In late 2008, Barry Lauder started to see double in one eye. By 2009, with a collection of doctor’s appointments, tests, and unanswered questions lining his patient file, the Maryland native was diagnosed with nystagmus—a condition marked by uncontrollable shaking of the eyes. That same year, he was hit with a multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis. Then, he learned he had a second eye condition known as optic neuritis, which caused him to lose the ability to see color in his right eye. As Lauder’s health deteriorated on every front, shades of red bled into grays and whites, and vibrant landscapes faded to muted scenes.
Despite this rapid erasure of a life in rainbow, Lauder was hesitant to start a medication regime to correct the neuritis and his other maladies. “I didn’t take traditional medicine at first,” he recalled. “I was freaked out by it—the pills, the warnings, the injections. Side-effects lists were unending—it was daunting.”
Lauder began to consider holistic methods of pain management, which included medical cannabis. Those treatments ultimately led him on a journey from Maryland to Colorado and back again, giving him a unique perspective on the dramatic differences in state MMJ programs. Moving from one of America’s most cannabis-restrictive states (Maryland) to its most open (Colorado) led him to view cannabis as a needed and essential factor in his daily life.
Cannabis as a Medicinal Option
It’s not uncommon for MS patients to ingest a variety of pills every day—including multiple opioids—to manage their symptoms. The National MS Society provides a list of symptoms commonly associated with MS, and the medications commonly used to address them. The list is enormous, and patients who express multiple symptoms may be prescribed one pill or more per symptom category. The story of Jabe Couch, an MS patient who weaned himself off 15 MS-related medications (and whose story can be found here) with the help of cannabis, is not atypical of the many who’ve discovered healing and comfort outside of the standard pharmaceutical options.
But Lauder was a Baltimore resident at the time of his diagnosis, and in 2009 Maryland law did not allow medical patients to buy or use cannabis. To obtain it, Lauder was forced to phone up connected friends and ask them to access the illicit market. The cannabis—of unknown origin and potency—provided sporadic relief, but gradually his symptoms began to overlap and worsen. He grew depressed and desperate. “With my optic neuritis,” he recalls, “I wouldn’t say I got close to ending it, but I knew I wasn’t very happy and I made a point not to get near or collect guns. It was getting that bad.”
During that time, cannabis became a supplementary tool that allowed him to bring down the aggravating discomfort. “When I was in Baltimore, I got in the habit of taking my syringe out and I would put a record on”—his record player hummed with personal favorites from Sigur Rós to Okkervil River—“and I’d pack a bowl, take my injection, then light up to soothe the burn from the shot … [cannabis] was something that helped me on all levels. It helped the pain, the processing of the fact that I had to do it. I never knew if [Copaxone] worked—I never felt better—but I knew cannabis helped.”
Easing Symptoms in Colorado
Cannabis’s potential to soften symptoms associated with epilepsy, PTSD, cancer, MS, and myriad other medical conditions is no secret. And with 2.3 million people affected by MS worldwide (an estimated 400,000 of them living in the US), some patients from states where cannabis is still illegal are willing to uproot their lives for the opportunity to alleviate their symptoms.
Countless stories have surfaced in mainstream outlets, particularly highlighting parents who have moved their whole families to Colorado solely to ensure medical cannabis access for their children.
Though there’s no hard data on the number of medical cannabis refugees that have come to Colorado since legalization was implemented, countless stories have surfaced in mainstream outlets and on social media, particularly highlighting parents who have moved their whole families to Colorado solely to ensure medical cannabis access for their children. CNN followed Kim and Rich Muszynski, who moved from Florida to treat their daughter’s seizures with cannabis oil—a decision that followed their research on Charlotte Figi, the famous namesake of the high-CBD strain Charlotte’s Web. In 2016, Today estimated that 200 families had moved to Colorado as medical refugees, many with stories similar to the Muszynskis’. However, that number could easily reach to the thousands, as Colorado doesn’t keep track of which products are bought for MMJ patients and which are for adult-use consumers.
By 2013, Barry Lauder had come to realize how critical the effects of cannabis were to his overall well-being, but Maryland’s laws still made his medicine hard to come by. So after much thought and planning, he joined the ever-growing number of medical cannabis refugees and set out for Colorado. Living first in Pueblo County, he eventually found an apartment in Denver’s Holly Ridge neighborhood, and discovered a dispensary, Sacred Seed, whose budtenders worked to set him up with appropriate strains and consumption methods.
He was amazed by the ease with which patients could obtain medical cannabis in Colorado—and also the acceptance that existed around the general subject of consuming. “A lot of the reason why I moved was for the cannabis, and not just the cannabis but the mindset and the lifestyle that came with it,” Lauder says. “I didn’t feel like I was hiding something dirty or looking over my shoulder. It’s hard to describe how nice that was, just a huge relief.”
Cannabis and Overall Mental Health
When Lauder finally approached the last day of his Copaxone injections—having completed that round of pharmaceuticals by doctor’s orders—his vision had not improved and the nystagmus had begun to affect both of his eyes. “My eyes just—I don’t know, they just stopped,” he recalls. “Both started to move rapidly, so I’ve dealt with almost three years of my eyes in constant motion.”
Lauder has not made eye contact with another person in roughly two years, usually faking it to make others feel more comfortable and to project an impression of normalcy. Because his eyes are in constant motion, Lauder often feels extreme nausea and disorientation, which he placates with heavy indicas. When he feels a touch of melancholy cloud his mind, he reaches for well-rounded sativas to help him take his first steps out the door.
'I didn’t feel like I was hiding something dirty or looking over my shoulder.'
In Colorado, even as his vision deteriorated and MS continued to plague him, Lauder was able to maintain his independence and passion for helping others. He signed up for classes at the University of Denver, and in 2015 he obtained a degree in social work—a feat that would have been impossible, he says, without medical cannabis. “In Colorado, the patches and the edibles were really helpful to me,” he notes. “I could focus in class; I wouldn’t be [distracted by] the deep pain affecting my legs.”
Lauder is now legally blind. Having lived most his life with full vision, he’s had to relearn a tremendous amount of everyday tasks in a short amount of time—such as getting from point A to point B by relying on his other senses. The entire process has taken a huge mental, physical, and emotional toll. But Lauder says cannabis has done more than just ease his physical pain: It has also given him perspective and a sense of inner peace regarding his conditions and the ways they affect his life.
“I really think my relationship with cannabis has changed,” he says. “It’s something I used to [consume to] feel good and have a different outlook and to just think about things. Since my diagnosis, it has become a direct [antidote], a direct feeling that I want to create. I want the pain to be less but I also don’t want to be focusing on, you know, the mental negatives that come with it. Cannabis helped with that as well.”A major consequence of Lauder’s use of cannabis over the years has been the ability to stay away from the types of painkillers that continue to result in ever higher numbers of US overdoses year after year. “I think that cannabis has, without a doubt, helped me stay away from opioids,” he says. “I’ve taken Percocet before and if I wanted to, I could go to a doctor and say the pain is killing me—which is true, it’s stopping me from walking—and just get a bunch of pills. But I don’t want to do that. Cannabis is something that doesn’t cure me, but it helps me.”
'If I wanted to, I could go to a doctor and say the pain is killing me ... and just get a bunch of pills. But I don’t want to do that. Cannabis is something that doesn’t cure me, but it helps me.'
The mental and emotional assist provided by medical cannabis can be especially important for MS patients. A study on Danish people living with multiple sclerosis, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, found that “the suicide risk among persons with multiple sclerosis was more than twice that of the general population.” However, in a study done by Roger Pertwee of the University of Aberdeen, cannabis was found to elevate the mood of MS patients, enough to see significant improvement in their thoughts and outlook on life. Lauder’s own experience shows how that research can play out in real time. Cannabis is a positive factor helping him get through his medical challenges and enjoy his days.
Moving Back to Maryland
After working so hard to find a place of stability and happiness in Colorado, Lauder found himself at a crossroad earlier this year. With Denver’s rising housing prices—caused in part by cannabis legalization—his disability checks weren’t cutting it when it came to quality of life and general living expenses. Additionally, his parents needed his help with their home back in Maryland. So in March, he returned to Baltimore.
During Lauder’s time away, Maryland’s medical cannabis situation changed—at least to some extent. In May 2017, four years after Maryland voted to legalize medical cannabis, regulators finally issued the first state license to grow. Yet time constraints, legal issues, and landlord disputes over dispensary locations have continued to serve as roadblocks for medical cannabis. Thousands are still on waiting lists anxiously hoping for their chance at relief. It wasn’t until early September of 2017 that grow facilities finally started cultivating, and very recently, dispensaries have started releasing their locations with plans to provide medical cannabis to patients by the end of 2017.
A medical cannabis program that’s “nearly open” doesn’t help Barry Lauder right now. He’s been without his cannabis medicine for close to seven months, and he’s frustrated about having to go back to relying on pharmaceutical drugs in the wake of his move. “I’ve been on pharmaceuticals for seven to eight years and not once have I felt any better,” he says. “Maybe it’s helping my pain, I don’t know—but I never felt better from taking them. I’ve missed doses and never felt any different. But with cannabis, I feel better.”
Having seen the widespread acceptance and ease of cannabis access in a legal state has forever changed Lauder’s perspective on living in an illegal one. He eagerly awaits an opportunity to get back to Colorado, its familiar people, and his medicine. Without knowing when that will be, though, he’s also making plans to obtain a Maryland-issued MMJ card, and is banking on the hope that the market will finally open soon. “At this point, I think I need to go for Maryland’s program,” he says. “[Until I go back to Colorado,] I would benefit. I still have work to do for that. But I plan to get my Maryland [medical card].”
In the meantime, Lauder is seeing an ophthalmologist to address the shaking in his eyes, and chooses to stay as positive as possible. “I’m just trying to accept my lot in life,” he says, “whatever that is.”
Flood images: Daniel Brenner for Leafly