Is there a beneficial connection between multiple sclerosis and cannabis? Consider Grace's story.
Note: This article is about an individual who resides in a state where cannabis is not legal for medical or recreational purposes. Her identity has been withheld at her request due to the illegal nature of her cannabis usage. The name “Grace” used in this article is an alias.
Have you ever met someone who instantly puts you at ease? Whose presence is like the warm spot in the living room where the sun shines through the window on a cold day? That’s how I felt when I met Grace.
How we met
My husband and I decided to grab a quick drink after dinner on a low-key Friday night. Grace was hanging out with a friend of ours, and we wandered over to chat. Just a few minutes into talking with her, I was suffering from a severe case of deja vu — I knew this girl. I knew the way she made me feel. I’d experienced her calm coolness and the syrupy sweetness of the “darlings” and “lovelies” she peppers into conversation. It didn’t take much time to make the connection that she is a server at a restaurant my husband and I frequent, and it wasn’t long after this discovery that she was refilling my glass with the bottle of rosé she had split with our friend. The refills kept flowing generously, and we stayed at the bar much longer than we’d intended to.
Grace and I talked about everything — work, life, the usual. She’s 24 and isn’t entirely sure what she wants to do with her future. For now, she serves at a couple of different restaurants, doesn’t really have any “off days,” and plans on moving to New York City. At some point, the whole group landed on the subject of medical cannabis, and Grace mentioned that her support for the cause is personal, as she suffers from a chronic condition that she’s noticed is positively impacted by cannabis usage.
I learned that Grace has multiple sclerosis, and I asked her if she would mind talking more about it. We decided to meet up later in the week so I could get all the details I’d need to tell her story.
We got together at a local tea shop on what must have been the hottest Friday afternoon of the summer. I wound up having a hectic day at work and rushed frantically to meet Grace once I had everything wrapped up. Sweating and disheveled, I apologized for my tardiness. True to her calm, comforting form, Grace assured me that it was no trouble and she had all the time in the world.
Grace was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 16. I asked what led to the diagnosis, and she explained that her symptoms initially presented as vision problems — seemingly random blurred vision and double vision.
“I was at a theater conference watching a play, when I started seeing double, vertically, in one eye. I thought maybe it was my contact so I took it out, but my vision was still really blurred,” she said.
When she returned home from the school trip, her parents took her to an eye doctor, who referred Grace to a neurologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. After a series of tests, including blood work and an MRI, the doctors felt confident that they had identified the cause of Grace’s vision problems.
“I was only 16 at the time, so they sent me into another room so they could talk to my parents first,” she said. “When they brought me back into the room, they said, ‘We think you have multiple sclerosis, do you know what that is?’ And I immediately started bawling. My uncle had multiple sclerosis and he was in a wheelchair. That was the only image I had of MS at the time, so it was really scary.”
Grace has relapsing-remitting MS, a condition that affects the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, “MS causes the immune system to attack the myelin, which is the insulation protecting the nerves.” These attacks result in scarring — or sclerosis — of myelin and/or the nerves the myelin protects. (In discussion of MS, these scars may also be referred to as lesions.)
Because the central nervous system controls just about everything in the body, MS can present itself in many different ways — it all depends on the location of the lesion(s). For Grace, symptoms come and go and manifest in a variety of forms.
“Summer is the worst,” she explained. “When my core is overheated, my eyes go blurry, my legs go numb, and my cognition is terrible. It’s hard to be a person.”
While there is no cure for MS, there are treatments that can slow the progression of the disease, minimize inflammation, and promote temporary healing. After trial and error with a number of intensive treatments, Grace landed on an infusion given once per month, which she told me costs around $12,000 per visit. That’s $144,000 a year. Right now, Grace is still on her parents’ insurance but worries about what she’ll do when she turns 26 and no longer qualifies to remain on their plan.
Grace also takes medication to soothe the anxiety that comes with worrying about impending medical bills, disease progression, and life in general. What she feels like she’s missing is access to a natural remedy for pain and stress.
“I’d read about medical marijuana trials for MS, and I heard people talking about [medical cannabis] in hushed tones when I was in high school,” she said. “I never actually smoked until I was in college, probably my freshman year, and I realized that it made such a difference.”
Grace explains that using cannabis before bed helps alleviate pressure and relax her muscles, which tend to tense up when she lays down to sleep at night. But even though Grace has noticed benefits, she explained that because cannabis is still illegal in her state, she doesn’t buy it and often feels hesitant to smoke with friends because the product isn’t regulated. She also noted that she personally prefers not to smoke, and that she would love to have access to products such as edibles, oils, and other cannabis products on the market.
What we know about Multiple Sclerosis and cannabis
The effects of medical cannabis for multiple sclerosis have been studied in formal research and clinical trials. With results that support Grace’s personal findings, the National MS Society reports that positive correlations have been found between cannabis products and the reduction of muscle stiffness/spasms/pain, as well as better sleep for MS sufferers. No long-term studies have been completed to determine the effects of medical cannabis on MS disease progression.
A common thread
The more I talk with people who suffer from chronic conditions that can benefit from medical cannabis, the more I realize they all want the same thing: an opportunity to try a natural product that can help their symptoms.
“If medical marijuana was legalized in more states, a lot more people could feel better on a regular basis and not be stressed out because their body is in pain,” Grace said. “That would be a really beautiful thing.”
This boiled down sentiment is one of the most basic, yet most profound ways I’ve heard anyone explain the benefits of medical cannabis. Feel better. Less stress. If that’s the only thing cannabis did for anyone, Grace is right: That would be a really beautiful thing.
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