A few months ago, my husband and I became aware of the growing need for a local physician to evaluate patients seeking the legal option of using medical marijuana to treat any of Arizona’s qualifying medical conditions. I read science-based books to find out more about cannabis, known better by its informal name of marijuana, and attended a conference in New Mexico where medicinal marijuana was legalized 13 years ago. Though my husband had obtained his medical marijuana card a few years ago after undergoing a back surgery, I had remained ignorant of the process and, frankly, suspicious that the whole medical marijuana idea was sort of a wink and smirk agreement to assist young people to get high legally.
I could not have been more wrong.
The majority of my patients have been older, generally in their 50s or beyond. A very large proportion are military veterans. Quite a few of my patients have spent years trying other, more commonly accepted treatments for their maladies. Many are adamantly against opioid use as they typically have been on narcotics, sometimes for very long periods of time and they want to stop using those drugs because they don’t like the way the opioids make them feel. Some of our patients have even weaned themselves off of opioids, which can be a dangerous endeavor when lacking medical supervision. These applicants simply want to be able to function, to work, to be able to do everyday things without high levels of pain. These are not the stereotypical young men searching for a way to get stoned; they are the grandparents that still have a lot to contribute if they can just keep their pain down to a tolerable level.
Perhaps part of the tendency to assume that marijuana is nothing more than wacky weed and the proposal that it can be a valid, useful, medical treatment is a joke is due to the growing pains still present in the system. Yes, some of the opportunities for obtaining a medical certification indicating that a patient meets one of our state’s nine, legally qualifying medical conditions have been somewhat of a joke. And yes, there is a lot of money that can be made in the cannabis business and that aspect may attract some people that want to make money as quickly and easily as possible. In my opinion, those of us in this business must act respectfully if we want to be treated with respect. Patients that legally seek a treatment that was approved by the majority of Arizona residents deserve to be treated like any other patient seeking treatment; namely, they deserve to be respectfully listened to, believed and examined in a private, comfortable setting.
If people were truly just seeking to feel inebriated, they could simply purchase alcohol and be done with it.
Medicinal marijuana cards are not cheap. Total costs can vary from approximately $265 — $385 per person with the largest portion of the collected fees going to Arizona’s Department of Health Services. As of February 2018, an ‘overflow account’ of medical marijuana’s monies collected beyond expenses incurred contained more than $33 million dollars. According to the most recently published state budget, it is expected that this account’s balance will exceed $100 million in 2020.
Since Arizona residents approved medicinal marijuana by a popular vote majority, and our state coffers are benefitting from our cannabis industry, I propose that we consider the contributors to this overflow — the medicinal marijuana cardholders — as the state’s silent financial supporters that they truly are. I am embarrassed that my original expectations were so beneath the patients I have encountered. These patients are some of the bravest people I have ever met. And I feel honored to assist them obtain a treatment that has been utilized by civilizations for thousands of years.
Dr. Laura Vandenheede is an orthopedic surgeon and certifies patients for medical marijuana at her practice in Taylor.