Ethan Andrews, editor of The Free Press, takes a video call with a nurse from CheapMedCards.com, an online discount broker of medical marijuana cards in Maine and New York.
Ethan Andrews, editor of The Free Press, takes a video call with a nurse from CheapMedCards.com, an online discount broker of medical marijuana cards in Maine and New York.
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“What is it you want to use it for? What are you trying to treat?”

This was the question I’d been kicking around in my head for three weeks, ever since The Free Press offered to reimburse me for the cost of a medical marijuana card, so I could write about the process.

The inspiration behind this was not strictly journalistic. Earlier this year, I wrote about local retail medical marijuana shops that have been popping up around the midcoast and came away from it feeling, as a growing number of people do, that the drug has been unfairly maligned. The supposed medicinal uses might run the gamut and be highly subjective, but people seemed to get genuine relief from cannabis as medicine, and maybe I could, too. Though I hadn’t decided for what.

Now I was on a video chat with Cheryl Celia, a nurse practitioner working for CheapMedCards.com. Celia was in her father’s living room in New Hampshire, where she had come to take care of him, but she spends part of her time in Maine. My appointment was scheduled for 10 minutes and was one of 26 she would do that day. This question about my intent, along with the $59 that I paid in advance, was crucial. She was asking why I thought I needed medical marijuana.

A quick word about words. Cannabis and marijuana are the same thing. Maine uses “marijuana” in statute and for the state’s medical marijuana program. But the term, which appeared in the early 20th century, is widely believed to have been propagated by the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics as a way to associate cannabis with Mexicans — white Americans, being as easily spooked then as now, were quick to get behind stories of dark-skinned foreigners, and American blacks, raping white women while crazed on “locoweed.” I use the words interchangeably in this article, but “cannabis” seems to be preferred among caregivers.

Prior to my video chat with Nurse Celia, my experience with the locoweed had been limited to a handful of more-or-less bad experiences in college and a few bumbling attempts as an adult. Every time it was the same: a sense of great kinship with the other people gathered in the cramped dorm room was followed by 10 minutes of mirthless laughter, then several long hours of feeling that all of my brain had been damaged except the part that controls self-awareness. Getting high, in my experience, was part short-term intellectual disability, part inner ear condition, with a lucid sense of disappointment that I was stuck with it for as long as it lasted.

In hindsight, this was my relationship with THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis. But as cannabis has gradually become legal — and its properties an acceptable subject of polite debate — the non-psychoactive compound cannabidiol, or CBD, has been ascribed all kinds of therapeutic properties. Using medical cannabis didn’t necessarily mean getting high. I envisioned myself coming back to the bong circle from a different angle. As I would later tell a caregiver, in a rehearsed turn of phrase, “I’m coming at it from the CBD side.”

Nurse Celia’s question about my as-yet-unnamed condition didn’t have any overtones of doubt, nor did she project deep concern. It was strictly professional. Leading up to the appointment, I had resolved to be honest, but also to be prepared. I would say that, as a reporter, I had “become interested in the palliative possibilities of cannabis” and wanted to experiment with it. If that didn’t work, I was ready with a list of old injuries — neck pain from hanging my head over a laptop; a foot injury from my 20s — and some general anxiety.

When the time came, I said all of it: the journalistic curiosity, the aches and pains, the word ‘palliative.’ Celia didn’t push for particulars, but she suggested that I get advice from a caregiver about which strain, mode and ratio of THC to CBD would be best for my established condition.

“It was really back pain for the most part?” she asked.

It was clear that simple was best.

“Neck,” I said.

She made me promise not to drive or operate heavy equipment while under the influence, and not to be within 1,000 feet of a church or school while using cannabis. She did not make me promise not to buy marijuana for my friends or advise me against becoming a drain on society. In a phone interview later, she said she talks to people of all ages and most have legitimate medical conditions. Patients in their mid-60s often come as couples, she said, and septuagenarians patients aren’t uncommon. “They have plenty of health issues that cannabis can address,” she said. “Everyone wants to learn about it.

“Don’t get me wrong. I definitely see the 19-year-olds, and I sometimes think to myself, yeah, you could probably be fine with rec [recrational marijuana], and they probably don’t have a real ... they’re definitely not as severely diagnosed as other folks.”

“Do you ever say, No?,” I asked. Celia said other states have a list of qualifying conditions, but in Maine the bar is low. Short of saying you want a medical card for recreational use, most complaints get a person in the door. “If they can’t think of anything they need to have treated — if they’re pretty healthy — then I can’t give them a medical card. But, you know, most people have some level of anxiety or chronic pain. That’s what I hear mostly, chronic back pain. I feel like everyone in America has chronic back pain.”

Anxiety and insomnia are the second and third most common diagnoses, and anecdotal evidence for the benefits of cannabis is strong in both cases. Cannabis has been used to treat glaucoma, hypertension, anxiety, migraines, seizures, PTSD, arthritis and symptoms of cancer. Celia discouraged smoking it, because the smoke contains tar, but said some people with asthma or emphysema report that the anti-inflammatory in the smoke opens their lungs.

Daniel Miller, the founder of cheapmedcards.com, said he got behind medical cannabis through his father, who got relief using the drug as he was dying of ALS. The online service sees about 1,000 people a month in Maine. Miller said the idea was to bring down the price of getting a card, which had been upward of $100, “for a recommendation for a plant that God gave us for free,” he said. “I thought it was ridiculous.” Online medical card services might be more akin to toll booths than gatekeepers in this transitional moment for the medical cannabis industry, but there have always been toll booths in medicine, and Miller is happy to be cheaper than the rest. He also offers free cards to terminally ill patients and discounted cards to cancer patients.

Recently, I ran into a caregiver I interviewed for a past story. Generally he’s a good-natured, easygoing guy and a promoter of medical marijuna, but when I mentioned the idea for this story, he all but asked me not to write it. The industry has spent so much energy fighting for legitimacy, he said. If it appeared too easy to get a medical card, opponents — those who believe the “medical” designation is a front for recreational use — might go on the attack again.

Miller was less cagey about the blurred line between getting high and treating medical conditions. “I was getting high when I was 12,” he said. “It’s not like people don’t have access to cannabis. It’s everywhere. This just allows them, for $50, to not buy it off the street. To go into a store that’s testing it, that actually cares about the quality.” He boiled it down to two words: “safe access.”

By the time I had closed the video chat app, there was a temporary med card in my inbox. I printed it out and brought it to Scrimshaw, a retail medical marijuana shop in Rockland opened recently by three caregivers in a former church.

Next week, I’ll share my experience of navigating the Wild West of medical cannabis products and describe what happened when I tried some of them.