How does medical marijuana affect a patient’s relationships?

In Community, Feature Stories by Matt DeLuca

As regions across the world continue to legalize the use of medical marijuana, many patients admit there are still considerable social and personal consequences of medical marijuana use.

Relationships may be challenged or strained due to perceived legal, medical and ethical hazards of using a substance that has long been stigmatized as a harmful and addictive illicit drug. No matter the reaction, cannabis patients don’t intend to stop using the plant they so desperately need.

In California, where medical marijuana has been legal since 1996, some patients are still subject to prejudice because of how they choose to treat their illnesses. Linda Jimenez of the Solano County Patients Group, who uses medical marijuana to treat her chronic pain and depression, reported mixed reactions about her choice to take medical marijuana. While some of Jimenez’s friends and family have been understanding and recognize that marijuana is medicine that helps patients achieve a better quality of life, others have not been so supportive.

Jimenez’s ex-boyfriend disagreed with her choice to use medical marijuana because he was concerned about possible legal repercussions. Despite the federal illegality of marijuana, state laws offering protection from arrest and prosecution allow individual patients considerable legal freedom to use their medicine of choice. Yet perceptions about drug use and criminality remain in the minds of many individuals due to the legacy of a “war on drugs” that has raged for more than 40 years.

Overall, Jimenez’s family was supportive of her decision. Linda has three children, an 8-year-old, a 10-year-old and an 18-year-old, and Jimenez’s activism in the movement to allow patients access to medical marijuana has taught her children to understand that marijuana is indeed medicine. But Jimenez’s sister, a former drug addict, had some concerns about her marijuana use.

The issues of parenthood and guardianship often complicate medical marijuana use even further. One mother of a California medical marijuana user was worried about potential disruptions to the lives of her grandchildren due to the legal consequences or the perceived moral perils of drug use. She also feared that exposing children to marijuana might encourage them to use drugs. She said of her concerns, “I’m just worried it might not be the best thing for the kids to be around. The truth is, marijuana is a mind-altering substance, and when you’re a parent you have to be there all the time.”

Jimenez’s 18-year-old son is a medical user as well and takes marijuana to treat his depression, but his peer group is very understanding of his decision to turn to medical marijuana. Among younger individuals, the medical and recreational use of marijuana is much more acceptable and faces far less stigmatization.

Still, many school-aged children of medical marijuana users interviewed by The Medical Marijuana Review feel some ambivalence about their parents’ cannabis use. Many felt that it was “weird” that their parents would use a drug that they normally associated with recreational use, especially since it wasn’t the “normal” situation for most families. Children, as opposed to older family members, were less judgmental about the moral and ethical aspects of their parents’ drug use, though. They understood that, for their parents, marijuana was medicine that made them feel better and helped them get through the day.

The status of marijuana as an illegal Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act has caused people to associate marijuana with harder, more dangerous drugs. The “gateway” theory that has been instilled in the minds of much of the public; the belief that getting high on marijuana will cause users to seek out the next better and more intense high has caused individuals to be concerned about loved ones who choose to use medical marijuana.

On the other side of the continent, in New York, despite the illegal status of medical marijuana, patients who have finally resorted to using marijuana to treat their conditions face similar complications in their personal relationships. Employment issues figure into the concerns of both potential patients and their families when a decision is being made about whether or not to use medical marijuana.

Many families’ livelihoods could be jeopardized if their medical marijuana use were exposed; therefore, many patients and their families are hesitant to come out publicly as medical marijuana users. Many family members, especially of young medical marijuana users, fear that employment prospects will be diminished because of their marijuana use.  The fact that the media and public opinion have associated marijuana with lack of motivation also figures into family members’ concerns about medical marijuana.

Upstate New Yorker and medical user Anntoinette Crouch has experienced disapproval from family members such as her mother, because Anntoinette is a former cocaine addict. Although Crouch has been clean for 10 years, her mother remains concerned that her marijuana use will cause her to relapse.

Crouch uses medical marijuana to treat chronic pain after four spinal surgeries and a bout with ovarian cancer and, for the most part, her friends and family have been sympathetic. Although her medical marijuana use is not often openly discussed, her father’s opinion has been supportive; or, as she put it, he says, “Whatever you’re doing, it’s working. Keep doing it.”

Crouch finally chose to use medical marijuana after years of taking prescription pain medications that made her feel “not there” even when she was conscious. Many of the opiate pain meds available cause disorientation and other side effects that can be debilitating or even fatal in certain circumstances.

As the mother of a teenage daughter, Crouch felt she needed to be more present and hands-on, and the prescription drugs were not allowing her to do so.

While Crouch has been able to take her medicine in peace, because of the legality of medical marijuana in New York, many are not so lucky. As the fight to allow patients access to their medicine in states throughout the U.S. continues, many patients are ostracized or criticized because of how they choose to use that medicine. Alternatively, the more empathetic family members and friends of medical marijuana patients have continued to be a source of strength and support to those individuals struggling with debilitating illnesses.