ELKO – You might know those older women who could be someone’s wife, mother or grandmother. They attend church, care for their families or work somewhere in town.
She could be the neighbor down the road or next door. Maybe you haven’t seen her because she’s been ill. The chronic pain she has makes her unable to leave her home or drive if she’s taken her medications.
Maybe you’ve seen her out and about recently, now that she’s able to go to the store or the post office. You know she’s a good person and wouldn’t tolerate drug use in the community or the trouble it brings.
However, some people, even some family members, may not know exactly what helped her get relief. She’s afraid she may not return to work, or that she’ll be labeled a pot-smoking hippie and ostracized from the community – or worse – from her family.
That’s right. The lady next door uses medical marijuana.
‘Frannie’ ‘Nora’ and ‘Connie’
At the Feb. 13 Elko City Council meeting, 22 people explained why they supported medical marijuana. Some explained how cannabis helped with their own debilitating health issues and pain, while others described watching loved ones suffer from the side effects of cancer treatments. All of them said they supported a medical dispensary in the Elko area to benefit marijuana card holders.
Others were reluctant to tell their stories publicly but spoke with the Elko Daily Free Press on condition of anonymity.
Three Elko County women dealing with chronic pain issues each said they turned to medical marijuana for pain relief and to reduce their intake of prescription pain medications.
These women said they sought other options within the last couple of years when they started to fear the side effects of opioids they were prescribed for their conditions, but they also felt they could not publicly admit their choice to use cannabis products because of the stigma attached to marijuana use of any kind.
Their names have been changed for this article.
For about 20 years, “Frannie,” 48, has dealt with fibromyalgia, Epstein-Barr and several autoimmune diseases. For five years, she was bedridden and is now in stage 6 of fibromyalgia.
“I have arthritis in my back and my hips, and my bone scans are not looking good in my spine and hips,” she said. “With fibromyalgia, you get anxiety and I’m nauseous all the time,” among other symptoms.
She said she endured a health scare a couple of years ago when she decided to take herself off the Fentanyl patch and use only four Percocet a day after a visit to her pain management specialist in Utah. Frannie realized after a few days that it was a mistake to suddenly quit.
“I ended up having a seizure and about died,” Frannie said, calling the Fentanyl “man-made heroin” and saying her specialist did not inform her of the consequences of cutting back so sharply.
After a few days, she was in the emergency room at Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital, in “horrible pain” and unable to breathe, essentially going through withdrawals, Frannie said.
It was her son who approached her with a solution after she left the hospital: Try some marijuana.
Self-employed, “Nora” is 62 and retired. She does not have insurance and said she couldn’t afford an MRI to find the direct cause of her condition. The X-rays showed she had multiple stress fractures and slipped discs in her spine.
Since 2006, Nora has experienced knee and back pain combined with the onset of arthritis, and the prescribed opiates, combined with other medications, were causing serious side effects.
“I had suicidal thoughts because of the pain,” Nora said. “I had been in so much pain that I was constantly thinking of suicide to end the torment.”
By 2015, Nora said she was taking 3,000 milligrams of aspirin a day in addition to her pain pills, but was unable to sleep through the night because of nightmares and sleepwalking.
“I was so lucky that I had never overdosed [with] all the meds together with more than the occasional drink,” Nora said. “I do count myself very lucky.”
Before then, Nora said in her youth she had tried marijuana but “didn’t like it.” When a friend offered it to her for her pain, Nora used it.
“What I found out was that the marijuana was the answer to my prayers,” she said.
Open surgery on her back 20 years ago began “Connie’s” journey into chronic pain and prescription medication use.
“I was on the hard stuff,” said Connie, who is approaching 60. “I was up there as high as you can go.”
The pain was unbearable, she said, making her “want to hit my head against a brick wall because that’s the only way I could tolerate it.”
But she said she didn’t want to stay on the “hard medications” and to ween herself off of it was “the hardest thing I had to do.”
“The pain clinic doesn’t tell you it’s hell going off of it,” she said, and if she knew “I never would have got on it.”
One of the difficulties of being on pain medications is the stigma of being a drug-seeker if someone is incapacitated by chronic pain, Connie said.
“It’s frustrating. We don’t want to be on these pain medications and classified that we’re abusers or that we’re taking them for the heck of it,” Connie said. “I just want pain management.”
Some family members gave her samples of cannabis to help Connie try to get off the opioids.
The opioid epidemic
In December, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the opioid epidemic “the worst drug crisis in American history, with one American dying of a drug overdose every nine minutes.”
Sessions initiated the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, which intended to federally “prosecute doctors engaged in opioid-related health care fraud … [to] help cut off the supply of drugs.”
On its website, The National Institute on Drug Abuse shows a graph that lists the top six categories of drugs involved in overdose deaths in the United States between 2000 and 2016. Synthetic opioids other than methadone caused 20,145 deaths, followed by heroin with 15,446 deaths, and natural and semi-synthetic opioids with 14,427. Cocaine, methamphetamine and methadone caused a combined total of 21,596 deaths.
Frannie said she feared the Fentanyl patch prescribed by her doctor after reading one report of multiple overdose deaths in northern California two years ago because of Fentanyl-laced hydrocodone sold on the black market to unsuspecting users. That’s when she said she decided to seek a natural solution that would not make her high.
Nora had been on opiates for seven years after a heart attack. She said she was prescribed them for her knee and medication for “emotional issues” by her doctor. Now free of suicidal thoughts and nightmares, she avoids prescription pain medications completely.
“As far as ever going on opiates again,” she said, “it will be over my dead body.”
Staying in the shadows
The legalization of medical marijuana in Nevada in 2000 by a ballot initiative allowed people to grow their own cannabis plants if they do not live 25 miles within a dispensary, but dispensaries were not approved by the Legislature until 2013. Recreational use was legalized in 2016 when Question 2 was approved by Nevada voters that permitted one ounce or less of marijuana for individuals 21 and older.
People who apply for a medical marijuana card might wait about four months to obtain one that is good for one or two years.
Although cannabis is legal in Nevada, Frannie, Nora and Connie, who each have chronic pain issues, have their reasons for staying anonymous.
Frannie has some family members who are totally against marijuana use and some who are supportive. The ones against it does not know she uses cannabis. She also may have an opportunity to go back to work now that she’s able to leave home, and is fearful that an public admission of her cannabis use might prevent it from happening.
Nora, who has lived in the community for more than 40 years, tells friends about her cannabis use but is cautioned by her husband, a longtime Elkoan, not to “advertise” it.
Connie declined to be named because of the response she received from family when she first tried cannabis, a decision she made carefully because she was afraid to try cannabis in the beginning and “prayed about it because of my children and grandchildren.”
At that time, her family was mostly against her decision to try it for pain relief, but since she’s shown improvement, their minds have changed, Connie said. However, she received blowback from an in-law who did not like her announcing it on Facebook for the grandchildren to see.
“[They] said I was promoting drug use, [which] I’m not,”” Connie said. “They’re fine with it now, but I don’t post it on Facebook anymore.”
“I’m not ashamed of it, but the way things are, if someone knows you’re doing cannabis … I don’t want the added stress,” Connie said.
Frannie said that she has “had conflicts within myself” when she chose to switch from Percocet and Fentanyl patches to medical marijuana.
Part of the conflict came from her background as a counselor working with children and parents in drug-addicted situations.
“I don’t like the feeling of THC,” Frannie said about the psychoactive effect that comes from the cannabis component. “I don’t smoke. I don’t vape. It’s very expensive.”
“But then, I don’t take Percocet to get high either,” Frannie said. Before cannabis, she made sure to follow the rules of her pain management contract, fearful of any possible violations.
Frannie said she and others who seek treatment for chronic pain know some people perceive them as “drug-seekers,” and they strive to be responsible.
“We do the pill count, the pee tests … we don’t fill our prescriptions early. We walk the walk,” Frannie said. “We’re the ones that follow the rules and are paranoid” about being illegal.
“I don’t drive if I take Percocet, and I won’t drive if I’ve eaten an edible or used medical marijuana.”
Frannie, a Mormon, said another conflict came from her religion, which teaches that everything is put on earth for a reason but they are to live according to the “word of wisdom.”
Because of that, she actively pursues good health and believes in avoiding substances like pain medication and marijuana that “changes your way of thinking.”
Her doctor in Utah, who, like Frannie, is Mormon, also told her there weren’t enough studies on cannabis, something she questions in light side effects listed on most pain medication.
“I don’t understand what the difference is of being under the influence of marijuana or Percocet or oxycodone or whatever,” Frannie said.
Medical marijuana counseling
“I think most of what we hear is people searching for natural relief,” said Terra White, co-owner of Cannabis Consulting Company LLC with her husband, Josh.
Since their business opened, the Whites said they have seen clients, young and old, seek information for their ailments, diseases, and mental or physical disabilities including AIDS, cancer, autism, epilepsy, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, brain tumors and side effects from chemotherapy and opioids.
One person uses cannabis for severe pain and the effects of sundowners, a symptom of dementia. Another individual with leukemia is trying to counteract the vomiting, lack of energy and psychological effects chemotherapy.
“People are seeking a life where they can take something for their pain or their ailment with zero side effects that allows them to function throughout the day,” Terra White said.
The Whites also hear a stipulation from their patients: Find them something that won’t make them high.
“They’re seeking information on how they can benefit from cannabis, without the psychoactive, and that’s something we really pride ourselves in,” Josh White said, explaining that they educate their clients about sativa strains and cannabidiol or CBD, which is a component of the cannabis plant that does not produce an intoxicating effect.
“I woke up one day and I wasn’t in pain,” Frannie said. “It was such an odd feeling. It was unfamiliar with me because for the past 10 years [the pain] had gradually gotten worse.”
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Frannie had visited Cannabis Consulting, who helped her obtain a medical marijuana card and meet with a doctor in Reno. She purchases CBD oils at the dispensary in Reno and has it delivered to save some money. She also has used cream with THC.
“It’s pretty expensive. For two ounces it’s $100,” Frannie said.
After Nora began using marijuana, she said she noticed more movement and reduced pain in her body. The sleepwalking and nightmares ceased.
“My outlook on life took an upwards turn, and I wanted to live again,” Nora said.
While taking her pain medication, Nora suffered the symptoms of a heart attack, which turned out to be a potassium low. It was then her marijuana use was discovered through a urine test.
“My doctor informed me I had violated my pain management contract,” Nora said. Although she remains his patient and knows of some doctors who are supportive of patients using cannabis, Nora said she decided to obtain a medical marijuana card.
“The difference in my physical health was what made me want to get a license,” said Nora, who contacted Cannabis Consulting for help filling out the paperwork.
Connie said because of a low tolerance to THC, she uses CBD products — although it isn’t as effective for the pain — and her days are more bearable than before.
“I can tolerate some of the pain,” Connie said. “I’ve learned to embrace my good days versus my bad days.”
“I just want pain management. I don’t need the high,” Connie said.
No dispensary in Elko
The debate over permitting a marijuana dispensary in Elko County heated up since Question 2 was passed in 2016 legalizing marijuana.
Elko County Commissioners prohibited establishment of marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated towns in September. The Elko City Council this week voted to prohibit marijuana businesses in city limits.
But 10 months before voters approved the ballot measure, the Whites launched Cannabis Consulting Group to advise clients on applying for medical marijuana cards and educate them on the cannabis plant, the chemical components, and uses for a wide spectrum of ailments and diseases.
The Whites faced some initial setbacks. They were asked to leave their first office because a tenant objected, and all of their bank accounts were closed because “cannabis” was part of the business name, Terra White said.
“[We explained to the bank] that we started our business as a service only. There were no tangible assets,” Terra White said. “We’re not dispensing marijuana out of our service-only business. We’re helping with the application process to get legal.”
Last year, after the passage of Senate Bill 375 that allowed Native American tribes to enter into compacts with the governor to open dispensaries, the Whites considered approaching the Elko Band and proposed establishing a dispensary at the Indian Colony. In October, Ely’s Shoshone Tribe opened a medical dispensary, adding recreational products in December.
“I felt it was the right idea to move towards the natives,” Josh White said. “I knew that holistic medicines would be recognized, and I also knew they had a unique advantage with sovereignty.”
“They’re taking the right steps,” Josh White said of the Elko Band’s decision in October to gather information and make an informed decision. A meeting among the Whites and the Band Council has not been set.
“We have a proposal, and I believe it is a just proposal for the Elko Band,” Josh White said, adding that it was not related to larger business and casino proposals by Jon Goldstein, who represented a marijuana group from California and Stations Casinos.
“We’re separate entities,” Terra White said.
The loss of the Elko Band’s liquor license and Te-Moak justice court in recent months did not dampen Josh White’s enthusiasm for the Colony to open what would be Elko’s only dispensary.
“I think people looking from the outside in would make the claim that there’s turmoil and fighting going on,” Josh White said. “And when I look at it, I see passion, pride, a need to preserve their heritage and who they are.”
“I don’t think a lot of bands could pull this off, but I know for a fact that Elko Band can. There’s a lot of talent up there and it’s untapped,” said Josh White.
The use of recreational marijuana comes down to age, said Josh White, explaining he is against those under 21 using it.
“I believe recreational marijuana is the robber of youth,” White said. “Anyone under the age of 21 should not engage without a medical card, and I would encourage them to abstain from alcohol, opioids, all of it.”
Frannie, speaking from her experience as a drug counselor, agrees that recreational use isn’t good for developing teens, and said that education in the schools on the effects of drugs is important.
“Our kids aren’t stupid. They’re going to find something to experiment anyway,” Frannie said, adding that her children have been cautioned against drinking and drug use and have seen family members die from their addictions.
“I think they need more reality, not lectures,” Frannie said. “Have them talk to friends who lost someone in a DUI accident or under the influence of drugs. Let them see the pictures or go see the car.”
Comparing recreational marijuana use to alcohol, Frannie said “we expect people who go to a casino or bar and drink to be responsible. If we do it for recreational, I expect people to be responsible.”
“I don’t want them to be on the freeway with my family or me or my friends and neighbors, just like I don’t want somebody on the road that’s been drinking at the casino,” Frannie said.
Connie said she believes recreational use is similar to alcohol use, and agrees that users should be responsible, stay home and not ruin it for medical patients.
“I don’t think you should be walking down the street with marijuana,” Connie said. “I don’t see marijuana as a big thing, but alcohol is more of a gateway [drug], in my opinion.”
Frannie is more physically active than she used to be, but because some states have not legalized marijuana she cannot visit family who lives out of Nevada.
Medical marijuana “limits me and it’s against the law, so I won’t be able to drive … because I don’t want to be pulled over,” she said.
Frannie also knows some people who have to give up other things, such as their concealed gun permit, if they are a medical marijuana card holder.
Experiencing chronic pain, but recalling the toll that drug and alcohol abuse takes on a family and religious teachings, keeps Frannie on the fence. She does not agree with recreational use, but is an advocate for cannabis to help people in pain.
“I know a lot of people who are suffering, and they don’t reach out because of the stigma,” Frannie said. “So many people are committing suicide because they can’t control the pain, and they can’t get relief if marijuana is illegal in their state.”
Frannie said she asked her doctor why the marijuana issue mattered so much if a patient was given a terminal diagnosis and would die anyway.
“Why can’t we make the end of their life not so suffering?” she asked.
Nora said she will need knee replacement surgery one day, but for now to control the pain she uses CBD oil in high concentrates, Trokies – a CBD lozenge – and smokes from a pipe, and she doesn’t mind the psychoactive effects.
“It helps with the tension,” Nora said. She also uses cream for her arthritis that makes her “hands feel that they’re mellowing out.”
Because of the improvement in her life, Nora said she is becoming more “outspoken” about the benefits of cannabis.
“It’s helped me so much. I don’t believe I’d be here on opiates,” she said. She’s receiving support from friends and finding out more people are using cannabis than she realized.
“It’s been very surprising to me how accepting people are. I’ve told them they need to get into marijuana, and they tell me they have. It surprises me.”
Connie said she received full support from her doctor, who told her “you have to do what’s best for you.”
“I’m glad she was on board and was compassionate to what I was going through,” Connie said.
The need for a medical dispensary
The cost to travel to a dispensary or order cannabis product is high for medical marijuana patients, something that keeps Nora on aspirin to help her get by on her allotment.
However, if the pain increases, Nora said she may use more product, something she cannot easily obtain because of her financial situation.
“We don’t have the means to go back and forth, especially on a week I’m in pain,” Nora said, explaining she has to get it delivered from Reno.
“I wonder if I’m going to make it through” until then, she said, explaining that a dispensary would make it easier for her and other medical marijuana card holders.
“Not everyone will agree, but as the number of medical patients in Elko increases, and they will, [and] as more people learn that marijuana can be the answer to their pain, [maybe they will realize] that it isn’t the horrible drug it’s made out to be.”
Connie said she tried to attend a city council meeting and explain why there was a need for a local dispensary, but couldn’t stay because she was beginning to feel ill.
“It’s very expensive to leave home and go get it,” Connie said. “It’s so hard for people that aren’t able to get there and I just don’t see why people are so against it.”
Frannie said she’s “terrified of what’s going to happen” to her and other patients if her doctor in Reno is forced to close, or they can’t obtain their products at a dispensary if the law changes.
“If you try to do it legally, like me, it’s so far and it’s so expensive,” Frannie said. “Is my doctor going to get scared and shut down the clinic or get his licensed pulled?”
“It would be a huge help if I could purchase my medication locally, rather than having to get it from Reno,” Nora said. “I do hope that the powers that be will recognize that a medical marijuana dispensary would be an asset to the community.”
The future for Frannie, Nora, Connie and the Whites
For the Whites, it’s been a roller-coaster the last two years. On one side, Josh said he’s struggled with personal and professional setbacks.
“I’ve been called a drug dealer,” he said. “I’ve had crowds of people stand up and insist I go to prison. I’ve lost friends that I can’t wait to get back. I’ve made mistakes in business.”
But it’s the other side that keeps the Whites going.
“We have patients that come in and encourage us and say, ‘Keep going. Keep pushing. Please don’t stop. There’s nobody to stand up for us,’” Terra said.
The people are the reasons the Whites “can’t stop” the roller-coaster in motion.
“Doctors, lawyers ranchers; cops coming in wanting it for their mothers; I mean, you name it,” Josh White said.
“Sickness does not discriminate,” Josh White said. “And you’ll be surprised what you’ll do to live with the quality of life [you’ve had]. Whether that means doing something illegal or seeking out an alternative medication, it’s going to happen. It’s human nature.”
One of Frannie’s grandchildren was recently injured in an accident, and she wondered if cannabis could help with the healing process.
“If I think this would help, I would be proactive,” Frannie said.
“I think there’s a plan and a reason for everything. God put that plant on Earth. I think it comes down to humans deciding to handle it,” Frannie continued.
“I’m good to get up and brush my teeth,” Connie said. “I’ve come a long way in 20 years, and I’m thankful for my journey, but I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. It’s been a long, tough road.”