Impact of State Marijuana Law Still Being Felt

Jeremy Morgan, Staff Writer

In the fall of last year Oklahoma’s Medical Marijuana law went into effect. The law came by way of an initiative petition, State Question 788, which was put together by citizens who dubbed themselves the Oklahomans for Health.

State Question 788 passed with a 56 percent vote. After several months of wrangling, the legislature finalized a “Unity Bill,’ which was signed Republican Governor Stitt. The bill cements and regulates Oklahoma’s marijuana industry.

The legalized use of medical marijuana, the THC cannabinoid, is already benefiting Oklahomans, supporters said.

Frank Grove is the chairman of Oklahomans for Health. He said the measure passed because Oklahoma was ready for medical marijuana.

“We got people together from every creed you can think of, Republican to Democrat, authoritarian to libertarian, you name it. We got together and hammered everything out and came to a collective consensus of the group,” he said.

Over the course of the petitioning campaign, Grove’s father brought him closer to his work and gave him further conviction. “My father was diagnosed with brain cancer in the process,” he said. “After that, it wasn’t just social activism, it became really personal.”

THC, many doctors say, works in two ways to kill glioblastoma cells. Along with other cannabinoids, it cuts off the blood supply to the tumor and causes the cancerous cells to self-destruct.

In addition to treating the cancer itself, THC also works to alleviate pain during and post treatment for cancer patients. This is one of the many ways THC is benefiting Oklahomans.

“I was on Xanax for two years, they put me on it for anxiety,” said Judah McLendon, an Oklahoma City Community College student. “It was a really high dose that I was having to take to get the affects. Over time that has really bad side effects, stuff like memory loss. I started to forget when I was born, I couldn’t remember my birthday. There are still times like that now but, it isn’t nearly as bad now that I’m not on Xanax.”

McLendon is between a computer science and psychology major at OCCC. The side effects he was experiencing from Xanax encouraged him to seek an alternative.

“I was on antidepressants for a while, anti-anxiety, in total I was on about 15 different pills that all had different side-effects or just didn’t work out. The only one that did work was Xanax but, that came with the memory loss,” McLendon said. “Then, I saw that Oklahoma was probably going to be getting medical marijuana. So, I started to look into it and see if it was something I could use instead.”

Dr. Jody Lee of Natural Remedy said the top three complaints people come with are anxiety, chronic pain, or sleep disorders. Anxiety and pain are neck-and-neck for the number one reason.

Dr. Lee says MMJ is more beneficial than Xanax in some instances because MMJ comes with ease of variation.

“With the benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium versus marijuana there is a great difference of the level of sedation that you can choose. With Xanax if you choose one dose, it will give you a level of sedation, or a level of activity effectiveness. You can increase or decrease the dose but, that effect is you are going up and down but, you have to do that through a physician. Oftentimes that can be a little bit cumbersome.”  Dr. Lee said. “With marijuana you can do two things, one you can increase your dosing of the specific thing; two, you can also move your ratio of the indica and the sativa cannabinoids. You can manage how much of each are in the marijuana you are using by using different strains. You can tailor the dose to be specific to you. As opposed to Xanax where it is a one-type fits all except for up or down dosage, there is no chemical variation.”

Photograph by Rahul Chakraborty

McLendon has experimented with a variety of strains to see which works best for him. He doesn’t have a preference overall, it just depends on what he needs in the moment for what he chooses.

“I have used a bunch of different strains of MMJ, sativa and indica both as well as hybrids. I think people need to understand that smoking doesn’t affect you in just one way every time you use it. If I smoke an indica, I’ll wanna lay down and zone out. If I smoke a sativa, I’ll wanna clean the whole house,” McLendon said. “For my anxiety, there is a certain strain that when my chest wall gets inflamed due to stress or something, when I smoke it, it is an almost instant relief and the swelling goes down.”

When McLendon was only a child, he began exhibiting signs of severe anxiety.

“The first time it was noticed, I was a little bit more than a baby. My skin on my hands would peel off and my hands were wet all the time, no one knew why. That kept happening until I was six or so. My mom brought it up to the doctor and he said I was just really nervous all the time but, I was six and didn’t understand it.”

“Growing up, I had an older brother and we shared a room. Every time I would build a Lego tower, he would come and knock it down, you know, good brother stuff but, it still pissed me off,” McLendon says. “I would always try to be by myself and do my own thing.”

Though he had become somewhat accustomed to seclusion as a way of combating his anxiety, McLendon was pulled out of his reclusive comfort zone around 11 years-old.

“Then I started going to public school for the first time. I was homeschooled until I was in eighth grade, but I was ahead of the public school so I had to go back to sixth grade because of my age,” McLendon said, “I had never been around large groups of people so that was a big wake up call. I had hard times going to class and getting through the day around everyone. I wanted to stay home every day because I was comfortable there. School made me nervous and made me worry about things.”

In his early adulthood, McLendon was diagnosed with Neurocardiogenic Syncope (NCS). A condition that exacerbates stress, depression, and anxiety while stress has an equally returning effect. To suffer from both anxiety and NCS is the definition of a catch 22.

“Around 2016, after high school, it started getting worse. And it is tied into another condition I have, NCS, basically, I pass out easy.  My blood pressure and my heart-rate are naturally low, heart rate is 60-65 normally. So, when I get really anxious, my heart rate speeds up and it triggers my fight or flight mode. My body doesn’t know how to deal with that so I will faint or something.”

“Having anxiety and then having a heart condition that triggers the anxiety as well is a really bad combo. When the doctors discovered that, they wanted to put me on all kinds of medications to help me.”

McLendon’s doctors began taking his condition seriously, they wanted to find a way to combat his anxiety, and recommended him to see a psychiatrist.

“The very first appointment I had with a psychiatrist, he gave me a Xanax prescription with no background check or questioning or anything,” McLendon said, “I didn’t even show up to the psychiatrist to get a prescription, I thought I was going there to talk.”

Narcanon reports there are 44 million Xanax prescriptions written each year. Many of these are written in the same rushed way as McLendon’s.

“Xanax was the only thing that helped but, I wanted to get off of it. I started getting frustrated because I was having a really hard time with math, anything to do with problem solving. I would speak and forget my sentences while I was speaking. There are still remnants of that but, Xanax was taking away my brain.”

Memory loss, both short and long term, is one of the many known side-effects of Xanax.

According to American Addiction Centers (AAC), “You don’t have to use it for a long time to begin experiencing some of the negative effects of the medication, however. Some of the common effects of Xanax are impaired concentration, slurred speech, and memory problems. People using the prescription drug may also be irritable and unusually tired.” Judah was using Xanax for nearly two years.

“My family saw me on Xanax and now on MMJ and they would much rather me smoke than be on Xanax,” McLendon said. “I was taking four milligrams of Xanax every day. I had to take it one milligram at a time four times a day. That is a lot.”

According to AAC, this is on the high end of the average prescribed dosage of the memory affecting drug, which is three to four milligrams per day.

“On that much Xanax,” McLendon said, “you feel like you just woke up from a nap, everything feels good but it is kind of hazy. You’ll feel okay but, in your headspace, you can’t really think on your own and if someone talks to you, you are really slow to respond.”

This haze can lead to even more confusion. McLendon said, “There were times I took two or three of my Xanax doses just because my memory was so off from the drug.”

McLendon sought out for his doctor’s advice, “When I talked to my doctor, he told me that medical marijuana would be good for me, especially with the memory loss that I was experiencing.”

Dr. Lee said, “There is no prescription for medical marijuana, this is a recommendation that it is in the best interest of the patient use medical marijuana in general. They are actually the one deciding how much and when to use. It is a self-directed approach to treatment. This is a novel concept in medicine and that can be scary for people to hear at times. But, marijuana in general being such a benign medication or product there is no real threat of overdose, there are just side-effects. We in the medical field are comfortable to allow self-direction by the patient.”

MMJ does more than subside symptoms of pain, mental fatigue, etc. In some cases it is recommended because it actually improves the body’s functionality.

Staci Gruber was the lead researcher studying cognitive function with marijuana use. She gave a press statement following research work she and her team found at Harvard.

“After three months of medical marijuana treatment, patients actually performed better, in terms of their ability to perform certain cognitive tasks, specifically those mediated by the frontal cortex,” Gruber said. “Symptom improvement may therefore result in improved cognitive performance.”

But, Xanax’s effect on memory is only a small part of the problem. Pharmaceutical addiction and overdose is a rampant problem in America. In 2010 there were 124,902 emergency room visits due to Xanax according to the Addiction Center.

“It [marijuana] works differently on different receptors. It doesn’t have the dependency factor to it that Xanax does where people become dependent and then addicted to it,” Dr. Lee said. “Whereas MMJ, there is no such thing as a true addiction. In some peer-reviewed literature they are showing that there might be a psychological level of dependence but, that is the mind’s way of saying, ‘I like this feeling, I want to do that again.’ Up to 97 percent of the people that use medical marijuana have no indication that they would have any kind of dependence psychological or otherwise.”

Luckily for McLendon, he didn’t have much of an issue coming off of Xanax like many people do.

As he looks back on the side-effects he was dealing with while using Xanax, he says now with MMJ, “There are times where you smoke too much and your short-term memory does start to trail off. I just don’t smoke that much,” McLendon says. “I don’t smoke before school or before driving or anything like that. It is a come-down for me in the evening.”

McLendon is grateful Oklahoma has came together to provide this option for him and others. He hopes to see the remaining stigma against MMJ fade as more people are able to curb their pharmaceutical dependence for a more natural answer.

“Marijuana in general, no one has died on it. Weed doesn’t have anything in it to kill you. Xanax is linked to something like 20,000 deaths in 2016. So, it is definitely a lot safer to use medical marijuana than most pharmaceuticals. Even if someone doesn’t want to smoke because of lung health, you can still get THC capsules and have the same relief,” McLendon said, “I’ve never felt as intoxicated on medical marijuana as I did on my prescribed dose of Xanax or most of the other prescriptions I tried.”

“That is just one example,” says Grove, “I have heard similar testimonies made by people across the state.”

Dr. Lee says he typically sees 40 patients in a given day.

“As of March 11, 76,587 patient applications have been received. 63,647 patient applications have been approved,” says Melissa Miller of the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Association.

The work done by Grove, Oklahomans for Health and all who signed the petition made the treatment option a reality for McLendon and tens of thousands of others.

This is one installment of a short series on MMJ in Oklahoma. You can expect another story on the growing and selling of MMJ, as well as the economic impact it has had on the Oklahoma market in the coming months.

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