Medical pot advocates tell of pain - and gain

August 04, 2004

Samara Kalk Derby, Capitol Times - Wisconsin

A year after Stephanie Sherer fractured three vertebrae in her neck and lost movement there, she began having stomach and kidney problems, side effects from the pain medication and muscle relaxants she was prescribed.

Her doctor came in an exam room, closed the door behind him and asked if she smoked pot. When she told him she didn't, he asked if she knew anyone who did.

'It made me uncomfortable. I thought he wanted me to score some pot for him,' said Sherer, who is now a medical marijuana patient.

Sherer is also an activist. She came to the medical marijuana cause from the anti-globalization movement - literally. She sustained her neck injury from a U.S. marshal who hit her in the back to get her out of the road at a demonstration in 2000.

After her injury, Sherer got a crash course 'about this amazing plant' and it has kept her stomach and kidney problems in check.

She is now co-founder and executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a group of 10,000 patients and doctors who are trying to stop the attacks on those who use marijuana to treat their illnesses.

Sherer was in Madison this week training local activists and medical marijuana patients about how to speak up for the cause.

 

'The question is not whether marijuana is medicine. The question now is how do we get this medicine to the people who need it?' Sherer said.

The federal government still considers marijuana illegal without exception.

Pain reliever: Richard Teasdale, 48, of Madison, thinks it's urgently important to pass medical marijuana legislation in Wisconsin.

A year ago, Teasdale herniated two disks in his lower back while unloading a semi-trailer at his job as a retail store supervisor.

Doctors at Meriter Hospital suggested less invasive procedures to avoid surgery and ended up giving Teasdale a total of four epidural steroid injections in his spine.

The fateful one was in November. As the doctor inserted the needle into his spine, his body jerked. The doctor had hit a nerve.

'He actually said the words - and I will never forget this quote - 'Oops, too far,' ' Teasdale said. The accident caused a progressive scarring of the spinal nerves called adhesive arachnoiditis.

In March, Teasdale said, his legs stopped working, and the pain has been increasing. He said the pain is second only to a terminal cancer patient's.

'The sad part about it is that it's not terminal,' he said.

Teasdale is now taking eight times the regular dose of OxyContin, along with a dose of Vicodin each day. He carries morphine for when he experiences extreme, sudden pain. He is also on another pain medication, a muscle relaxant and two anti-depressants.

A couple of weeks ago, after having numerous friends and acquaintances suggest that he try smoking pot to help with the pain and spasms, he tried it. Marijuana was something he hadn't smoked since high school.

'Maybe it was just because I took it in addition to the narcotics, but I haven't felt that good in a year,' said Teasdale, who gets around with a walker and on good days uses a cane.

The spasms stopped and it felt as if all of his pain had lifted, including the upset stomach he gets from the various prescribed medications.

'You have to be on narcotics to understand it, but being on narcotics is no fun. They have all their own side effects and none of them were comfortable. But the pot took all of that away - for a few hours.'

In the past two weeks, Teasdale has become an activist for medical marijuana.

'If it was legal, it would be a necessity. I'm just amazed that legally they can turn me into a narcotics junkie and tell me that I will be taking them for the rest of my life.

'But if I was caught smoking a very small amount of marijuana, I would end up in jail, where I hear I would be denied access to my narcotics,' Teasdale said with an ironic laugh.

Marijuana definitely has medical purposes, he said. 'The only thing stopping it is politics and people's fear.'

Eating disorder eased: Kimberly Newland, 18, has been anorexic and bulimic for the past two years. Because of her illness, she dropped out of UW-Madison last fall and entered the hospital.

'I've been on different medications and different treatments but nothing really worked for me,' she said.

Once she was released from the hospital and was able to resume smoking marijuana, she noticed that the drug rekindled her appetite and made her more comfortable with the idea of eating and accepting herself after she eats.

'I'm on an anti-depressant that has stabilized me to the point where I am actually working now,' she said. Since January, Newland has been smoking marijuana. She said she was feeling better and better, and is even planning to return to school.

Then, last week, she was arrested for possession of marijuana in the small town outside Madison where she lives.

'Since then, I haven't been able to smoke and therefore I haven't been eating,' said Newland, which is not her real name. She did not want her name used because of the ongoing police investigation.

While she knows she needs to eat, she said that without having marijuana 'to cope,' she relapses to eating disorder behaviors. This just perpetuates her illness, whereas the marijuana was aiding her recovery, she said.

'I'm trying to eat here and there, but unfortunately I will end up not very well.'

E-mail: skalk@madison.com 



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