Covid Desert Blues – How Lockdown Impacts Medically Fragile Cannabis Patients

Covid Desert Blues – How Lockdown Impacts Medically Fragile Cannabis Patients

CANNABIS CULTURE – I very often approach my diagnosis with humor, but there are days when it overwhelms me. Sometimes there are days when all you can do is cry, be exhausted by the excruciating pain and never-ending battle. This illness is not just my demon.” This dilemma is exactly what Jessica, a 34-year-old woman from Southeast Pennsylvania, found herself facing. Love, support, and feeling understood are the most valuable thing to someone fighting this battle, and believe me when I tell you, a little bit goes a long way. Reassurance resonates, it echoes, and on the darkest days, it is all we have to keep fighting.”

There is no denying that the arrival of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has changed millions of lives, with almost all aspects of day-to-day life having been significantly impacted in some way.  Imagine for a minute that not only are you living through this pandemic, but you have also been diagnosed with a life-changing illness.  You have to face a future of painful symptoms, and while narcotics can help alleviate many of these symptoms, they can be addictive and dangerous.  If you are fortunate to live in a State where marijuana is legal and know that it will be a more effective and natural means of treatment, then choosing smoking over opioids may seem like the logical decision.  However, with the arrival of this novel coronavirus, your ability to safely access this natural treatment now becomes jeopardized. 

In October 2019, Jessica received the news that she had lupus, a destructive autoimmune disease in which the immune system actually attacks the body instead of protecting it.  The symptoms can be devastating and include inflammation of joints and organs, fatigue, skin lesions, shortness of breath, chest pain, and fever.  The potential complications are endless, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, brain and central nervous system complications, kidney failure, and death.  As soon as Jessica received this devastating diagnosis, she resolved that she would not rely on narcotics to survive.  She went out and got a medical marijuana card as she knew that this would be a much more effective and non-addictive way for her to be relieved of some of her symptoms.  

On top of the issues she was facing with lupus, Jessica also had been previously diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), fibromyalgia, psoriatic arthritis, and had been subjected to 10 corrective knee surgeries.  Her need for symptom relief was vast, and only smoking cannabis could give her that respite from pain.  Having her medical marijuana card and being able to safely access what she needed improved Jessica’s life vastly.  But unfortunately, within a few short months, COVID burst into the United States with a fury.  With her immune system already weakened, Jessica knew she had to self-isolate if she wanted to stay safe.  However, Jessica’s husband was not a registered caregiver, which meant that he was unable to go to the dispensaries in her place.  

Many companies offer delivery of their products or curbside pickup, but unfortunately this is not an option when it comes to cannabis unless you choose to access the gray or black markets, despite it being an option for products such as alcohol.  Accessing outside of the legal ways can obviously lead to unstable or unpredictable product, possible legal ramifications, or the items ordered not ever arriving.  When it comes to using cannabis for medical reasons, it can also be extremely important that the patient gets the strain and THC/CBD content that they require, so obviously in these types of situations, the safest option is most often the legal one.  

Jessica was now facing the daunting task of having to stay at home with debilitating symptoms, request the very narcotics she had been striving to avoid, or risk coronavirus contamination and go herself to pick up cannabis.  She found her inner strength and courageously chose the latter.  Donning a mask, Jessica made her way to her local dispensary.  Unfortunately, people outside of the establishment were not kind to her and she faced significant abuse.  Her symptoms are not always visibly debilitating, and as with many patients suffering from chronic pain and illness, it is not always a matter of looking at someone and being able to tell that they are immunocompromised.  Often the only visible symptom would be her malar rash, or “butterfly rash,” a rash that spreads across the facial cheek area and can often look like flushed cheeks or rosacea.  In telling her story, Jessica explained, “Going out was absolutely nerve wracking as there were many people who targeted me for wearing a mask.  I had people cough at me, make rude remarks, and it got to a point where I honestly didn’t want to leave (the house).”  Despite this, Jessica continued these mentally and physically dangerous outings because, as she says, “Without marijuana, my symptoms would be unmanageable and my quality of life would be next to zero.”  In this way she could find relief, but it came at a high cost to her personal sense of wellbeing.  

In the beginning stages of COVID-19 lockdowns in the US, like many other cannabis users, Jessica did her best to stock up at the dispensaries.   In fact, while many businesses were facing severe hardships and closures, many cannabis retailers being labeled as “essential services” saw large spikes in their sales for March, moderate spikes for April, and a return to fairly average sales in May.  The marijuana business was thriving.  With nowhere to go and social gatherings discouraged or altogether banned, many were finding that their cannabis intake had grown significantly in relation to the amount of time they were now at home.  With asthma and other chronic respiratory illnesses having similar symptoms to COVID-related illness, smoke-free options such as edibles, vaporizers, oils also grew in popularity.  Many increased their cannabis use to help cope with the anxiety over the state of the world as well.  It makes sense, however, that with many employees being deemed “non-essential” and having their finances affected by sudden layoffs or job closures, the immediate stock-up of essential items like medical marijuana would not last long.  Purchasing large amounts would not always be an option for people who needed to stay home the most.  Although it would have been ideal for Jessica to not have to visit the dispensaries regularly, she found that anxiety over COVID-19 was leading to increased flares of her lupus symptoms, which in turn led to increased usage.  As her husband was to be able to keep working during the pandemic and keep a steady income, Jessica was able to afford the cannabis that she needed to get through her persistent daily pain, but she was all too aware of her elevated cannabis intake and the need to try and ration.  She continued to medicate as much as she could reasonably manage, and she continued to visit the cannabis stores whenever she needed more in the face of harassment and abuse.  

About a month into the lockdown orders, Jessica’s husband was finally able to receive his caregiver card and go to the dispensary in her place.  This was obviously a huge blessing for her as she no longer had to risk exposure and potential infection with coronavirus, and constant debasement from strangers who did not know her circumstances and understand that she was taking her life in her hands by leaving her home in an immunocompromised state.  From that moment on, Jessica’s medical cannabis journey began to be a much safer and effective one.  She speaks of her local dispensary fondly, saying that “luckily the one I frequent is incredibly professional and have their patients’ safety as their number one priority.”  

Unfortunately, Jessica’s story is one of many who have shared her experience of abuse and ignorance in the face of severe illness.  As lockdown restrictions all over fluctuate and reduce, she is also keenly aware that not everyone has the support system that she has been lucky enough to have.  It is important to recognize the struggle and risk facing those with chronic illness who have to venture out and jeopardize their lives in a pandemic to get the very products that make their life bearable.  Not all illness is visible.  While we have seen evidence all around us that COVID-19 has brought out the best and worst in people, we can do our part to make a positive impact on the world around us by checking in on family, friends, and neighbours, as well as seeking out those who do not have adequate support systems and seeing how we can help.  It is crucial to remember that just because restrictions are lifting does not mean that everyone immediately feels safe to venture out.  Numbers are still climbing, people are still dying, and we get nowhere by judging others without knowing their journey.  Looking to, learning from, and sharing stories like Jessica’s is so important in reminding us that we all have internal conflicts and invisible battles under the surface, that some of us are struggling daily just to access the tools we need to survive, and that the only way we will all get through this is working together.  We are lucky to live in a time where legalization allows us for the most part to buy safely, consume safely, and find the means of consumption that allows us to be our best selves in the face of the unknown.  When a sense of normalcy does make an appearance again, many of us will emerge with new skills, passions, experience, and a sense of strength and survival as communities and individuals.  For that, we can all be thankful. 

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