Under-21 pot patients out of luck
March 7, 2015
John Tirrill experienced seven known concussions during his four years playing high school football in Georgia. The last one occurred in practice when he squared off with another linebacker and ended up unconscious for about five minutes.
Though he was on track to play college football, a trip to Atlanta's Emory University determined that was no longer an option. His head injury was significant, and his short-term memory severely lagging. To combat the effects, Tirrill was given brain-training exercises. Mild sleep medications, and eventual dosages of Ambien, were supposed to help him sleep, but what he got were 10- and 12-hour comas.
"I would wake up the next day and feel like a zombie the entire day," Tirrill said Wednesday. "I would get a bunch of sleep, but I would still feel tired."
It wasn't until three or four months later, after several stretches of sleepless nights, that Tirrill discovered the medicinal qualities of cannabis. He had smoked a number of times before the injury, but only to get high and never to medicate. Someone told him about vaporizers, "a healthier way to smoke," so he tried it and got about six hours of restful sleep.
More than two years later, Tirrill still has issues sleeping, but he said medicinal cannabis is about as good as it's going to get for him. His subsequent move to Colorado has expanded his options. He has discovered cannabinoid patches, "just enough to put me to sleep," and the right blend of indica, a strand of cannabis that has a subdued effect, compared with sativa, which has an active effect.
Within the past year, however, since recreational marijuana was legalized, Tirrill's options in Aspen have disappeared. That's because Tirrill is 20 years old, and every medical dispenser in town has converted to a dual medical-recreational purpose. State laws forbids anyone younger than 21 from entering such shops.
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Tirrill said he understands that there's substantially more money to be made with recreational sales, but that doesn't help his situation.
"It's kind of irritating to me," he said. "It seems like you obviously don't care about helping people. If you're in it for money, I don't care. Do whatever you want. I think it's weird that I don't even have the option."
The first dispenser to turn him away was Silverpeak Apothecary. Then it was Alternative Medical Solutions, followed by Aspen Green Dragon, which shut its doors to his age group this week after winning city approval to combine its medical and recreational operations.
Even before Green Dragon made the decision to combine locations, Tirrill was driving to Glenwood Springs every two or three weeks to buy about an ounce of cannabis from Green Natural Solutions. There, he said he avoids the first-timer, tourist crowds and buys a better product than the recreational segment. Tirrill turns 21 in September, but he plans on renewing his medical card anyway.
Agreeing with Tirrill about the quality of medical versus recreational cannabis is Dr. Wendy Zaharko, who has been writing recommendations for cannabis patients in Colorado since 2009.
"It just shows the orientation of the shops," she said of Aspen's trend toward recreational.
When dealing with younger patients, she said there's special consideration, given the fact that the human brain is still developing past the age of 25. But when she compares cannabis to other prescription medications, she said it's a no-brainer. Most of the children she sees are prescribed Ritalin or Adderall, which she equates to "legalized cocaine," as well as opiates for pain alleviation.
Zaharko said she became familiar with cannabis during her college days at Princeton. In the late 2000s, when her patients first started approaching her about marijuana, she didn't take it seriously. It wasn't until one patient told her about pain relief, then another claimed it helped cure her cancer and then another said it helped with asthma complications that she took it seriously. Zaharko read on the Internet that cannabis dilates the bronchi, which is a function of rescue inhalers.
As far as a sleeping aid, she said, cannabis is the best medication you can find.
"There's nothing out there where if you wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning and you take a little tiny puff of weed from your vaporizer, you can go back to sleep for two or three hours and wake up and feel like Geronimo. There's nothing that compares," she said.
Zaharko argues that cannabis should be first-line medicine that physicians prescribe, no matter the ailment. After that, there's always synthetic medications.
Tirrill dismisses those who claim medical cannabis patients are only looking for an excuse to smoke.
"People can think whatever they want to think. (Cannabis) helps me, and that's all I really need," he said. "I don't need other people's approval about it."
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