This piece first appeared in Cannabis Now.
For a comparatively small number of U.S. citizens, accessing cannabis can be as simple as walking down the street to a recreational or medical dispensary and purchasing enough high-quality cannabis to last until they decide to go back and get more — no questions asked.
Yet, for anyone who doesn’t live in a state where marijuana is legal for recreational use or permitted for medical use, it’s a precarious and potentially dangerous game where the rules change depending on where it’s played.
Though the law prohibits possessing even the slightest amount of marijuana on your person — let alone consuming it — there are still many who risk breaking the law in order to enjoy it. But, why would someone willingly put themselves in danger of being sent to jail just to smoke a little weed?
Well, for some, it’s the only thing that allows them to get out of bed in the morning.
Joie, 31, is a local musician from Charlotte, North Carolina who smokes cannabis to treat the painful and debilitating symptoms of Crohn’s disease. Before turning to cannabis use, her days and nights were filled with aches throughout her body, dangerous internal bleeding, vomiting up every meal she could choke down and tossing and turning all night through some of the worst pain imaginable.
Diagnosed at 21 years old, Joie’s only way to escape the chronic symptoms were the three different forms of steroids she was prescribed by her physician. The pills had minimal effects in treating her disease and the side effects were even worse. She experienced fluctuating bouts of weight gain and loss, an intense lack of appetite, and her hair even began to fall out.
About a year after her diagnosis, and having gone almost a week without being able to eat a full meal, she decided to try using cannabis as a replacement to her steroids. Soon, she was able to keep meals down, sleep soundly at night and not have to worry about the dangerous and unsightly side effects of the steroids she was taking.
“A lot of people with Crohn’s will end up becoming malnourished because they can’t eat,” Joie explains from the back porch of her home in southern Charlotte. “Once I smoked, not only was I hungry, but the pain that I had been feeling for a week was gone.”
Since using cannabis, Joie has been able to stop taking the steroids that were doing more harm than good to her body. Now she saves hundreds of dollars a month not purchasing expensive medications, is no longer plagued by internal bleeding, has grown back her hair, and is the healthiest she’s been in years.
Yet the state that she lives in makes using the one thing that helps her one of the most difficult processes to go through.
“Getting my steroids, I could go to any Walgreens, Walmart, wherever to pick that up,” she explains. “But with weed, I have to find somebody that has it to begin with, then drive to wherever they’re at. And then it’s the fear of driving home with that on my person, and all you can think about is ‘I need this, but I’m not allowed to have it.’”
Even those with less serious, yet still highly debilitating, illnesses use marijuana as medication.
Aiden, 23 years old and another Charlotte native, suffers from severe anxiety attacks on a regular basis. Coupled with muscle tension and chronic migraines, she was constantly missing work and having to spend exorbitant amounts of money on medications and treatments like anxiety pills, muscle relaxants, and medicated creams and powders as well as physical and massage therapy. She would have blindingly painful migraines, brought on by nearly uncontrollable anxiousness. Her only option at the time was to take muscle relaxants, which calmed her muscle tension enough to the point that she could get a small amount of relief. Unfortunately, the pills were so powerful that if she ever needed to take one, she would find herself incapacitated for the remainder of the day, and sometimes even into the next day.
“I took muscle relaxants for my bad migraines,” Aiden explains. “And they put me out. I slept; that’s it. There’s a full day recovery from the medicine itself because I’m so groggy the next day. I haven’t had the fear of ‘Do I need to function tomorrow if I take this medicine?’ since I started smoking.”
Even though Aiden began using cannabis less than a year ago, she has already seen a significant amount of change in her physical and mental health. Before that, she never considered marijuana as a viable option in treating her health problems.
“I began smoking socially, and only for social reasons,” she said. “I wasn’t actually aware of the benefits, in the sense that I didn’t think it would apply to me. I didn’t think I was an actual candidate for medical marijuana.”
Before she began to smoke, Aiden would have random, unpredictable, and severe migraines that could last for days on end. Since treating her condition with cannabis, she has been able to stop taking her anxiety medication completely, no longer relies on her muscle relaxants to treat her muscle tension and migraines, and has only had one severe, stress-induced migraine. She doesn’t miss work days anymore and has been able to cut down her medication budget to a fraction of what it once was.
Even though North Carolina is presently a prohibition state, cannabis is still used by many people as a viable option for treating a range of diseases and debilitating illnesses. But because the plant is illegal, there are some difficult hoops that users have to jump through in order to obtain it. And when they finally do end up getting some, it may not even be worth what they paid for.
People like Joie and Aiden simply don’t have the option of procuring, or even discussing, cannabis with a licensed physician. Unlike places like California, Alaska, and Massachusetts, there are no dispensaries in many states that sell high-quality, regulated, affordable marijuana for patients in need. All they have is what they can find on the streets and through word of mouth.
Braxton, 26, a Charlotte native who began smoking as a teenager, explains that obtaining cannabis in a prohibition state is pretty much “all about who you know and what you’re willing to pay.” Additionally, many smokers have little knowledge of the quality of the marijuana that they’re ingesting.
“You might think that, ‘Oh, it’s purple; it’s good,’ not knowing that you can stress a plant out when you grow it to make it purple. So it might not have that high a THC level, but it’s purple, and it’s pretty. So people will buy it not knowing what they’re getting,” Braxton explains.
The complete lack of regulation can obviously be dangerous for prohibition state smokers, whose options are usually limited to cannabis smuggled into the state from large — sometimes environmentally and socially careless — grow operations. Smuggled marijuana has been found to often contain dangerous chemicals, such as pesticides, rat poisons, embalming fluid, and formaldehyde. There’s no true way for the average cannabis user to test what’s actually been added to their plant material.
For these reasons, some people turn to growing plants themselves, which opens up another set of difficulties that could result in serious jail time, if discovered by law enforcement.
The fear of being caught with any amount of cannabis, or simply paraphernalia, is constant for anyone daring enough to use in a prohibition state like North Carolina. Officers there, at times, have no fear of treating even the smallest possession situation like a big-time drug offense — even if a person is merely suspected of some form of activity involving cannabis.
Joie explains how she was once arrested on-stage at a show, in the middle of a performance with her band, by Alcohol Law Enforcement officers who claimed that they witnessed members of the band, including herself, smoking cannabis before the show. In fact, the charge was falsified by the officer who arrested them, who is known widely throughout the area for using excessive force and falsifying information when it comes to suspected illegal drug offenders.
She says, while being dragged from the venue in handcuffs, “[The officers] actually told us that smoking weed was like taking a child into a back alley and shooting them.”
Cannabis is considered by North Carolina state law to be a Schedule VI drug — defined as having no medical use and a very low risk of addiction — yet still cannabis users are persecuted like they’re dangerous, hardened criminals. For possessing over an ounce and a half of cannabis, an individual could serve up to one year in prison. Lawyers are known to add “with intent to sell” onto the charges, which automatically bumps the sentence up to a Class I Felony, increasing sentences dramatically. While some lawyers admit that many charges are trumped up, these travesties continue to occur.
Though marijuana may be illegal in many states across the U.S. and is still considered completely illegal on a federal basis, many people have similar stories to Joie and Aiden. It’s true that illnesses, disorders, and diseases can be treated with pharmaceutical medication, but the benefits of cannabis use cannot be denied much longer.
“I don’t understand why something like alcohol or tobacco is legal, but something that can help people causes you to get in trouble,” says Joie. “You’re scared to be with it, but you know it’s gonna help you. So why is that illegal?”
Ben Miller is a writer and musician living in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has a Bachelor’s in English and Philosophy from Wofford College. He has written 18 different drafts for this bio, but this is the only one you will ever see.