This is the story of Teri Heede, who went from being bedbound and pain racked to taking on the system with the help of medical marijuana. It’s just one of the stories profiled in Reset’s new book Cannabis Saved My Life by award-winning journalist Elizabeth Limbach (available online via Whitman Publishing). The book features interviews and testimonies from 46 different patients who were able to reclaim their life after facing serious illnesses — everything from cancer to depression — thanks to the little herb that could.
“Active” is the last word usually used to describe those with multiple sclerosis. A degenerative disease that affects over 2 million people worldwide, MS often causes paralysis, blindness, and cognitive dysfunction that worsens over time, as well as excruciating daily pain.
The entire central nervous system of MS sufferers, including the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves are under constant attack and the medical community still does not know exactly why. Nor do they have a cure.
This is where medical marijuana comes in. For MS sufferers, cannabis offers immediate pain relief, although its benefits do not stop there. Far from it.
“I have a theory about MS,” says Teri Heede, a Vietnam War veteran who was diagnosed with MS twenty years ago. Now a politically involved cannabis crusader in her community in Oahu, Hawaii, Teri is definitely “active” in every sense of the word.
“It’s kind of like an electrical cord in your body,” she tells Reset. “If you went around and ripped off the cover of all the electrical cords in your house, what would happen?”
“Short circuits, misfires, and everything goes wrong. I can have muscle spasms so bad it will pull a muscle.”
“So my theory is that the THC receptors in the body can mediate this,” Teri explains. “When the nerve fires off and hits that lesion — and MS is local lesions — the THC circumvents the process.”
While there are dozens of studies that prove the efficacy of cannabis in treating the symptoms of MS, a 2012 study at the Queen Mary University in London that looked at the underpinning biology of cannabis-based medicines for MS shows that Teri is pretty spot on with her assessment of the mechanics of the medicine and how it works at a much deeper level than just suppression of the symptoms.
“MS results from disease that impairs neurotransmission and this is controlled by cannabinoid receptors and endogenous cannabinoid ligand,” the study states. “This can limit spasticity and may also influence the processes that drive the accumulation of progressive disability.”
The endocannabinoid system, for those who haven’t been paying attention to what is probably the most important biological discovery in recent history, interacts with the immune, nervous, and other systems in the human body though cannabinoid receptors in everything from the brain to connective tissue. While the interactions are complex and numerous, the purpose of the system is straightforward: homeostasis — the stabilization of the system involved.
This is why cannabis, the plant for which the system is named after, is so effective in treating everything from cancer to insomnia, all conditions where something biological is out of balance.
For multiple sclerosis, cannabis is like a miracle drug, correcting neurological misfiring, reversing inflammation, reducing pain, and returning muscle plasticity all at the same time.
“I feel like it has stopped the disease from progressing,” Teri says. “I am sixty years old and up and around.”
Proving Teri right once again, an Oxford University study found that cannabinoids are highly neuroprotective and can in fact “slow the neurodegenerative processes that ultimately lead to chronic disability in multiple sclerosis.”
“With the endocannabinoid system, we have to start educating not just the public but the doctors that there is a SYSTEM here.” Teri emphasizes, “It’s not just a Cheech and Chong movie.”
What it is in fact, is a powerful biological system activated by marijuana that can dramatically turnaround the lives of those who are disabled by MS and scores of other diseases.
“I was down for a year,” Teri tells us. “I fell down at work and I couldn’t get back up. I was like whao, what happened?!?”
“I thought I cracked my tailbone, because that’s how much it hurt, but six months later I wasn’t getting better — I was getting worse. After I did everything they told me to do, including hot water therapy, which only made it worse, I found out I had a lesion along my entire spinal column.”
“I went to the neurologist and she told me I had MS,” Teri continues. “I said, I am a widow with PTSD and you can’t tell me that now I have MS too.”
“Luckily my doctor was very open-minded. She said, try everything you can, as we have nothing more we can give to you. So I went to Humboldt County [in Northern California] and bought a quarter pound and took it home and sat on top of it.”
“And I will tell you, within three weeks I was on my feet again.”
As soon as cannabis put Teri back in action, she began what has become a lifetime mission to spread the word and fight back against the stigma that marijuana is just a drug.
“If you have ever seen a child in seizures or in pain, you just want to help that child, and this Reefer Madness attitude is really not helping at all,” she says.
Active in the fight for safe access at the local level in Hawaii, one of the most restrictive states in the nation, she often shows up for important legislative meetings as a living testimony to the power of medical marijuana.
“Without this cannabis therapy I would have a basketful of old prescription medication. I actually used to walk in with the basket in front of the legislature just to show them,” Terri tells us.
“I still have to take a stomach pill, because I have taken so many pharmaceuticals that I have what’s called watermelon stomach — your stomach lining regrows every three days normally, but mine doesn’t,” she explains. “It’s because of all the pharmaceuticals — they just ate my stomach lining away.”
“We need to make these herbal alternatives legal and available, these pharmaceutical are killing people.”
Teri is now the Female-at-Large for the Democratic Party for the county of Oahu, meaning she represents Democratic voters at the State Central Committee for Hawaii.
“I am also working heavily with the League of Women Voters, which is non-partisan,” she tells us. “Our main focus is registering voters.”
“We have such a low voter turnout here in Hawaii that getting people to the polls to elect people that represent them is our goal.”
Full legalization of cannabis is only part of the plan though. In the larger picture, Teri knows that the movement must also ensure that access to the medicine remains in the hands of the people that need it the most — the patients.
“A lot of patients are afraid of legalization, they think that they will lose their medicine and only have access to a homogenized strain that is developed to make a profit off of.” She muses, “While I do see that as a possibility, if we as patients get together and preserve our strains for ourselves we will be ok.”
Part of that is ensuring that patients have the right to grow their own plants, as although Hawaii is one of the major cannabis producers in the United States, medical marijuana patients are currently limited to only seven personal plants. And even that may be in danger.
“We have these Democratic legislators who have told me as soon as it goes legal [they] want all patient grows to stop,” Teri tells us.
This is exactly what has happened in states like Pennsylvania, which just passed a large medical marijuana bill after several years of intense pressure from the public, including serious campaigning by former talk show host Montel Williams, himself an MS patient that found relief from pain and other symptoms through cannabis.
“This is an issue of compassion and that is it,” Williams said at a rally for legalization last year.
But while the PA bill opens up medical marijuana treatment for a wide variety of conditions, including MS, it also prohibits patients from growing their own herb. Legalization also means regulation, and there are powerful interests that would like to capitalize and monopolize on the fast growing medical marijuana market.
With a shifting landscape in terms of access and legality, the future of medical marijuana is in the hands of those who take a stand for patients’ rights, like Teri Heede.
“I am there in the legislature when they have their hearings. I go door to door trying to spread the word about the many people who benefit from cannabis therapy,” says Teri. “There are believers out there now, huge believers.”
“I just want more people to get active about this. We are coming out of a time of a lot of preconceived notions and we need to move forward with this medicine.”
Once crippled with pain and unable to walk, Teri is now one of the forerunners in the battle to make and keep medical marijuana accessible to all that need it. And that’s as “active” as it gets.