Goleta and Santa Barbara are packed with young adult college students. There is probably no better place to light up a joint of marijuana for the first time than at the ‘Marley house’ in the Goleta college community, Isla Vista.
Lately, however, young adults have increasingly begun taking hits of marijuana for medical reasons instead of for recreational reasons. “I stumbled upon it [marijuana] in high school and realized that it helped me calm down and help my anxiety,” said Carrie Ryan, a third-year student at the University of California Santa Barbara who preferred not to use her real name. “Now it helps me calm down and relax a little.”
Ryan, who suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, is a member of the growing number of recreational-turned-medical marijuana users. She carries a California medical marijuana card that allows her to purchase medical marijuana in legal dispensaries.
It is easier now more than ever to acquire a medical marijuana card in California. Many general physicians are certified to recommend the drug across the state for a variety of medical conditions. Doctors are not currently allowed to prescribe marijuana to patients because it is still listed as a Schedule 1 drug, a classification that states that marijuana has no medical value. Although it is not yet permissible for doctors to prescribe marijuana, official state legalization is not necessary to obtain marijuana legally: marijuana is essentially legal already.
Certified California doctors are increasingly willing to recommend marijuana to young adults because marijuana is less likely to cause addiction than other prescription drugs.Â The changing attitude regarding marijuana in the medical field is slowly shaping state legislation, which could fully legalize marijuana in the next few years. Additionally, the negative side effects of marijuana are less severe than those of other FDA approved antidepressants and painkillers.
Ryan has firsthand knowledge of severe and negative side effects of several prescription medications. Several of her family members had suffered varying health issues from prescribed Prozac that Ryan wanted to avoid. She also knew someone who overdosed on Xanax and died. Ryan had additionally been prescribed Valium to decrease her anxiety, but she didn’t feel like herself when she took the powerful anti-anxiety medication.
For Ryan the decision to request medical marijuana was simple: marijuana is the most natural and low-risk treatment for her anxiety. And getting a card is no more difficult than getting any other anti-anxiety prescription.
“It’s really easy to get a card,” Ryan said. “You get an appointment with a doctor and they weigh you and test your lungs, listen to your heartbeat, and ask a few questions about why you want to get a card, and if you’re healthy enough to actually smoke.”
Ryan also said that the doctor she saw never asked to see previous evidence of her psychological or psychiatric history.
“He just kind of took my word for it,” she said.
Not all doctors certified to recommend marijuana to patients dole out marijuana recommendations as easily. Others conduct more thorough qualification tests by requiring physical exams and copies of medical records.
James Kane, a UCSB fourth year who preferred not to use his real name, said that his exam was thorough and that it was like any routine physical examination with some added questions regarding his specific health condition and past marijuana use. He was able to obtain a recommendation for chronic back pain that he experiences due to an old snowboarding injury in which he fractured several vertebrae.
“When he [the doctor] did the evaluation of me, he checked out my body a little bit, and he asked me to rate my pain on a scale of one to 10 on how bad my back bothers me,” Kane said. “And then he asked me to rate my pain after taking a hit of weed to see how it decreased my pain and he also did a couple of tests on me [to test] my range of motion.”
Medical marijuana was ideal for Kane because his previous painkiller, Norco, caused constipation, a loss of appetite, and fatigue. Norco also made Kane feel “more out of it,” as if he were outside of his body watching himself operate.
Kane’s exam was notably more thorough than Ryan’s, but as long as a patient is able to prove that he experiences pain, certified doctors seem to have no problem issuing recommendations.
The main controversy surrounding medical marijuana recommendations is regarding how patients prove that their pain is real and not just an excuse to buy marijuana legally and for recreational use.
Stuart Light, an alcohol and drug counselor with UCSB’s Alcohol and Drug Program, said that any physical or psychological condition can be potentially difficult to diagnose in general, particularly when a patient is seeking a specific type of medication.
Even though there is no way to ensure that a patient’s pain is real, many specially certified
California doctors like Ryan’s are as comfortable recommending medical marijuana as they are prescribing antidepressants, if not more so.
Light said that such a progressive attitude is becoming more prevalent in the medical field.
“I think it’s going to get to the point where you will be able to get it just as if you went in and got a prescription for any other kind of drug,” he said. “About five years down the road marijuana is basically going to be legalized.”
Recent efforts by the California state legislature to get a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot support legalization for patients claiming medical need. Government initiatives to legalize the drug serve to legitimize the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, which protects users from criminal laws if they are using marijuana to treat medical conditions.
“It’s getting down to the point with this whole issue of legalization that they’re [the California state government] starting to look at marijuana as much as a medication as an illicit drug,” Light said.
Light additionally said that because the risk of addiction and serious withdrawal symptoms is lower with marijuana than with other painkillers and antidepressants, many doctors recommend it comfortably instead.
“I’ve never really felt dependent on it [marijuana],” Ryan said. “I’ll go a couple of days without smoking and it won’t really affect me. I’m still just as functional on it or off.”