A few weeks ago, Mike Guess sat on a chair in the garage attached to his house.
Dressed in a St. Louis Cardinals cap and a hoodie, Guess held a small packet. The day before, the Air Force veteran had driven up to Collinsville to buy the packet from HCI Alternatives, the metro-east’s first medical cannabis dispensary.
Guess, who suffers from severe back and nerve pain, tore open the packet’s top and flipped it over. Out spilled into his open hand what looked like a single piece of purple-colored gummy candy.
“This was eight bucks for something this itty bitty,” Guess said.
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Guess, 32, popped the candy into his mouth.
“It’s a little chewy,” he said after a moment’s reflection. “It’s not bad. It tastes like a bit of grape, and it tastes like a little bit of the aroma of cannabis.”
It’s a little chewy. It’s not bad. It tastes like a bit of grape and it tastes like a little bit of the aroma of cannabis.
For the next four to six hours, Guess expected to experience significant relief from the pain that normally plagues his waking hours and has robbed him of a good night’s sleep for years. And unlike the cannabis he once bought from shadowy characters on the black market, the specially-grown strain inside the gummy candy he bought from the dispensary would not deliver more than the faintest hint of a buzz.
“I don’t feel it in my mind,” he said. “I don’t feel high.”
The state’s medical cannabis pilot program took effect more than two years ago. But for metro-east patients such as Guess, however, the program didn’t become a reality capable of affecting their lives until late January, when HCI Alternatives in Collinsville first opened its doors. Guess made his first visit to the retail outlet a few days later.
For Guess, the advent of legal cannabis has been something of a godsend.
Before he began buying medical cannabis, he was downing 20 pills a day, including muscle relaxants, opiates, anti-anxiety meds and medicine for gout.
Now’s he down to only six pills a day, and has entirely quit opiates, which are highly addictive and caused big problems for his digestive system. He has also stopped taking anti-depressant meds, which sometimes filled his head with suicidal thoughts. Guess reports that he’s sleeping better than he has in years, while his daily mood is much more upbeat.
“It’s crazy what pain can do to your mind and break you down and affect your quality of life,” Guess said. “The pain’s still there, but it gives you that bit of relief that your mind can drastically benefit from.”
5,000 Patients in Illinois who have qualified for medical cannabis cards
Guess said used to wake up in the morning feeling horrible, making life rough for his wife and two young children.
“Now I can get up in the morning and look forward to my day,” he said. “Now there is actual relief. The morning is something I actually look forward to.”
The only downside to his experience after nearly two months with medical cannabis has been the cost. Since no health insurance company will reimburse him for it, Guess must pay entirely out of his own pocket — $50 or so a week.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a miracle drug, but it’s definitely better than the stuff that’s been poisoning me,” Guess said.
Chris Costley, of Glen Carbon, has been fighting colon cancer for about a decade. He’s been using medical cannabis to fight the nausea and other side-effects of cancer treatments, first with medicine bought during regular trips to Colorado — where medical cannabis has been legal for nearly two decades — and now, since late January, trips to the HCI Alternatives dispensary.
At his low point, Costley weighed about 90 pounds, or about half of what he weighed before his cancer diagnosis. But in large part because of medical cannabis, he is back up to about 130 pounds.
Costley praised medical cannabis for helping him handle pain and for enabling him to cut back his medications for anxiety and to cut out anti-depressants entirely.
The hardest part of medical cannabis is the financial aspect, according to Costley, who wrote of his experiences in an email. A one-on-one interview was not practical because he has suffered profound hearing loss.
No health care insurance will cover medical cannabis costs, while “Illinois is very restrictive in regards to who qualifies, you still have to be able to afford to pay for the card (fingerprinting, background check are not part of the filing fee) along with the medicine itself, there is no ‘generic’ brand or co-pay and it is not cheap,” he wrote.
Costley wrote that he is sure a lot of Illinois residents would benefit from medical cannabis but can’t afford it. “Which is really a problem for all of us, because the more people you have signed up for it, and are using the program, the lower the prices will be, and conversely the fewer people enrolled the more they have to charge per customer.”
Another big problem with the Illinois pilot program: the lack of knowledge about medical cannabis found with the general public, elected officials and the healthcare industry, he said.
“When I approached my oncologist his response was, ‘We’ll learn this together as we go,’ as I was his first patient and he was no more informed than I was in regards to the process, and about the use of the medicine as well,” Costley wrote.
But for plenty of other metro-east patients who suffer from severe medical conditions that would qualify them for medical cannabis, and who want to buy it, the state’s program has been a huge disappointment.
Rick Veernoy, 50, of Granite City, suffers from advanced lung cancer. Under state rules, Veernoy would qualify for a medical cannabis registration card.
Problem is, he can’t find a physician in the metro-east who would be willing to sign the card to qualify him to go to a dispensary.
“It’s more legwork and hassle than they ever put it out to be,” Veernoy said. “I’ve had no success whatsoever.”
It’s more legwork and hassle than they ever put it out to be. I’ve had no success whatsoever.
Plenty of other patients are facing the same dilemma because the state does not provide a registry of physicians willing to start medical relationships with patients with a view toward signing a registration card. And since health insurance companies don’t cover the costs of medical cannabis, they don’t provide physician directories either.
Kimberly Locke, of Mattoon, has been trying for years to obtain medical cannabis for her young daughter, who suffers from severe seizures caused by epilepsy. The girl would qualify for a non-psychoactive form of medical marijuana called Charlotte’s Web, which has shown to be an effective way to control the seizures.
But because she was convicted of illegal possession of Sudafed 13 years ago, when she was 18, Locke is barred under state law from administering it to her daughter. The only way she can change the situation is to have another adult adopt the girl — a step Locke refuses to take.
“I’m not a bad person,” Locke said. “I’m not a violent person. I’m not a scary person, if you know what I mean. For the state to withhold medication from my daughter for something I did way before she was born, is not fair at all.”
Illinois has the most restrictive medical cannabis laws in the nation, a fact that could kill off the pilot program by the time it expires, preventing the nascent industry from attaining a firm foothold, according to Locke.
“The fact is there are lots of patients out there,” she said. “They’re just making it too hard. It’s hurting everybody: the dispensaries, the growers, it is hurting the state of Illinois the way they have it set up because nobody is able to use it, therefore the state of Illinois isn’t able to get that revenue.”
The fact is there are lots of patients out there. They’re just making it too hard.
So far 5,000 patients in Illinois have qualified for medical cannabis cards.
For Guess, medical cannabis has had a profound ripple effect on his family, he said.
“A week or two ago, my son told me, ‘My whole world is upside down,’” Guess recalled his 5-year-old son telling him. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’”
“He said, ‘You’re being nice and happy. And that makes me want to be nicer to my sister. And she’s nicer to me. But it all comes from you being nicer,’” Guess recalled.
“And I’m like, ‘I’m not in as much pain, you know?’ The pain is still there,” Guess said. “But it’s almost like a disconnect switch or a light dimmer.”