As doctors, pundits and policymakers debate State Question 788, some Oklahomans already have taken the question of medical marijuana into their own hands by illegally bringing medical cannabis into the state for loved ones suffering from terminal or chronic illnesses.
Two Oklahomans shared their stories with the News & Eagle on condition of anonymity, out of fear of possible legal consequences for bringing medical marijuana into the state.
Taking risks for the care of a child
For one parent, bringing marijuana across state lines was unthinkable, until their young child was diagnosed with cancer. The child was given a 60 percent chance of survival with traditional oncology treatments.
The parent said they proceeded with all doctors’ recommendations, and the child began a long course of surgery and radiation treatments, followed by chemotherapy. But, if there was anything else that could be done, the parent said they wanted to pursue it.
“At that time we were still like, ‘What in the hell just happened?’ and ‘What are we going to do?’ We just wanted to see what else we could do to help,” the parent said.
Online research and talking to parents in states with legal medical marijuana revealed a wealth of testimonies about the effectiveness of cannabis to improve appetite and ease pain for children undergoing radiation and chemotherapy, and possibly to shrink tumors.
“Those testimonies were enough for me,” the parent said, “just to make my child feel better, at the very least, with the possibility of prolonging … life and improving quality of life.”
The parent eventually connected with a person who had a legal medical marijuana card in another state who was willing to help. Sympathetic doctors and nurses from that state also came forward and helped the parent outline dosage levels and a treatment plan for the child.
But, there were risks. Carrying marijuana across state lines still is a felony — incurring the possible penalty of time in prison.
The parent said they weighed that possibility and determined to proceed anyway.
“It made me a little nervous, but it really made me more cautious, because I already had my mind made up,” the parent said. “There was no doubt in my mind I was going to do it. I would walk through hellfire and back for my child.
“I’d always been asked what I’d do if I got [caught with the medical marijuana] and my answer is always the same: I would tell them exactly what I was doing, and if they took me to jail I hope they could sleep at night, knowing they took medicine away from my child,” the parent said. “What parent wouldn’t go to the ends of the earth for their kid?”
The parent began giving the child an oil mixture of cannabidiol (CBD), a legal extract from the marijuana plant, and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal psychoactive compound in cannabis, illegal for use in Oklahoma. The parent said the child’s doctors didn’t know about the medical marijuana treatments — at least not explicitly.
Dosages and the balance between CBD and THC were adjusted gradually, based on recommendations from medical staff in the other state, the parent said.
“It’s not like you’re getting your child, or whoever you’re treating, stoned,” the parent said. “You’re starting at a very low dose and working your way up to a target dose where it could start helping.”
The parent said there’s no way of knowing for sure how much difference the THC and CBD mixture made for their child. But, the parent said, their child maintained an appetite and progressed more rapidly in recovery than other kids with similar diagnoses in a support group for the same type of cancer.
“We could see a lot of things that other kids were going through, that our child wasn’t,” the parent said.
Other children in the group had trouble eating, suffered balance and stability problems and some were confined to wheelchairs.
The child was able to stay in school throughout the oncology treatments — while also taking the medical cannabis — and aside from tiring quickly, the worst conditions were from the radiation and chemotherapy.
The child now is in remission, and has resumed all the normal activities of a healthy child.
“Anybody who knows our child and saw what … [we] went through, and knows what I did for …, truly believes it has helped,” the parent said.
A loving goodbye
While the parent feels certain medical marijuana helped their child recover, another area resident has seen medical marijuana help two parents in the terminal stages of cancer, as they fought to spend their last days with family, coherent and with dignity.
The adult caregiver was introduced to medical marijuana when their mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, that had spread throughout her body.
The mother was prescribed painkillers, but still suffered pain in her leg so severe she begged her husband to cut off the limb.
In desperation, the father loaded her in the family motor home and drove her to Colorado, where medical marijuana was legal.
After starting a course of medical cannabis, the adult caregiver said their mother was able to stop taking all other pain medication. The parents were even able to complete a long-planned trip to Canada in the motor home before the mother died, the adult said.
That experience immediately came to mind when the caregiver’s father also was diagnosed with cancer. By the time the cancer was found, it already had spread to his liver, lungs, colon and brain.
“When we found out he had cancer, he was already terminal,” the adult caregiver said.
Within several months the doctors said the father’s organs were shutting down, and they recommended hospice care.
The doctors prescribed a course of opioid painkillers, including oxycodone and fentanyl, taken a combination of six times a day under the supervision of family members.
“That’s an extraordinary amount of opioids, and we were given all of those drugs without any education about them,” the caregiver said. “He had all these opioids, and he had a compromised liver and uneducated caregivers.”
After receiving “round-the-clock” opioids for several days, the father was incoherent, the adult said.
“It was like having a complete drug addict with you,” the adult caregiver said. “He was running into walls, he didn’t know who he was — it was bad.”
Only later did the caregiver calculate how much pain medicine the father was taking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a free app that calculates the milligram morphine equivalent (MME) for prescription opioid pain medicine.
A 2004-2009 CDC study found patients who died of opioid overdose were prescribed an average of 98 MME per day.
The adult said when they entered all of the prescription pain medication in the CDC calculator, the father was prescribed 210 MME per day.
Even with that level of opioids in his system — and the risk of overdosing — the father still was “screaming in pain,” the caregiver said.
That’s when the caregiver made arrangements to bring medical marijuana from a state where it’s legal.
After taking several doses of THC and CBD oil, the father was able to stop taking all of the opioid pain medication, the adult caregiver said.
“Within two weeks of no pain killers and just the medical marijuana, he went from being green [in his skin color] and having no idea what was going on, to being able to talk to us,” the adult caregiver said.
The father, who had been unable to function under the influence of the opioids, was able with the help of medical marijuana to spend about a month with his children and grandchildren, including dinners and family outings.
It was a loving goodbye that the adult said wouldn’t have been possible under the influence of the opioids.
“It gave my kids an opportunity to say goodbye to their Pa Pa,” the adult said. “It gave him clarity at the end. It gave him quality of life that the pharmaceuticals did not give him. He was able to go out with his grandkids and eat, and just live.”
The adult said many people are unsure of what medical marijuana can do, or think it’s only for recreational use. Oklahomans would be sure of its positive uses, the adult said, if they could see it work for someone like it did in their situation.
“All you have to do is see one person go through this, and it’s unreal,” the adult said. “He laughed again, and we were able to talk about Mom, and he was there. It’s the difference between having someone with you who’s completely drunk, and someone who is sober — someone who’s really there with you.”
Giving families a choice
Both the parent of the young child and the adult caregiver said they didn’t take breaking the law lightly. And, they don’t want other families to have to make that choice.
“It’s not that I don’t respect the law, because I do,” the parent said. “But when it’s up to life or death for a little one, you do what you have to do. For doing something any other parent would do, risking jail time or probation — whatever the cost is, they shouldn’t have to worry about that.”
The adult caregiver of the terminally ill father agreed.
“We were OK with the consequences if we got caught, because we were giving it to a sick man,” the adult said. “Dad was sick and he needed it.”
The adult caregiver said until medical marijuana is legally available in Oklahoma, other families will have to make the choice between following the law and providing relief and care for loved ones.
“When you have someone who’s terminally ill, you’ll do what you have to do, because their last days are on you,” the adult said. “Will they be in a drunken stupor, or will they be there with you and be able to talk to you and say goodbye? I don’t want families to have to try and find someone who will sell them a bag of weed when there are states that have done the research and have safe, effective medical marijuana.”