In Arizona, Legal Medical Marijuana & An End To Guilt

When we first interviewed this medical marijuana patient last year, she proudly showed off her vegetable garden. Now, she's also growing her own marijuana - under lock and key.
Nick Blumberg
By Nick Blumberg
January 31, 2012

PHOENIX -- Last year, we told you the story of a woman who uses medical marijuana as she recovers from cancer. (She wishes to remain anonymous.) At the time she first spoke with us, Arizona’s voter-approved medical marijuana law was still very much up in the air. That was over eight months ago. Her life has changed a great deal since then.

For starters, medical marijuana is now legal in Arizona…well, kind of. It’s still in direct conflict with federal drug law. And there still aren’t any dispensaries. But according to the state health department, about 18,000 patients have received medical marijuana cards.

One of them is a cancer survivor in her 50s. The last time we spoke with her, it was part of a series on how the drug war in Mexico affects people north of the border. She was buying on the black market, and felt guilty that she might indirectly fund violent drug cartels.

"I do believe that everything that we do in our lives impacts somebody else," she told us last year. "And it is our duty, it is our responsibility, to be as careful with those actions as possible."

Photo by Nick Blumberg
Gerald Gaines, founder and CEO of Compassion First Arizona.

Now, she and thousands of other patients have a license to cultivate marijuana.

"It’s a wonderful feeling," she said. "I can’t begin to tell you how good it feels to know that the money that I do spend does go to either the hydroponic shop or to another patient who has taken the time to grow their own."

Arizona’s medical marijuana law has faced several legal roadblocks in federal and state court. Governor Jan Brewer and Attorney General Tom Horne have been accused of stalling implementation of the law because they don’t support it. Gerald Gaines is the founder of Compassion First Arizona, a pro-medical marijuana organization.

"I just do not understand, in a state where personal freedom is so important, why people feel like that personal freedom shouldn’t apply to people who are suffering and need medication to help themselves," Gaines said.

The woman we spoke with compares the stigma of using medical marijuana to what people must feel if they’re homosexual.

"I’ve been in the closet," she said. "And I’m still very uncomfortable sharing it with my professional associates, so I haven’t, with most of them."

But for Ed Gogek, that stigma exists for a reason. He’s a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction.

"There are all sorts of medicines that help some people. Vioxx helped a lot of people. Thalidomide helped a lot of people. But that doesn’t matter," Gogek said. "You don’t approve them as a drug in this country if they’re going to cause far more harm than they’re going to cause help."

Gogek doesn’t think there’s anything medical about marijuana — he says it’s mostly people who want to get high. And he’s more than happy to rattle off a list of problems associated with marijuana use.

Photo courtesy Ed Gogek.
Ed Gogek, a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction.

"It’s an addictive drug. It’ll cause hundreds of highway fatalities every year," he said. "It’ll cause about 10,000 kids to drop out of school every year."

But the marijuana user we talked to says the prescription drugs she was taking had plenty of side effects of their own. The biggest one?

"I really didn’t have the desire or the energy to do anything other than sleep. That was not going to work for me," she said. "I can’t live by sleeping 23 hours a day - I’m not a cat!"

Medical marijuana is also legal in 16 other states - including California, Nevada, and Colorado - and Washington, D.C.

Here in Arizona, the state Department of Health Services estimates it could begin issuing dispensary licenses this coming November, two years after voters approved the medical marijuana proposition. And when the dispensaries are finally open, the woman we spoke with will be a happy customer.