Patient finds temporary relief with medical marijuana

September 03, 2007

Sue Vorenberg, Albuquerque Tribune (NM)

There's no lie in her face, no subtlety in her responses - only a resigned acceptance and willingness to fight against her circumstances.

At age 62, she has AIDS.

She weighs 78 pounds.

The side effects of her medications aren't as sickening as they used to be, but she's still constantly nauseous and in pain.

What gets her through it all, she says, is marijuana.

The woman identified here as "Lisa" is one of about 30 patients statewide who have a doctor's approval and state certification under a new law to eat or inhale the drug.

She agreed to be interviewed for this story, but after hearing about a police raid last week on the home of Leonard French, a certified medical marijuana user in Malaga, she asked that her real name not be used.

Used medically, marijuana relieves pain and settles her stomach, Lisa said.

For her, at this point, it's the only option - no other drug works as well, she said.

"It's a quality-of-life issue," Lisa said. "If I couldn't use it, I'd let go. I would go off all the meds and probably in a month I'd be dead."

Once a nurse, Lisa has a calm understanding of what's happening to her. Asked how she contracted AIDS and her reaction was blunt.

"From sex," she said, without a pause.

Asked if she smoked pot recreationally in the past and she was equally honest.

"Yes," she said. "But it's amazing how different it becomes when it's a necessary medication. Half the fun is gone. You're using it because you have to."

She understands that New Mexico's new law allowing medical marijuana use provides limited legal cover if federal authorities choose to arrest her.

"I won't go quietly if they come to get me," she said. "But I really don't want the police showing up at my home."

She also didn't want to use her name because she is afraid criminals will break into her house and steal the small amount of marijuana - less than an ounce - she generally keeps on hand.

Typically, she smokes about once an hour - just a few hits off a pipe or inhalations from a vaporizer - which is enough to ease her suffering, she said.

She tried synthetic THC - tetrahydrocannibinol, the most active ingredient in pot - "and I found myself that night calmly and carefully planning how to kill myself," Lisa said. "That's not me. Synthetic THC is not the same as marijuana."

The part that helps her symptoms isn't THC, but the cannaboids, which she said temper the pain and nausea.

Preparing to meet with her dentist on a Wednesday morning - a rare side effect of her AIDS medication has destroyed much of her jaw - her pain became apparent. Her speech slowed and her eyes grew progressively cloudy over the hour.

She held off politely, waiting for visitors to tell her they didn't mind her smoking, then lit up a small, clear pipe.

After taking three hits, the pain diminished, her eyes brightened and she talked calmly and clearly once more.

Now that medical marijuana is legal in New Mexico, Lisa said her biggest headache is figuring out how to get a supply.

She had a friend in Washington who supplied her with medical-grade marijuana, but he died a few months ago.

The thought of it made her pause and tears welled in her eyes.

"It's scarier to get it underground," she said. "You're not sure what you're getting or who you're dealing with."

In the meantime, she's trying to grow pot herself, she said.

"If I can at least, please God, grow a couple of my own plants, then I can make it through the winter," she said.

The cost of buying it on the street is prohibitive. She needs high-quality marijuana, not "Mexican swag," she said. It costs about $380 a month - a lot for a woman dying of AIDS to pay.

But growing her own has challenges, too.

The thought made her sister, who asked not to be named, burst out laughing.

"Gardening has never been your strong point," her sister said, pointing out two dead plants in the kitchen and a brown and crusty potted aloe vera in the living room.

A grin crossed Lisa's face.

"True," she chuckled.

Although she's gaunt, weak and can't eat solid food, things aren't as bad as during her first round on AIDS drugs, she said.

When she began taking them in the early 1990s, the drugs left her unable to reach deep sleep, caused stabbing pains when she moved her arms and left both of her thumbs unusable.

"The first batch - I will not call it a cocktail, that's for a pleasant evening - there was nothing pleasant about it," Lisa said. "I eventually said no more meds, even though my (blood count) numbers were good."

Her health declined when she went off the drugs, but she slept better. Then in 1999, she contracted meningitis and dropped from 108 pounds to about 80.

"I was put on hospice care, not expected to live," she said. "But I didn't give up. About a month later the nurse came and said, `We're kicking you out.'"

Side effects from the new drugs are far from ideal. Her muscles don't work very well, she can't eat solid food and she doesn't have the brain power she once had.

"My mathematical skills now are those of a second-grader - and I used to be able to calculate medical doses in my head," she said.

But the side effects are livable thanks to the marijuana, which takes away the ubiquitous nausea and pain, she said.

"People are so very concerned about the death penalty - that it's cruel and unusual punishment," she said. "But denying us medical marijuana and the relief it gives us - that's cruel and unusual punishment."

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