Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Is it legal yet?

Sarah Bigham
Frederick, Maryland, United States


In Flux, 2015. Painting by Sarah Bigham

When I first embarked on this trip, I did not want to take to the land of chronic pain, with diagnoses as my expanding luggage. I only thought I had not worked hard enough to find the right medical specialist to prescribe the treatment that would end the hurt.

After several years of experts and charlatans, pill organizers growing in size as their contents multiplied, and trying nearly any treatment I could find on the entire Eastern-Western medicine spectrum, I hung my hopes on medical marijuana. Of course, the laws in my state are new and the process in flux. Friends, and friends of friends, indicated their willingness to help me acquire some through non-official channels, but I demurred. I had no interest in smoking it. Moreover, my father is a judge.

I have been very open about my goal of joining the state registry and trying medical cannabis. Colleagues, relatives, and care providers have likewise been quite free with their opinions. The young and the old have, perhaps unsurprisingly, been the most firmly supportive. Young adults have come of age in a time when legalized marijuana was a real thing, and the old know pain intimately. At my most recent appointment with a specialist I knew to be opposed to any substance not subjected to rigorous scientific study, I was pleased to learn that even she has become pro-cannabis.

On nights when the pain is at its worst, I wander the house at 2 a.m. feeling I could tear with my teeth into old paint cans. At first I was in denial about the staying power of such intense pain, but I must now reconcile the body I did not want with the body I have. And some medicinal weed may well be the way to do that. Of course, I do not know for sure because I have not tried it yet. I did once take a prescription for the capsule-based synthetic version of marijuana used primarily for people in palliative care, but this was a disaster. It did nothing for my pain, caused temporary blindness, affected my motor skills, made half of my body terrifyingly numb for a short period of time, and coated the rest in a sheen of sweat – all of which resulted in an urgent trip to the doctor and a discovery that, once again, I have a knack for developing the rarest of side effects.

My state now allows medical cannabis and I, along with the parents of babies who seize and patients with any number of life-altering conditions, have been anxiously awaiting each part of the process to unfold.

Step 1: Sign up for the state registry. Check. After I had my new passport-type photos in hand, I could fill the form out online. At midnight. At my house. Soon thereafter I received an email telling me I was officially on the registry. My wife then signed up as a care provider so that she can purchase products on my behalf.

Step 2: Obtain physician approval for medical marijuana from a state-approved medical provider versed in cannabis use. Check. My wife drove me to a new business across town where we were greeted by reggae music and a receptionist who invited us to help ourselves to the snacks available in an adjoining room. The doctor listened to my medical history and my lungs, took my vitals, and reviewed my current medications (which I brought in their prescription bottles, as per the clinic’s instructions) before pronouncing me a good candidate for medical cannabis and providing several suggestions for strains that might be helpful for me.

Step 3: Register with a dispensary. Check. I lucked out and a dispensary opened in my city. I am not sure what I expected, but the place is in a non-descript building in a business park. There is a brewery close by and an industrial bakery across the road, sending bready scents wafting on the wind. The registration required a meeting with a dispensary representative. In my case, this was a young man with a sincere appreciation for cannabis who provided a lengthy explanation of cannabinoids until I finally used the statement that has worked like magic in so many medically-related appointments: My wife is an organic chemist. This is not only a true statement, but one that is usually met with a few beats of silence before the person rapidly shifts gears entirely. Our appointment ended soon after that declaration. I think he decided our household had a basic understanding of science.

Step 4: Wait for the state-approved growers to produce enough product to meet the demand and provide dispensaries with inventory. Check. Target dates were hazy and I began to think that the multi-year process to provide suffering citizens of the state with cannabis might go on indefinitely, but medical marijuana has just been made available for sale here.

Step 5: Meet with a pharmacist at a state-approved dispensary and purchase products. Check. My wife and I ventured back to the original dispensary where we were met with a full parking lot and many other patients in search of relief. Our time at the facility included a lot of waiting in the lobby area with a sea of suffering souls whose skin graft scars and heavy limps told stories of intense pain. We then met with a pharmacist (this one delighted to learn of my wife’s chemistry background, which may have been obvious as she was wearing a shirt depicting portions of the periodic table) who described several of the strains currently available and what may be in stock later. The names are hysterical. One kind he highly recommended for my particular pain issues shares its name with a hard rock band. We then waited again before finally making it to the secured pharmacy (a cold, quiet sales area where only two customers were allowed to be at a time and which was staffed by a clerk and a security guard whose role was evident, based not only on his jacket which helpfully said SECURITY, but also his own take on a Fu Manchu). After nearly two hours and cash-only payment, we emerged victoriously with a carefully labeled bag containing cannabis oil drops from a strain with vanilla in the title. The part that makes me smile, every time I think about it, is knowing that once the dispensary is in full operational mode, I will not have to go there for future purchases. The dispensary will come to me – in unmarked vehicles bearing my pre-ordered products. There will literally be a pot fairy!

Step 6: Try the tincture. Given my body’s extreme sensitivity (a symptom that appeared along with the chronic pain), the plan is to give the drops a try this upcoming weekend, when I am not expected to appear anywhere in public.

I have no idea if medical cannabis will do a thing for me. I have waited so long for this to be an option that I am nearly afraid to try it, worried that this beacon of promise that has helped so many may not bring me any relief. What if it does not work, like the long list of previous treatments? Not opening the packaging, which looks like what an over-the-counter nose spray might come in, holds some appeal – it is like a tiny container of hope, perhaps best left untouched.

But open it I will.



SARAH BIGHAM is a community college professor who lives with her chemist wife, three independent cats, an unwieldy herb garden, several chronic pain conditions, and near-constant outrage at the general state of the world tempered with love for those doing their best to make a difference. A Pushcart nominee, her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of great places for readers, writers, and listeners. Find her at www.sgbigham.com.


Winter 2018  |  Sections  |  Personal Narratives

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.