It was the first piece of good news in a very long time. Not only was the oncologist willing to give my mother a medical marijuana card, it was delivered minutes after my mother had asked about the possibility of getting one.
My older brother had been killed in a motorcycle accident in January, a mere six months earlier. Since then, my mom had developed an aggressive form of lymphoma that had gone from zero to stage 4 in record time, with its symptoms—fatigue and weakness—mistaken as side effects of grief.
Remarkably, given the recent tragedy and her energy levels, Mom was eager to fight the cancer. But she was more than a little panicked about managing her morale, given how reticent Maine doctors had been to help her navigate run-of-the-mill life, anxiety, and moodiness since she’d moved from San Diego two years earlier.
I’d not been surprised when she told me, terror and tears coloring her expression, that “I think I’m dying.”
In California, general practitioners regularly prescribed Mom Ativan to calm her somewhat excitable nerves. But in Maine, where methamphetamine and other narcotics have taken a heavy toll, doctors regulate controlled substances with an iron fist. Mom’s age (84) and recent heartbreak hadn’t made them any more sympathetic. She’d had to beg for even a 10-pill refill.
I’d been on high alert since arriving in Maine a few weeks earlier for my brother’s delayed memorial service. While she still had the beauty and bearing of the actress and model she had been, my mother moved uncharacteristically, with the halting, tenuous care of a very old person. I’d not been surprised when she told me, terror and tears coloring her expression, that “I think I’m dying.”
I instantly sprang into action, getting her a biopsy and preparing to do battle with any doctor who refused to prescribe something to ease her anxiety and any other symptoms that caused her pain or increased discomfort, risk of addiction be damned.
Mom and I were as-yet unaware that a cancer diagnosis and the foreseen side effects of chemotherapy were instant qualifiers for a medical marijuana card in Maine, so when the doctor simply handed the cannabis-authorizing card over, Mom and I exchanged silent looks of wonder bordering on disbelief.
Visiting the Dispensary
The only dispensary within a 25-mile radius of Mom’s house—the Wellness Connection of Maine, in the town of Bath—was sandwiched between a Chinese restaurant and a beer-making supply store, in a strip mall trying very hard not to be noticed.
In the week it had taken us to track down the dispensary, make an appointment, and drive out there, Mom had formulated some expectations for her medical-marijuana experience. Of course she was hoping the pot would help with her lifelong anxiety and the long list of debilitating side effects we’d been told she’d develop during chemo. But she was also excited about the possibility of simply getting high, being transported out of her grief to a land of euphoric laughter and lightheartedness she feared had disappeared forever.
Inside the brightly lit minimalist lobby of the dispensary, Mom and I approached a frosted glass window and rang the bell. The window slid open to reveal a cherubic young man who could easily have been the love child of Napoleon Dynamite and Jonah Hill. We shyly blurted out why we were there, he asked for our driver’s licenses and Mom’s medical marijuana card before buzzing us through a door on the far side of the lobby.
Then, like magic, he appeared seconds later on the other side of the door, no longer receptionist but store manager, directing us to a nearby table nestled between a large faux tree and a wall vibrantly painted with cheery abstract shapes.
On the far side of the long room was a floor-to-ceiling menu of available cannabis strains and a sales clerk behind a display case in which I assumed were candies and other edibles, but we weren’t allowed anywhere near them. Not yet. Instead, we had to sit down for an official “Intake Meeting.”
After filling out a stack of forms, Mom was required to relinquish her medical marijuana card into the care of that particular dispensary, thus preventing her from procuring cannabis from any other person or shop, in compliance with Maine law. I also registered myself as her official home-health aide, which would allow me to pick up her “medicine” from the lobby window, though she would be required to order it.
Once formalities were taken care of, Napoleon Jonah Hill asked Mom about her needs and what, if any, experience she’d had with cannabis.
“Well, it’s been many years, but I remember it being very fun. I’d really like to experience that….that, kind of euphoria.”
“The giggles, Mom?” I asked, encouragingly.
“Yes. That silliness. I think that would be helpful.”
The manager explained what might best meet her needs, based on his experience with other cancer patients. Mom listened with reverent hopefulness while he covered the strains, touching on which ones would help her with her appetite, fatigue, keeping focused and energized, and other chemo side effects. Then he catalogued the delivery systems: candies, cookies, smoking, vaping.
Eventually, Mom was presented with a list of five strains, each falling into a particular window of care. One would help with sleep, another with appetite, a third for energizing. Our hopes were set on strains four and five, selected to calm frayed nerves and elevate low moods.
Her “doctor” noticeably failed to mention that each of suggested strains would get my Mom high. (Though “elevating low moods” is a pretty close tell.) Maybe under the auspices of medical marijuana, it was verboten to explicitly acknowledge stonedness.
Once the prescription was written, we discovered the dispensary was a cash-only establishment. To purchase Mom’s medicine we’d need to first visit an ATM. At this point, the manager sternly laid down the rules:
- Once we left, I, as home health-care aide, would no longer be welcome within the inner sanctum. Ever. If my mother was able to come herself, I was to remain in the car. Otherwise I could pick up her pre-order from the lobby window.
- No smoking was permitted in the parking lot. And we were asked not to discuss what we were doing there lest customers from other establishments felt uncomfortable or fellow users felt exposed.
- Whenever Mom came to pick up an order or browse for new strains, she would have to present her ID at the lobby window. Her ID would then be photocopied and given back, at which time she’d be allowed into the store proper. He took care to note that this included a few minutes from now, when she returned from the ATM, when he would be the person behind the lobby window.
Soon we were out on the sidewalk, surveying our prospects.
“Do you think the gas station across the street has an ATM?”
“Maybe that little place back a ways near Walmart?”
We both look back at the experience of going to the dispensary with great affection, a bright spot in a year of darkness ...
That’s when the fact that we were buying pot because my mom had cancer hit us. The grief, tension, and fear met the strange dissonant reality of a Maine medical marijuana facility and we started laughing. This laughter did not stop as we drove to the ATM and back to the incognito dispensary, which my mom disappeared into as if it were a speakeasy, buzzing the window and giving the secret password so she could pick up her medicine.
In the coming weeks, we’d continue to take our pleasure where we could get it, reveling in the relative absurdity of learning, at our advanced ages, to cut bud and clean and load Mom’s new state-of-the-art vaporizer, while bags of pot littered the living room table.
Ultimately it became clear that the strains Mom took home were, indeed, precisely engineered and prescribed to address the needs of an elder with a life-threatening illness. The Medibud and Skywalker strains accomplished a very Ativan-like calm (huzzah!), The Chocolope gave her energy when the chemo robbed her of her own, and M.O.B. helped her sleep.
But none of the strains took my mother out of the reality from which she longed to have a break. Maybe that’s beyond the scope of a cannabis strain desgined to “elevate low moods.” Maybe that’s a job for medical psychedelics. Maybe she should have tried the homegrown bud offered by various friends all promising that their strain would get her truly good and stoned. But Mom wanted to stick to the rules.
Fortunately, my Mom went into remission just as quickly as she’d gotten ill. Her medical cannabis stash remains mostly un-vaped in the kitchen cupboard. But we both look back at the experience of going to the dispensary with great affection, a bright spot in a year of darkness, one glorious late summer afternoon when the specters of grief and grim reaper were vanquished not by mind-altering drugs, but by the empathy of a kind young man and the gift of laughter.
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