Friday afternoon marked a new beginning for Mike Guess of Belleville.
Guess, 32, an Air Force veteran, had guided his red Honda Civic into the parking lot of HCI Alternatives, the metro-east’s only medical cannabis dispensary that has opened so far. The married father of two checked his wallet to make sure he had the $200 in cash he had saved up, then walked as steadily as he could on pain-wracked legs to the dispensary’s front door.
HCI had opened for business on Monday, and four days later Guess had shown up to see if some of the strains of medical cannabis that HCI sells could help him. For nearly a decade, persistent migraine headaches and nerve pain from fibromyalgia and damaged spinal discs had plagued him day and night.
Before he walked inside, though, Guess removed a plastic bag from his car and began taking out plastic pill bottles. He set the bottles on the trunk of the Civic, lining up a dozen in all.
Some of the pills were muscle relaxers. Others treated his anxiety and depression. All were prescribed to him by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. And each drug was chipping away at him, one pill at a time, he said. The trip to HCI was a last-ditch effort to get off the prescription drugs and find a natural alternative.
“The prices are high, but at the same time these are killing me,” Guess said, describing such side-effects as insomnia, suicidal thoughts and nausea from his medications. “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’ and try something different? I’m willing to try a plant that naturally grows as opposed to something that doesn’t.”
In a way, Guess is lucky. The fibromyalgia he suffers from is on the list of 39 medical conditions that enable Illinois residents to obtain a medical cannabis card under the state’s pilot program. But for tens of thousands of other Illinois veterans, obtaining a medical cannabis card is impossible because many of the conditions that most trouble military veterans, including post-traumatic stress disorder, aren’t on the list of approved diagnoses.
What rankles military veterans like Belleville resident Mark Bush, 60, who suffers from PTSD, is that medical cannabis is proven to be a highly effective treatment for its worst symptoms, including intense nightmares and anxiety. Medical cannabis is also highly effective for treating other conditions that Bush suffers from, including seizures, he said.
Bush, a Navy veteran from the 1970s, knows from his own experience. For years he’s been buying cannabis on the black market, a risky endeavor, but worth it, he said.
“I don’t have a tendency to shake as much when I have a seizure,” he said of cannabis’ effect on him. And when he feels a bad PTSD episode coming on, such as on the Fourth of July, when the sound of exploding firecrackers pushes him to the edge, the cannabis has a powerfully soothing effect. Or, as he puts it, “If I’m lit up really hard in my head, it’ll slow me down.”
I don’t have a tendency to shake as much when I have a seizure.
Navy veteran Mark Bush of Belleville, describing how marijuana affects him
The state’s Medical Cannabis Advisory Board agrees with Bush. That’s why it included PTSD on a list of eight medical conditions to add to the 39 already on the list of approved conditions. For many in the state’s nascent medical marijuana industry, the inclusion of PTSD was seen as a way of enabling tens of thousands of new patients to enter the market — proving a godsend for a struggling industry that so far has only 4,000 registered users in Illinois, or less than 10 percent of what the industry had expected to have as recently as a year ago.
The low numbers have already led some observers to predict the industry will flame out before it ever has a real chance to get started.
On Friday, Gov. Bruce Rauner refused to add the eight medical conditions to the approved list. Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said it’s too early to expand the medical cannabis program: “At this time, it is premature to expand the pilot program before there is the ability to evaluate it under the current statutory requirements.”
Bush greeted the news with disappointment.
“I wish he could stand in my shoes for one day,” he said of Rauner.
The Rauner administration’s refusal to add new conditions to the approved list, including those that could bring in the most new patients — such as PTSD — is only more evidence of Rauner’s determination to kill off the industry, according to some observers.
Only a few days ago the business magazine Forbes published a story with the ominous headline, “Illinois Medical Marijuana Program In Danger Of Failure.” The article warned that the “low number of approved patients could force some marijuana businesses to close just as the program is getting underway.”
The article noted that an online petition by change.org to include more medical conditions had collected 18,000 signatures, and that the singer Melissa Etheridge, who has suffered from breast cancer, had joined the struggle. On her Twitter feed, Etheridge wrote: “I believe in this medicine. Petition: Let More People in Illinois Access Medical Cannabis.”
Caprice Sweatt, the founder and CEO of Medical Cannabis Outreach, said she believed Rauner’s refusal to add more medical conditions to the approved list stems from an animus in favor of the big pharmaceutical companies and against medical marijuana, which is seen as an economic threat, even though the fledgling industry in Illinois has so far invested at least $250 million in the state.
“I definitely believe he’ll kill this program if given the chance,” Sweatt said. “If he chokes it out, it looks like a failure.”
I definitely believe he’ll kill this program if given the chance. If he chokes it out, it looks like a failure.
Caprice Sweatt, the founder and CEO of Medical Cannabis Outreach, on Gov. Bruce Rauner
On Wednesday, Sweatt presided over a press conference in Springfield with military veterans, urging Rauner to add the eight recommended medical conditions to the list. At the end of the conference, Sweatt presented a petition containing 25,000 signatures pushing for inclusion of the conditions.
The fact that a Rauner representative refused to allow Sweatt to drop off the signatures at the governor’s office and instead sent them to a basement storage unit is all the evidence necessary to know where the governor stands on the issue, according to Sweatt.
“There’s not much hope in the industry right now or amongst patients who are suffering every day and want safe legal access to medical cannabis,” Sweatt said. Industry entrepreneurs who are struggling to keep their doors open in Illinois “can only sustain for so long. They knew it’d be tough, but they didn’t know it’d be this tough.”
For military veterans seeking to gain access to medical cannabis in Illinois, two numbers say it all: 22 and 44.
The first number refers to the estimated number of military veterans who commit suicide every day nationwide. The second number refers to the number of Americans who die each day from prescription drug overdoses, with the great majority of those being from powerful and highly addictive opiate-based painkillers such as OxyContin.
22Estimated number of military veterans who commit suicide every day nationwide
Allowing veterans access to medical cannabis could result in a lot of progress being made to reduce both numbers, according to Mike Krawitz, executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, of Elliston, Va.
In the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, medical cannabis is especially effective because it helps erase the horrific memories that come from the life-threatening events linked to PTSD, Krawitz said.
“Somehow or another you get certain events that are literally burned into the memory,” he said. “And you wind up with a situation where you have a really hard time sleeping and you have these nightmares that come back in such vivid detail.”
Medical cannabis triggers the human brain’s own natural cannabinoid system, which in turn “helps you erase these memories,” Krawitz said.
The problem is, many of the traditional drugs the VA uses to treat the anxiety and depression linked to PTSD carry a so-called black box label that warns patients these drugs may cause an upsurge in suicidal thoughts. Medical cannabis has no such link to suicidal thoughts, and therefore could play a key role in lowering the number of veteran suicides, Krawitz said.
“To us, that’s the clearest evidence that cannabis can reduce the suicide rate,” he said. “If we can reduce the pills that are actually causing the suicide rate.”
Krawitz said his group is helping with several bipartisan efforts underway in Congress to end a VA policy that currently bans VA medical personnel from discussing the use of medical cannabis with patients.
As for Guess, the Air Force vet with severe nerve pain, the medical cannabis he bought Friday is working better than expected.
In an email he sent to the News-Democrat on Saturday, Guess wrote: “I tried a smoke-able strain, more suitable for nightime use before bed. It only took a few puffs and for the first time in probably 10 years I was able to sleep through the night. I didn’t wake up kicking and moving constantly like normal, I didn’t have night terrors or night sweats that the (anti-depressant he used to take) causes... I woke up and actually felt like I had gotten an actual night’s sleep, slightly refreshed. The best part was that I didn’t immediately feel like throwing up.”
He added: “I can’t express how much knowing that I can get some actual relief, even if it’s for a little bit, means, and how much it does for the mind of a person who has to live with disabilities and ailments such as and worse than myself. The ailments are still there when the medication wears off, it didn’t magically cure me of them, just simply gave me some relief.”
I can’t express how much knowing that I can get some actual relief, even if it’s for a little bit, means, and how much it does for the mind of a person who has to live with disabilities and ailments such as and worse than myself.
Air Force veteran Mike Guess of Belleville