For Many Bay Area Residents, Cannabis is an Essential Medicine

From anxiety to chronic pain, Bay Area residents explain why they need dispensaries to remain open.

In May of 2018, my best friend and I witnessed a shooting on the island of San Pedro in Belize. Sitting in an otherwise-empty restaurant, my friend and I sat, stunned, as we watched an unidentified man stroll in and shoot our waitress, a cook, and the owner of the restaurant. Upon returning to the United States, I was diagnosed with PTSD and prescribed 30mg of the antidepressant Paxil. 

Two months later, I messaged my doctor for help, panicking after watching a group of gun-strapped Israeli soldiers patrolling the streets of Bethlehem whilst on an academic trip. His reply was swift and simple: “If you need more relief, you can double your dose of the Paxil.” 

But 60mg is the highest prescribable dose of this particular medication, and the side effects were near-debilitating. My heart continued to race, like I had just run a marathon, long after I was supposed to have “adjusted” to the medication. I couldn’t sleep or eat well. I lost 20 pounds. I was insufferably angry, ruining relationships with family and friends. And one day, irresponsibly trying to refill just days before I ran out, I discovered I was out of refills on the original prescription and would have to visit my one-appointment psychiatrist, 375 miles away in Los Angeles, if I wanted more. 

I opted not to refill. Withdrawal included mood swings, headaches, and suicidal ideation. With few other options available, I turned to cannabis. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the little vial of CBD tincture I bought that day probably saved my life. 

The cannabis industry has had a tumultuous ride since Gavin Newsom ordered the state’s residents to shelter in place. Although cannabis dispensaries are now considered “essential businesses” in the state, cities and counties define for themselves whether operations can be restricted by hours, whether the store offers delivery or curbside pick-up, and the type of patient that may access these services.

In Santa Clara County, while recreational delivery is still an option, in-person pickup is now limited to medical patients — despite the fact that many chose not to renew their MMJ cards once it became recreationally accessible, and visiting a doctor to get a medical recommendation risks high levels of exposure to Covid-19 (if you can even get an appointment).

Cannabis is used as medicine by millions of Californians for a wide variety of conditions. While more often associated with headaches and stress, it can help those with even more severe diagnoses like HIV/AIDS and intractable epilepsy. And while recreational use has gotten the most attention since the passage of Prop 64, these patients demonstrate that cannabis does more than provide a psychoactive release. For many it is an essential medicine.

Erika Losse, 41

Erika Losse has spent more than half her life on prescription medications for a variety of conditions stemming from a near-death assault at work in 1999. Her traumatic attack was followed by 15 years of prescription drugs — ranging from Zoloft to Klonopin — and a slightly too-enamored relationship with alcohol.

“I was gaining a lot of weight, and it was actually causing more depression,” she says. “I didn’t feel like myself, and I just wanted to feel like myself again.”  

The quest to ‘find herself’ led her from Philadelphia to Oakland in 2014. That’s around the time that Losse decided to slowly taper herself off prescriptions and move to a more natural option: cannabis. She stopped drinking, proudly declared that she was “pill free” on Facebook in April of 2018, and then, in an effort to fully understand the new medications she was taking, enrolled in Oaksterdam University the following September. 

Her success with medical marijuana was life-changing. She lost weight, had more energy, and felt like her natural, bubbly self again. In fact, her recovery was so rapid she went to a doctor out of concern. “They were like ‘actually you’re really healthy, all your tests are coming back normal, and you’re actually a very healthy individual,’” she says, laughing. “I said, ‘What? Nobody’s ever said this to me before!’” 

COVID-19 has triggered Erika’s anxieties, as it has for many people nationwide. And, when she learned businesses were shutting down, she spent nearly an entire paycheck stocking up on cannabis. But knowing that dispensaries did, stay open, she says, is “a tremendous amount of relief.” 

David Goldman and Michael Koehn, 69 and 74

David Goldman and Michael Koehn have been together for 32 years. The two cannabis activists met at famed LGBTQ bar the SF Eagle. In 2008, about a month after the California Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage constitutional, David and Michael were married at SF City Hall. They’re almost as passionate about cannabis as their love for each other.

David and Michael met and became activists during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “Brownie” Mary Jane Rathbun, the legendary pot brownie baker who distributed her medicine to men dying from the virus, informed their cannabis activism. David is President and Michael is Secretary of the Brownie Mary Democratic Club of San Francisco, and the two have lobbied on behalf of numerous cannabis regulatory laws over the last 30 plus years. 

David uses cannabis to treat his glaucoma, anxiety, mild depression, headaches, and to increase his appetite, while Michael uses cannabis for his immune system, daily migraines, appetite, neuropathy, and twice, shingles. Michael is HIV positive, and he has regularly used cannabis to alleviate his symptoms since he was diagnosed in 1985 — in fact, he boasts that his unusually high T-cell count has a lot to do with his use of the plant.

“I was taking AZT and it wasn’t very good — it made people sick, and in fact it killed people because the dosage was way too high,” says Michael. He began taking cannabis medically then, using it to calm severe nausea so he could continue working. However, the couple holds issue with separating their medicinal and recreational use of the plant. “Cannabis is dualistic: it’s pleasurable, and it has medical value,” says David. “It’s not a bad thing that medicine is pleasurable to use.”

Throughout their years of activism, the two have seen cannabis have a transformative effect on hundreds, if not thousands of people — from college dorm-mates who were veterans of the Vietnam war, to their many friends infected with HIV. And while their battle for cannabis access is far from over, they also express gratitude for the dispensary employees who are keeping this medicine available in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. “My heart goes out to them,” says Michael. “They’re our frontline soldiers.” 

Kat Marshall, 20

Kat Marshall was first prescribed opioids at just 13 years old for a spinal injury. She says that Percocet, Vicodin, and Oxycontin left her “slipping in and out of consciousness” and frightening family members. So she stopped taking the pills and was left dealing with excruciating pain for years — trekking to a hospital for a cortisone shot every time it became unbearable. With inadequate health insurance with a high deductible, each treatment cost approximately $100 and didn’t bring lasting relief. 

She started using cannabis in December of 2017 after a recommendation from a friend, applying topical creams directly to her back and chewing on gummies to treat lingering anxiety and insomnia. While she found the side effects of the opioids to be severe, Marshall says there have been few downsides to her cannabis use. 

Growing up in the small town of Paradise, California, three hours north of the Bay Area, her only remaining obstacle to treatment is stigma. She says small-town attitudes force her to keep her method of medication mostly a secret — and some of the same stigma, she says, seems to pervade regulations during shelter-in-place. “If they’re arguing about recreational use, convenience stores are open. They’re selling cigarettes and alcohol. If that’s the argument they’re using, I see that as incredibly flawed.” 

Ryan Miller, 39

Ryan Miller is well-acquainted with anxiety and panic. He was diagnosed with PTSD after spending four years in the United States Marine Corps, from 1998 to 2002. Based in Okinawa, Japan, he was deployed to Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Korea — twice. But despite that impressive list, he said he dealt with a lot of confusion and guilt upon returning to the US, because he wasn’t deployed in the more dangerous regions of Afghanistan or Iraq. “I allowed that lack of combat experience to misinform me, or create a misperception, that I somehow didn’t do enough,” he says. He says cannabis saved him from destructive behaviors like binge eating, depression sleeping, and alcoholism.

Now Miller is the president of Operation E.V.A.C., which stands for “Educating Veterans About Cannabis,” (although he says the final “C” also stands for “Consciousness”). It’s a four-year-old support group run out of five different dispensaries across the Bay Area, where Miller guides veterans through meditation, yoga, and guided, purposeful use of cannabis and psychedelics.

The results, for the veterans, are transformative — participants in the program have broken cycles of addiction, recovered after attempting suicide, and are tooled with essential coping mechanisms to navigate day-to-day-life, without spending a dime. “I’m in the suicide prevention and opioid prevention business,” he says, believing that without safe access to cannabis, “people would die.”

When I ask if he’s worried about cannabis remaining an “essential business,” he responds with a deliberate, trained sense of calm. He notes that while we, luckily, have access to the plant, thousands of largely black and brown people face years in prison for that same substance — over 11,000 people were incarcerated in the US because of cannabis as of August 2019. But for those of us who are not incarcerated, he sees the fact that cannabis is accepted enough in 2020 to be considered “essential business,” as a meant-to-be.

“I believe that everything is in divine alignment, and divine order,” he says. “And I don’t think it’s an accident that we have access to cannabis during this pandemic.”

Operation E.V.A.C. is holding remote zoom meetings and is still receiving donations for plant medicine. They can be found online at opevac.org

The Brownie Mary Democratic Club will resume meetings once it is safe to do so, and plans to start a Compassion program for low-income medical patients soon. Information can be found online at browniemarydemclub.com

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