I Was Wrong About Cannabis

I Was Wrong About Cannabis

by Lynn Alison Bornfriend MD

 I was no fun in high school. I was a “good girl”, a dedicated student. I followed all the rules. I have never in my life taken even a puff of a cigarette. As a college freshman, I told the door guy inviting me into a frat party that I wasn’t able to come inside because ”I’m only 17.” Not only did I never try marijuana, but I looked down on people who used it, and refused to be around them. I completely bought into what I was told by my teachers, law enforcement, by society in general. Marijuana was a “gateway drug”, its use leading to further drug use, mental illness, criminal behavior, and downward mobility. For the first 22 years of my medical career I practiced accordingly. Then I learned that I was wrong– in the hardest possible way.

My mother was in amazingly good health when she was turning 84. She had no diagnosed medical conditions. She took no medications. When she complained of feeling weak and tired, her physician attributed it to the stress of caring for my ill father who was wheelchair bound, depressed, and very demanding. Her weight loss was attributed to the same stress. Then, a week or so after her birthday, her progressing weakness led to an urgent trip to the ER where we were given a shocking diagnosis. My mother, who had never smoked, who was never exposed to toxic chemicals, who ate well and exercised, had metastatic lung cancer.

My older sister, who was a bit of a hippie, suggested that we get her some marijuana. My response could only be described as self-righteous and condescending. “Absolutely not! I am a licensed professional.” My mother had been a high school teacher. Her response was, “I’m not doing that. That’s what bad kids do!”

My mother started treatment at my hospital and things were going fairly well.  Her tumors were shrinking.  Unfortunately she was having difficulty with side effects from her chemotherapy and none of the treatments we had available were helping. She was either unable to tolerate the medications given to her or they didn’t work. Her primary side effect was nausea. My mother was extremely conscientious and when the doctor told her to eat she ate, whether or not she was nauseated. When she ate, she got abdominal cramping, gas, severe pain, and diarrhea.  She was also suffering from insomnia and anxiety. Nothing we offered her helped.

My mother was always a slim woman. After eight or nine months of cancer treatment, she had become so cachectic that she was unable to tolerate further treatment and was referred to hospice. At that point my sister said “The heck with both of you!” and came to the apartment with a cannabis edible. I was incensed when I heard about this and went racing over to the apartment to “save the day”. When I arrived I was shocked to see that my mother was sitting up. She wasn’t in pain. She wasn’t nauseated. She wasn’t anxious. She wasn’t high. And she was eating a little.

I was amazed. We had tried everything at my hospital, from traditional chemotherapeutic and pharmaceutical interventions, including Marinol–synthetic THC,  to integrative treatments like acupuncture, naturopathic medicine, massage and reiki–with no success, until my mother tried cannabis. Unfortunately, It was too late for my 84 year old mother who had been significantly weakened by her cancer treatment.  But  when I returned to work after my mother passed away I began asking my patients about their marijuana use. “ Oh thank God.” they said. “I  was afraid to say anything but you know that medicine you give me for anxiety and insomnia? I don’t need that when I’m at home. And the medications they give me for nausea and pain? I don’t need those when I’m at home either. I just use marijuana.”

Medical cannabis was legalized in Pennsylvania in April of 2016 although it was not available to patients until February of 2018. After it was legalized I began taking courses and attending conferences. The hospital where I worked attracted patients from all over the country, and so I questioned patients who had come from “legal” States about their cannabis use, and was stunned by how enthusiastic they were and the positive stories they shared. I began educating other patients and learning about the laws in the states they came from. I also educated my fellow physicians, the nurses, the pharmacists, and everyone else who I could get to sit still and listen. Although  my colleagues had mixed reactions to the idea of their patients using medical cannabis,  I was the one who was responsible for educating all of the patients at our hospital as the other physicians did not feel comfortable in doing so.

In 2018 one of my patients from Tennessee told me about Be Pain Free Global, a California Collective from which she ordered her medicine, and I began referring patients.  Initially, I was afraid to reach out myself, fearing for my medical license. But the cancer patients I was treating had no such fears. As they experienced ordering medication from Be Pain Free Global, they returned to my office and shared positive stories about how kind and considerate the people working for the company were. They spoke of people spending “an hour and a half on the telephone with me” to educate them and allay their fears. The more experienced cannabis users told me how good the quality was of the medicine, and how reasonable the price. After a year or so, my confidence in the Collective grew to the point where I felt safe enough to reach out myself, and things just got better and better for my patients. Together with scientists at Be Pain Free Global, we discussed the specific difficulties my patients were having and they crafted formulas and delivery methods to address them. We shared knowledge, and tips, and brain stormed together to help more patients have access to the medicine which could improve their quality of life, simplify their treatment regimens, help them to avoid side effects, toxicities, morbidities and mortality associated with addiction and polypharmacy, and even fight their cancer.

I have become what is considered to be a “Thought Leader” in the medical cannabis field, educating and certifying patients, following them through the course of their illness and assisting them in adjusting their dosing/ methods of administration, giving presentations, participating in panel discussions, being interviewed by newspapers and other media, and ultimately joining Be Pain Free Global as the medical advisor to participate in the growth and help steer the direction of the Collective in the ever changing market and political climate. Along the way, I have learned about the roots of cannabis prohibition in greed and racism. I have seen how the current structure of “legality” in this country makes access to medical cannabis dependent to a large degree on the patients’ financial resources, and learned about the devastating impact the “War on Drugs” has had on communities of color, and the need for social equity movements. I have turned from a “good girl” into an activist.

I adored my mother, and I watched her suffer greatly and then die because of archaic, corrupt laws that prevented her accessing the treatment she needed. I never want to see this happen to anyone else’s loved one if I can help it. My mother was a gifted teacher. When she passed away, I received letters from strangers speaking about how she had influenced and impacted their lives. When people comment on my passion for educating them about cannabis, I remind them of this, and tell them that each time I educate someone about medical cannabis, I am honoring my mother. I didn’t know enough to help her when she was ill because I had been misled, but this seems the least I can do in her memory.

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