should blame the poorly crafted law for abuses of medical marijuana use and sale.
“We shouldn’t make scapegoats out of physicians,” he said.
He said he was “an easy person to prescribe for” with extensive medical records to document his back problems that started during eight years in the Marine Corps. After the military, years of construction work made matters worse. Finally, he opted for major back surgery, including insertion of screws and spine fusion, in the early 1990s.
“The fusion didn’t take – it got worse,” he said. “I came here on Social Security Disability in 1994.”
He had more surgeries in futile attempts to cure his back pain. Finally, in 1999, Dr. Ned Wilson performed a procedure that alleviated his pain enough to allow him to go back to work. Lisk arranged financing to buy tools to lay carpet and later moved into specialty concrete floor finishing. He initiated termination of his government check.
“How many people do you know who called Social Security Disability and said ‘Take me off?,’” he asked. “I didn’t want to cheat.”
Eventually, the heavy concrete grinding work damaged his back and brought back pain along with numbness in his feet and legs. Lisk uses medical marijuana as just one part of his pain control therapy.
“I’m not advocating legalization for recreational use. It’s another form of pain medication that should be available,” he said. “It’s just so badly controlled.”
He said that groups such as the Montana Caregivers Network, in their zeal to help people find physicians to prescribe the drug, caused a backlash with their mass clinics that attract people in pain as well as those seeking recreational pleasure.
“It’s turned into a carnival,” he said. “We need to treat this respectfully, responsibly for what it was meant to be.”
Baugh agreed that the very public clinics “have hurt the movement.” She said many patients didn’t want to attend these events but had no choice because their own doctors refused to even consider recommending medical marijuana.
“They [patients] feel judged as illegal just for having gone to that clinic,” she said.
Lisk was one who participated after he couldn’t find a physician who would help him obtain a card. While working on a construction job in Great Falls, he took his medical records a Montana Caregiver Network clinic. Lisk said Dr. Patricia Cole of Whitefish spent about five minutes reviewing his records then talked with him for about 10 more minutes.
“She told me that I was the kind of person that this program was pointed towards,” he recalled.
He estimates that about 100 people went through the clinic that day, comparing it to a turnstile operation. However, both Lisk and Baugh say that Cole was unfairly targeted when she was fined $2,000 recently for seeing 150 patients in 14 1/2 hours at one of these clinics. Baugh said her fiancÃ© saw an emergency-room physician in Billings for not more than five minutes before he prescribed two opiate pain killers and a muscle relaxant without even knowing the source of his back pain.
“Why did they single her out?” she asked about Cole. “I think it was a witch hunt.”
Baugh questions the fairness of demonizing crimes related to medical marijuana while giving a pass to those related to prescription drugs. She said medical marijuana theft from patients and growers is no different than theft from patients of prescription painkillers such as Lortab for illegal distribution to minors and others. Baugh said no one has suggested closing pharmacies distributing Lortab or outlawing the drug.
To get their views out, Baugh and some 147 others supporters of medical marijuana had formed “Citizens for Cannabis Comprehension,” an organization with a stated goal of educating “on all aspects surrounding cannabis for the benefit of our entire community.” Baugh favors legalizing the drug completely but said Montana isn’t ready for that. She hopes that the state solves its card system problems without completely rejecting medical marijuana for patients who benefit.
“It’s the inevitable growing pains of legalizing a drug that was previously illegal for 70 or more years,” she said.