CROWN POINT — Carla Wirick’s doctor says she would be a perfect candidate for medical marijuana.
It would alleviate the pain from her spinal injury, he told her. It would help her be more active. It would allow her to stop taking narcotic painkillers.
But despite the fact her doctor is a neurologist and rehabilitation specialist at a leading university medical center, he can’t prescribe her the drug. He practices in Chicago, where medical marijuana is legal, while she lives in Crown Point, where it is not.
Wirick mostly stays home now, unable to work, unable to garden, taking pain pills every six hours. She believes medical cannabis, which is legal in 25 states and the District of Columbia, could change some of that. But unless the political winds change in Indiana, it won’t be an option.
“I feel like If I had the pain controlled, I could deal with the rest of it,” said Wirick, a 58-year-old grandmother who shakes from her condition. “I feel like medical marijuana would give me a chance at life.”
Since medical cannabis was legalized in Illinois three years ago this month, nearly 9,000 residents have received approval to use it. A total of 40 dispensaries have sold $16.3 million of the drug since sales began in November. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner recently signed a law extending the pilot program until July 2020.
But none of that matters to people who live on the Indiana side of the Calumet Region.
For the past two years, state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, has pushed a medical marijuana bill at the Statehouse. She hasn’t even gotten a hearing.
“I’ll continue to bring it up,” she said. “A lot of legislators still feel, ‘I don’t want to be out there too far ahead of the public.’ But the public is ahead of most of them.”
While a 2013 Ball State poll found a majority of Hoosiers favor decriminalization of marijuana, Tallian believes the best chance for legalizing medical cannabis is to have a governor publicly advocate for it. Democratic candidate John Gregg supports medical marijuana; Republican nominee Eric Holcomb is staying neutral, though he is open to meeting with the medical and law enforcement communities to learn more, a spokesman said.
A reduction in opioids
Dr. Michael Foreit, a Gary family physician and occupational therapist, calls cannabis a miracle drug. He says it can lessen seizures, tremors and inflammation, among other symptoms. He already recommends hemp-derived cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive substance legal in Indiana, to patients for everything from menstrual cramps to traumatic injuries.
“The Chinese talked about (marijuana) in their earliest documents. They talked about it 3,000 years before the first writings of Jesus’ name,” he said. “We have brain receptors waiting for this. We have been using it for thousands and thousands of years.”
Foreit said his father, a retired Hammond physician, ate edible cannabis to alleviate the pain from lower back surgery, reporting that it worked better than opioid painkillers.
The overprescribing of those drugs has led to an epidemic of overdose deaths in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 78 people die every day from opioids, at least half of which are of the prescription variety. Earlier this year, the American Medical Association’s journal of internal medicine published a study that found that states where medical marijuana is legal had 25 percent fewer opioid-related deaths than states where it is not.
Even so, the federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, alongside heroin and Ecstasy. This classification prevents universities from researching the drug’s medical benefits and many doctors from wanting to prescribe it.
Taking it into own hands
Alexandra Wail, of Dyer, smokes marijuana illegally to relieve her fibromyalgia pain, saying it’s the only way she can make it through the day. But she’d rather have the option of shopping in a dispensary to select a strain to target her symptoms.
“It sucks that I have to be scared that I have to get in trouble to have my medicine of choice,” said Wail, 20. “Because the government says it’s illegal, everyone else misses out on it. People who actually need it can’t get it.”
She has chronic pain all over her body, as well as insomnia, bladder problems, weak joints and brain fog. Her condition makes it hard for her to work and go to school. “My doctors try to prescribe me so much crazy (medication) with side effects that doesn’t help at all,” Wail said. “I would rather smoke a plant. I trust it more.”
Wail is a member of the Fibromites Unite fibromyalgia support group, which meets in Dyer. Half the members are from Indiana, while the other half reside in Illinois. Some of the Illinoisans use medical marijuana to treat the disease; the Hoosiers who want to can’t.
Sold miles from Indiana border
About a dozen miles northeast of where Wail lives, in a nondescript Homewood office building with no sign on the street, Windy City Cannabis dispenses medical weed, legally, to patients from across Chicago’s South Side and south suburbs. The waiting area includes modern furniture, a bowl of candy and reggae music.
General manager Graham Hughson said despite gaining acceptance, pot continues to have a bad reputation among a large portion of the population. “The average medical cannabis patient is a woman between 40 and 60 years old,” he said. “It’s not what people think when they’re voting against it.”
The dispensary sells 50 to 60 different strains of the drug, depending on what effects the patient is looking for and what form they want the cannabis in: buds, hash, concentrates, edibles. Hughson said some of his customers have been able to get off prescription drugs with marijuana, their only side effects being hunger and sleepiness. Patients come in to seek relief from such conditions as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epileptic seizures.
“We have people who call from Indiana asking if they can get medical marijuana,” he said. “Unfortunately the answer is no.”
One of Windy City Cannabis’ clients, Paul Melvan, lives right next to the Chicago Skyway, on the city’s Far South Side, near where Jake and Elwood jumped a drawbridge in “The Blues Brothers.” On a recent day, Melvan, 54, smoked cannabidiol through a vape pen, his border terriers, Giles and Wesley, lounging on the floor, Fleetwood Mac on the turntable.
The marijuana strain he uses doesn’t get him high but helps with the inflammation from his rheumatoid arthritis and the fatigue from his cancer treatment. He says he has recently reduced his daily intake of morphine from three pills to two and Percocet from five to two. A $70 cartridge of the cannabidiol lasts him one to two weeks.
Melvan smoked pot even before the law passed. “The problem was you could only get what you could get,” he said. “You weren’t getting the specific strains that could help you.”
The distinction in rules between the two states is a concern even for Melvan, who, living just a few miles from the border, frequents Indiana often. Since medical marijuana is illegal in the Hoosier state, he could be arrested on charges of possessing it there.
“I have to be careful. I got back from Bombers BBQ (in Munster) a few months ago and realized I had this in (my) pocket,” he said, holding up his vape pen.
Waiting for a policy change
As for Wirick, the Crown Point grandmother, all she can do is wait for a change in state law. She doesn’t want to take cannabis illegally, and has no intention of uprooting and moving to Illinois.
Her injury stems from surgical complications from when she had a tumor removed from her spine. She says it feels like the lower half of her body is asleep.
Wirick, a former middle school lunch lady, doesn’t want to have to take narcotic painkillers, muscle relaxants and medicine for nerve pain, but she has no choice. The medications give her anxiety, for which she now takes Klonopin.
“I feel like I should be at least given the chance to try medical marijuana,” she said. “What are the long-term effects of these drugs?”
She has tried yoga and acupuncture to relieve her symptoms, to varying degrees of success. Still, she and her husband, Don, are not nearly as active as they once were.
“We used to go to the gym three, four times a week, and walk all the time. Now if she does any physical activity, the next day she’s in agony,” her husband said. “We were in the Crown Point garden walk in 2008. Now we’re taking out the garden.”
Wirick has also had to give up her beloved bowling and struggles to play with her two young grandchildren.
“It’s frustrating to know my doctor is in Illinois and he can’t give it to me,” she said of medical marijuana. “We have Chicago TV, and we’re on Chicago time. Northwest Indiana is like a little part of Chicago. Why can’t we be included in this?”