For many, medical marijuana is still a taboo topic.
Physicians and patients who spoke with the Tampa Bay Times brought up the stigma surrounding the drug and the people who use it, rooted in longtime notions about marijuana. In 2016, Florida voters approved marijuana use for those a wide array of medical conditions, but the drug is still classified as illegal by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Some patients agreed to be interviewed, but didn't want to be identified, fearing judgment by friends and family, or retaliation from employers.
However, a few patients were willing to lend their names so others could learn how the new medication is working for them.
Here are their stories:
• • •
Kristina Risola experiences both sides of the medical marijuana coin.
On one side, she is director of operations at Florida Medical Cannabis Clinic, a year-old medical marijuana clinic with offices in Land O' Lakes and Spring Hill.
On the other side, Risola, 33, of Hudson, is a legal medical marijuana patient with severe chronic pain. She recites her conditions like a grocery list: fibromyalgia, endometriosis, post traumatic stress, anxiety, gastrointestinal conditions, celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome.
She became a marijuana patient after a car accident last May that left her with multiple back injuries.
Scott Gebhardt, her long-time friend and colleague, suggested she try medical marijuana. Although skeptical, she listened.
For years, she dealt with pain so severe that it woke her out of her sleep. She self-medicated with marijuana for at least six years."
"On no level did I expect how profoundly it was going to change my life," Risola said. "Having the access to it completely changed my life."
Risola became a legal patient on June 30 and made her first medical cannabis purchase a few days later, on July 4.
The first capsule she took left her speechless. Immediately, she texted Gebhardt.
"It evens me out," Risola said. "I feel like a normal human being when I have my medicine." For the next nine months, Risola slept through the night without pain and began to lose the weight she had gained.
She vapes, inhaling small doses every few hours. At night, she uses higher dosage products, like edibles or capsules that are "more relaxing, more sedating."
Many colleagues and friends were surprised she used marijuana, Risola said. Some pulled her aside with questions.
"I had to tell them, like look, if you've interacted with me in the last six years that I've been sick, chances are I was probably using cannabis at the time," Risola said. "When I tell them that, it's like ... (they) can't even comprehend it."
• • •
Candace Leary, 47, of New Port Richey, calls medical marijuana a godsend. She and four of her sisters have Huntington's disease, a fatal, genetic disorder that diminishes nerve cells in the brain, causing difficulties in movement, plus cognitive and behavioral changes.
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Tampa neurologist Dr. Juan Sanchez-Ramos recommended that Leary try medical marijuana, she said. She learned about Dr. Tanmay Patel, who has an office in New Port Richey, when her son picked up the doctor's card at a local smoke shop.
Patel recommended a tincture taken under the tongue, three times a day. It has quelled her anxiety and the uncontrollable rage that are symptoms of Huntington's, Leary said. Sometimes she had "blackouts" that lasted for days and could not recall lashing out at friends and family.
"It was so embarrassing. But ever since I've been on the medical marijuana, I have had no rage episodes," she said. "I can't say enough about it. It's truly changed my home life — everything."
Leary, who has been treated for chronic pain for 15 years, has reduced her other pain medication.
"I hate taking pills," she said. "So many of the pharmaceuticals have (side effects). I don't have side effects from the medical marijuana."
The initial costs to obtain medical marijuana were expensive, said Leary. But she and Patel have found a recipe that works.
"We go slow," she said, adjusting her dosage at follow-up appointments.
Because of her diminished brain capacity, Leary relied on her son and husband to help her obtain a medical marijuana card. The Truelieve dispensary in Tampa delivers her tincture for a $25 charge.
"People who are going on that are not in the best medical health, and I think it should be easier," said Leary, who shared her experience in her support group.
"I'm not worried about being judged," she said. "It's not like it's illegal. That's why we made it legal — to help people. I'm not going to quit talking about it, especially if it helps people. It's a miracle drug for me."
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• • •
In 1985, Beth Williams was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 24.
"They told me I had six months to live," she said.
She's still here.
Williams, 56, moved from Maine to Hudson, Florida, last summer. Various medications have kept her alive, she said, but they often come with side effects, including a rapid drop in weight from 208 to 127 pounds.
"Some of the drugs they give you are toxic," she said. "It (medical marijuana) helps with my nausea. It helps with my appetite when I can't eat. It helps arthritis in my back, because it seems to relax my muscles. It helps me sleep. It's an all-in-one for me."
While living in Maine, Williams said she smoked medical marijuana at a cost of about $10 a gram. Since moving to Florida, she uses the vapor form, as recommended by Patel.
Paying out of pocket can be difficult, Williams said. A recent visit to the dispensary cost her $225 for a month's supply
"It's a lot more expensive than the old-fashioned way of smoking it," she said. "I'm a single mom going through a divorce, with limited income, on disability. I don't know how I can go without, because it helps me."
The lack of local dispensaries increases the burden, Leary said.
"I have to travel 45 minutes to an hour to go to the dispensary in Tampa," she said. "They deliver statewide for a $25 delivery charge, but when you are already strapped, that just adds to it."
• • •
Nearly every 28 days, Brian Moore's pain management doctor takes a few more opioid pills off his lengthy list of "heavy" medications, he said.
For more than 25 years, Moore, 57, has suffered from multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue in the nervous system.
To cope with chronic pain, Moore took four morphine pills and three oxycontin pills each day, and sometimes Valium, he said. Now that he's a medical marijuana patient, he doesn't need as many opioids.
"You can't rewire my body. There ain't no cure, ain't no fixing (MS)," Moore said, "(but) not eating a lot of those pain pills is going to make me a little more healthy."
Moore, of New Port Richey, became a legal patient at the end of January. Since then, he said, he hasn't had a bad MS attack, and his pain management doctor eliminated opioid pills he took for more than 15 years. It happened so quickly, Moore said, he had withdrawal symptoms.
His cannabidiol oil, or CBD, relaxes his nervous system, he said. He uses liquid drops beneath his tongue, or a tincture, and vaporizing.
"(Medical marijuana) will relax me enough where I can go have lunch with my wife or walk the beach," Moore said.
He said it wasn't hard to sell him on using medical marijuana.
"As soon as I saw 'relief' written on the bottle, I said I want that one," Moore said about the first time he purchased it.
"I don't want to sit here and be stoned all day. I want something to relieve (the pain) so I can be active, and (medical marijuana) helps me a lot."
However, medical marijuana costs can be daunting compared to his other medications, which are covered by insurance.
"I can't just smoke this. I'll go broke," Moore said.
At a minimum, he said, his medicine costs about $500 for a 70-day supply. He pays an additional $165 each time he visits the doctor.
Regardless of the expense, Moore is "a firm believer." Medical marijuana makes it possible, eventually, for a person to stop using opioids, he said.
"It would just be up to the person on how long it takes them to get off all the pills," Moore said.
Contact TyLisa C. Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tylisajohnson.