Medical marijuana has worked wonders for Tonie Dimon.
Dimon, 56, of Monessen turned to medical cannabis as an alternative to opioids and prescription drugs like Xanax and Flexeril that made her feel so miserable and nonfunctional that she couldn’t watch her grandchildren anymore.
While she was originally approved to take medical marijuana to provide relief from her psoriatic arthritis and pustular psoriasis, Dimon has enjoyed additional benefits. Medical cannabis stabilized her blood sugar, eliminating her need for anti-diabetic medication. It’s helped Dimon manage her post-traumatic stress disorder as well.
Dimon has been off of opioids since 2010. She’s been benefiting from state-approved medical marijuana longer than most, because the state from which she moved last year, Michigan, has had medical marijuana approved since 2008.
So Dimon was happy to see an older woman with a walker being dropped off recently at a medical marijuana dispensary that opened last month in Uniontown.
“It was such a great sight to see somebody doing that,” Dimon said.
Rebecca Selko has seen much of the same recently, as patient advisor at the Maitri Medicinals medical marijuana dispensary that opened on West Main Street in Uniontown on Sept. 4. She gets a lot of questions about medical cannabis, both inside and outside the dispensary.
“I find myself talking about medical marijuana an awful lot,” Selko said.
More than 73,000 patients in Pennsylvania have registered to participate in the medical marijuana program since its patient and caregiver registry launched in the fall of 2017, and more than 45,000 have received their identification cards and are able to visit a dispensary to buy medical marijuana, according to the state Department of Health. The program was first signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf in Apr. 2016.
But concerns remain about the cost and stigma of medical marijuana products.
Dimon laments that it often costs Pennsylvanians several hundred dollars to get certified for the state’s medical marijuana program, since there’s a $50 fee for a medical marijuana card and an appointment with a state-approved physician within the program can cost much more.
Dimon said her sister has mostly shied away from medical marijuana despite battling a three-decade painkiller addiction and having a lung removed because of the medicine’s stigma.
Still, medical cannabis is helping bolster the quality of lives among a wide variety of locals with different qualifying conditions.
As regulated under state Act 16 of 2016, medical marijuana can be prescribed to patients statewide if they have a terminal illness or suffer from 21 significant conditions.
Chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis are the most common conditions among patients at Maitri, Selko said.
Jessie Thorpe, 27, of Hopwood was one of the very first Maitri patients, waiting among the dozen or so people waiting to file in when Maitri opened its doors. Thorpe has fibromyalgia and called medical marijuana “a game-changer.” She once took 15 pills a day. Now she takes no additional medication.
“I have my life back,” Thorpe said.
Selko recalled that a 7-year-old boy with epilepsy who suffered from 15 seizures a day didn’t have seizures for four days after consuming medical cannabis in tincture form.
Maitri attracts a large number of older patients who learn how to administer tinctures, inhale from a vape pen and other consumption techniques, Selko said.
Maitri’s clientele has included a considerable number of veterans, including several with phantom limb sensation, according to Selko.
An Army veteran herself, Dimon takes uses cannabidiol (CBD) by day and a cannabis oil known as Rick Simpson oil (RSO) that contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) at night.
Selko noted that some trial and error was common for newer patients as they try out certain strains of products. Indica strains are noted for usually having a relaxing effect and typically taken at night, whereas sativa strains are typically more invigorating and generally more advisable for daytime use, Selko said.
“(But) every patient has a different response to that strain,” Selko said. “The only way to know is to try it.”
Before walking into Maitri for a dry leaf purchase earlier this month, Dimon estimated that it would cost her between $60 and $80 and last her a couple of weeks.
Paying around $250 combined for seeing a state-approved practitioner and getting a state-issued medical marijuana card before even buying any cannabis products can be cost-prohibitive for some, Dimon observed.
Those who can afford it must pay out of pocket, since it is not insured.
Marijuana is still considered a Schedule I drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), meaning it is defined as having no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
Maitri’s website lists more than 200 individual products. Concentrates range from $35 to $100. Dry leaf products range from $35 to $65 in 3.5-gram offerings, with pens and cartridges costing from $40 to $85.
“There are definitely some people who have a concern (about cost),” Selko said, adding that Maitri staff help customers meet their budgets and find ways to save money.
Product availability remains a concern for some as well.
Julie Michaels of Connellsville fought hard to get medical marijuana approved in Pennsylvania, lobbying state legislators and advocating for its legalization for several years in search of relief for her daughter Sydney, who has Dravet syndrome, a rare, lifelong form of epilepsy that begins in the first year of life.
But two and a half years after the state approved medical marijuana, Sydney, 9, still doesn’t have a medical marijuana certification card. Michaels has been looking for tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) to help Sydney, but she hasn’t found THCA offered in Pennsylvania yet.
“I know other seizure moms are hoping for it to be available too,” Michaels said. “If it becomes available, then we would do what was necessary to get Syd her card.”
Until then, Sydney is taking a legal hemp oil known as Haleigh’s Hope that is shipped in from out of state.
While the majority of Maitri patients have had some cannabis experience, some have not used it for a long time and don’t know the variety of products that are available, Selko said. Some are still wary of the stigma of traditional marijuana smoking.
“They don’t like the idea of using a vape pen because it’s inhaling,” Selko said, adding that they start out on oral applications and other products instead.
“I don’t understand why marijuana is (considered) a gateway drug,” Dimon said. “I’ve been at the gateway an awful long time.”
Dimon just knows that she’s functional again thanks to medical marijuana.
“It’s not for everybody,” Dimon said. “But for the people that it is for, they can get some great relief.”
“I’m a strong believer,” Thorpe said.