HOUGHTON - For patients with chronic conditions, ongoing disease management is an important part of maintaining health and controlling negative side effects of a disease. Disease management can include diet, exercise, medication and, for some patients, medical marijuana.
"It has a lot of components that are good for pain," said Dr. Robert Townsend, an osteopathic physician with over 20 years experience. "For patients with chronic pain it can be a substitute for narcotics or used to reduce narcotics in pain management. I found that patients using medical marijuana required less narcotics than those who were not."
Townsend, who has never personally used marijuana, began working with it as a way of reducing narcotic dependency while managing chronic pain. He found that patients who incorporated medical marijuana into their disease management were able to manage symptoms while eliminating or severely reducing the use of addictive narcotics.
Different strains of medical marijuana are shown at Northern Specialty Health in Houghton. Northern Specialty Health works with many different strains of medical marijuana with both indica and sativa characteristics. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo by Meagan Stilp)
Based on Michigan Medical Marihuana Act passed in 2008, patients deemed eligible for medical marijuana must have been diagnosed by a physician as having a debilitating medical condition. Specific conditions listed in the act include cancer, glaucoma, positive status for human immunodeficiency virus, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, hepatitis C, ALS, Crohn's disease, Alzheimer's and nail patella.
Patients whose chronic illnesses or the treatment of those illnesses result in certain side effects such as severe pain, nausea and seizures are also eligible to apply for a medical marijuana card. According to the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, as of May 31 there are 128,441 active registered qualified medical marijuana patients.
"I use it a lot with patients with Crohn's disease. I have never seen healthier Crohn's patients than when they are using medical marijuana," said Townsend. "It gets people off handfuls of Vicodin and other painkillers. I've seen it stop seizures in front of me. It's very impressive stuff. It can also be used to treat glaucoma and nausea resulting from chemotherapy and other drugs. It can help patients tolerate anxiety medications better because the associated nausea is reduced so they're able to keep taking those anxiety meds comfortably."
There are two categories of medical marijuana - cannabis indica and cannabis sativa. Within these categories are various of strains of marijuana, each which can produce different results.
"There are literally thousands of strains. Picking which one depends on what you want to do with it and what's available locally," said Townsend. "Medical marijuana is something we titrate to effect so through personal experimentation the patient can find out how to use it and how much to use for their symptoms."
Appointed caregivers can help patients identify strains of marijuana that will work for them. Caregivers at Northern Specialty Health, a medical marijuana provisional center in Houghton, can assist patients with that process.
"(The effect) varies a lot by the individual. If you've ever tried to find antidepressants or any kind of mood control medication it's like that too. If you go to the pharmacy there will be 20 different products and you have to choose between product X, Y and Z," said Nathan Joyal of Northern Specialty Health. "I have no idea what will affect you so we're going to start with this and if it doesn't work we'll try this and just move from one product to another. One thing we recommend to consumers is that they keep a journal at home and see what affects them."
Northern Specialty Health works with many different strains of medical marijuana with both indica and sativa characteristics. According to Joyal, indica dominant plants - those with over 60 percent indica - generally act like a narcotic and are used for pain management while sativa dominant plants produce a soothing cognitive effect that can aid patients with anxiety issues.
"We work with people to help them identify what products they have had either a positive or negative reaction to and try to find them either that same product consistently or another product that will have a similar effect so they can consistently mitigate their disease condition and lead a normal life," said Joyal. "It's interesting because the plant is a living thing so on the farming end it doesn't always do what you expect or want. So it can be a challenge to make sure everything is correct. But the more you're in an official commercial situation like this the more that's able to be maintained - you're not buying it from some guy in his basement."