By Kenneth R. Gosselin
April 19, 2015 | electronic
Susan Gilchrist once took nine different medications to ease the chronic pain and fatigue of her multiple sclerosis.
Gilchrist, 32, is now off all those drugs, finding more relief, she says, than she has in more than a decade, now that she uses just one alternative drug: medical marijuana.
“I disassembled my shower chair, my cane is in the garage and my walker is in the basement storage,” Gilchrist said. “I can wake up and get out of bed. I don’t have to lay there for any amount of time for pills to kick in.”
Halfway through its first year, the state’s medical marijuana program has about 3,600 registered Connecticut residents, more than doubling from last fall — but still far below 20,000, by one manufacturer’s estimate, who could be served by existing medical marijuana manufacturers and dispensaries.
Manufacturers are shipping a growing number of products to dispensaries. The list started with what could be smoked but has expanded into oils for vaporizers, tinctures, strips that dissolve under the tongue and “edibles” such as cookies and cupcakes.
The state may add more conditions that can be treated by medical marijuana, and it already has eased its restrictions on raw buds. Buds up to the size of a dime can now be sold, a change in the initial requirement that they be ground up to ensure consistency.
The program still remains relatively low-profile, however. Doctors generally remain hesitant to recommend treatment to patients without more research.
In Tolland, Gilchrist — the mother of two teenagers — never thought she would become an advocate for medical marijuana. She didn’t smoke for fun, not liking the feeling. For months, Gilchrist resisted the urging of her husband, Colin, that she try medical marijuana.
“I gave in and finally tried it, and I found that I can relieve 90 percent of my symptoms with just marijuana,” Gilchrist said. “I started slow and increased every day. After a couple of months, I felt less high and just well.”
Gilchrist hasn’t spoken publicly until now about her use of medical marijuana. Gilchrist said she is well aware of criticism that patients taking medical marijuana are using their illness just to get high. Even within a Facebook community of MS sufferers with 18,000 members nationwide, Gilchrist said, there is a sharp divide on its use.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society says it supports MS sufferers working with doctors to potentially use medical marijuana, where legal. Some MS patients have reported relief from their symptoms and research suggests that marijuana has the potential to manage the symptoms of MS, the society says.
“Additional research is needed and should be initiated to better determine the possible role [marijuana] could have in treating MS symptoms and helping people with MS to live their best lives,” according to a policy position statement provided by the society.
The society also is supporting clinical trials of different forms of marijuana products to test success in treating chronic muscle stiffness.
Gilchrist said she knows medical marijuana isn’t a cure. But the pain and muscle stiffness that had confined her to bed for days — sometimes months at a time — is receding into memory.
“This program has changed my life,” Gilchrist said. “The more people that know, I feel like we can change things, and that is my hope.”
Feeling better has encouraged Gilchrist to take better care of herself. She quit cigarettes and now has a healthier diet. She no longer struggles with prescription drug side effects that were sometimes worse than the ailments they treated. She said that often she could not take care of her home, her family or even walk the dog.
Gilchrist has been unable to work for eight years, but she is now considering going back to school to pursue a career in massage therapy.
“She’s a mom again,” Colin Gilchrist said. “She’s a wife again. She’s not just a patient.”
Inside The Grow Rooms
Sixty miles to the south of Gilchrist’s home, in West Haven, Advanced Grow Labs LLC, one of the state’s four medical marijuana manufacturers, is now shipping orders twice a week.
During a recent tour of the operation, managing partner David Lipton stressed that production meets the standards of a traditional pharmaceutical company within a complex framework of state regulation.
“Even though it is starting out as a plant, the end product is pharmaceutical,” Lipton said. “It’s tested, there are certification and analysis reports.”
The growing rooms — each focusing on a different stage of the plant’s life — hum with the sound of dozens of fans. Keeping air circulating guards against outbreaks of molds and other diseases that could wipe out a crop.
Lights in one room mimic the late summer sun and force plants to produce buds. Utilities in each of the four growing rooms alone cost $5,000 a month to operate — an example, Lipton said, of what makes medical marijuana manufacturing so expensive.
Advanced Grow Labs could produce 250 pounds of marijuana buds a month, Lipton estimates. But consumer demand in Connecticut is not even close to making those levels necessary.
Lipton walked alongside benches where dozens of marijuana plants are maturing in pots, a process that takes about 4 months. Lipton says you can tell when buds are ready to be harvested because hair-like “trichomes” on the bud containing the plant’s active ingredients — THC being the most well known — will begin to turn an amber color.
He stops at one plant. “Smell this,” he said. “It’s a very earthy plant. We sell a lot of this. It’s called ‘Tangerine.’ It has a smell that’s lemony.”
Lipton pulled a loupe out of his pocket and looked through it, peering at the plant’s trichomes.
“Ah,” he said, “this one is getting ambery.”
Oils, Drops, Edibles
Advanced Grow Labs is aggressively pursuing the development of different products, well beyond what is smoked.
“We’re now making a honey,” Lipton said. “You take a teaspoon of honey and add it to your tea and you have your medicine. And we’re doing a hazelnut chocolate spread. Some people don’t want to smoke. These are other options.”
In South Windsor, Prime Wellness of Connecticut — one of the state’s six dispensaries — opened last fall with product offerings that barely filled a page. Today, there are five pages with not only what is smoked but oils, waxes, drops and edibles.
Consumer traffic at the dispensary got a lift after the state allowed dime-sized buds to be sold in Connecticut, said Brett Sicklick, the dispensary’s director of operations.
The products offered are wide-ranging, Sicklick said, some with little to no psychoactive effects, the “high” typically associated with marijuana use.
Prime Wellness now has 450 registered patients, more than double the 200 or so when the dispensary opened last fall. The dispensary’s goal for the first year is 800 patients, he said.
“The reality is, I don’t believe anyone in this program is meeting their necessary number to break even on a monthly basis, suppliers and dispensaries,” Sicklick said. “We all knew it wasn’t going to get into the black quickly, so we planned accordingly.”
Sicklick added: “There’s definitely still a ways to go, but we are getting new patients registered every week.”
Prices Drop Slightly
A nagging worry from the outset was the price of medical marijuana compared with the cost of buying it on the street.
The tightly regulated industry, including sophisticated security and testing, pushes up costs for both manufacturers and dispensaries.
The state’s goal was to provide better, consistent quality products in a competitive environment that would eventually drive down prices.
The website priceofweed.com, which compiles user-reported entries anonymously for marijuana purchased on the street, gives an average current range of $266 to $334 an ounce in Connecticut, depending on quality. Based on 28 grams in an ounce, that would be roughly $9.50 to $12 a gram.
Sicklick said some medical marijuana prices are starting to move lower. For instance, one, 3.5-gram dried bud product initially sold for $64, or about $18 a gram. The price is now $50, or about $14 a gram. The earlier price included sales tax, but the most recent doesn’t — sales tax was eliminated on medical marijuana, Sicklick said, as of April 1.
Susan Gilchrist, the medical marijuana user in Tolland, said she is paying between $14 and $20 a gram for her medical marijuana.
Gilchrist said estimates that she is paying double at her dispensary compared to what is paid on the street. But it is worth it to her because the quality is consistent. Trouble is, insurance doesn’t cover her roughly $400-a-month costs for medical marijuana.
“I could get any other medicine covered, but not this one,” Gilchrist said. “So it’s hard to budget. Prices are coming down. But it is going to be slow.”
200 Doctors Sign On
When the state legislature legalized medical marijuana in 2012, it ended a wide-ranging sale ban in Connecticut that dated back more than 80 years.
Culturally, there is still resistance to medical marijuana, and some towns — the latest being Harwinton — continue to oppose medical marijuana outlets within their borders.
Jonathan Harris, commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection, said his agency is working to ease any stigma attached to medical marijuana and to convey that it is legal in Connecticut. The department also is emphasizing that the industry is heavily regulated, just like any other pharmaceutical drug.
“We’re not Colorado. We’re not some of the western states,” Harris said. “This is not about recreational use, but medicine giving people relief.”
Harris said his department also is out talking to physicians and in the next two months will launch public service announcements online targeted at doctors.
Initially, 11 medical conditions qualifying for medical marijuana were approved: glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer, HIV or AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, damage to the nervous tissue in the spinal cord or intractable spasticity, epilepsy, cachexia, wasting syndrome and Crohn’s disease.
More may be added, including sickle cell disease, severe psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis and recurring back pain after surgery. Also, lawmakers may pass legislation to permit medical marijuana to be used by patients under the age of 18.
Doctors, who must register with the state to certify that patients qualify for medical marijuana, generally remain reticent. Only a sliver of Connecticut doctors — about 200 of the 10,000 practicing in the state — have registered.
The overriding concern, one doctors’ group says, is the lack of research.
“There isn’t any scientific basis that medical marijuana has the identified benefit for treatment of those conditions, or that it is more effective than what is now being prescribed,” said Matthew Katz, chief executive of the Connecticut State Medical Society, which has 6,000 members.
The legislature is considering funding studies. Dispensaries are collecting data to determine what works best for which conditions.
And even though medical marijuana has made a tremendous difference in her life, Gilchrist still worries about public perceptions.
Gilchrist doesn’t use her medical marijuana if her children’s friends are coming over, and she stores it in a combination safe in her bedroom.
“People are still on the fence about it,” she said. “Some people are still very much against it. It’s hard having kids. You don’t know what the other parents are going to think.”