Christine Stenquist, Ogden, Utah

The diagnosis that explained Christine Stenquist’s acute pain and problems with balance and hearing came in November, 1996: a brain tumor. It would take 16 years before she found relief with cannabis. 

The tumor they found was an acoustic neuroma attached to the main nerve leading from her left inner ear to her brain. Surgery to remove the tumor had to be halted with only 40 percent of it removed because she started to hemorrhage. When she came out of a coma three days later, she was a shell of her former self.

Christine Stenquist talking with otehr advocates at the Utah state capitolShe would learn to walk and talk again, but the hearing in her left ear would never return and simple tasks such as swallowing remain a challenge. Pain was the real problem, however -- intense, unrelenting pain. As she grappled with her condition, medical disability appeared to be her fate.

“I truly thought my life was over,” she says. “But it wasn’t. It was just waiting until I could discover what would give me my life back.”

That would take a while. Over the next 16 years that suffering continued as her doctors tried treatment after treatment: opiate narcotics, muscle relaxants, anti-spasmodics, trigger point injections, botox injections, and nerve ablations. Her conditions were also becoming more complex, with additional diagnoses of occipital neuralgia, fibromyalgia, cluster headaches, complex migraines, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and, as is common for chronic pain sufferers, depression.

Christine would be prescribed more than 45 different pharmaceutical medications and try alternatives such as physical therapy and homeopathic remedies but still found herself bedridden and vomiting. Desperate, she began researching medical cannabis online. When she approached her doctor about it in 2012, Utah still had no medical cannabis law of any kind, so he prescribed dronabinol, pure synthetic THC taken in pill form. The psychoactive side effects were so severe, she only lasted two weeks before quitting.

Desperate but conflicted about breaking the law to use whole-plant cannabis, she called her father, a retired law enforcement officer with 27-years in narcotics, for advice. He told her to just try it.

She did and found not just relief but a cause. In 2013 Christine began attending organizing meetings of patients working to get a medical cannabis bill passed. It was at one of those meetings that she met Angela Bacca, a young activist living with Crohn’s disease who helped teach her how political lobbying works. As Christine spent time at the state capitol the next year working to broaden what would become the first CBD-only law in the nation, she met other lobbyists for grassroots issues and learned more about how to connect with lawmakers.

“I’m a stay-at-home mom used to working with kids, so I approach self-advocating with an attitude of ‘let’s learn together’ how to be more effective politically.”

Early in 2015, Christine found an ally in Utah state Senator Mark Madsen, whose own experience with a near-fatal accidental overdose of a narcotic painkiller had convinced him to champion new medical cannabis legislation. Madsen introduced S.B. 259 that year, which would have allowed whole plant medicines, participation by more patients, and legal production and distribution within Utah, but the bill was derailed by special interest politics, losing by a single vote. A watered-down version of the bill made it through the state senate in February this year and was then further diluted in the House before being returned to a Senate committee, where it was defeated in March. Last month, Christine and Sen. Madsen travelled together to Washington, D.C. to participate in ASA’s Senate briefing on the bipartisan Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act of 2015 (CARERS), which would allow state medical cannabis programs to operate without federal interference.

Christine continues to work for a better law in Utah through the group she founded, Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE). She and Sen. Madsen hope to put before Utah voters a medical cannabis initiative that would enact the type of robust program that meets patient needs

This profile was originally published in the July 2016 ASA Activist Newsletter