Pain is different for everyone. Some people live their entire lives with a bad knee, never able to go for a run on the beach. Some suffer from daily migraines. Others can run a marathon on a broken leg without complaint.
For Stefani Malott of Portland, excruciating pain was normal. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 14, the native Minnesotan spent the next 20 years in constant discomfort, trying medication after medication in fear of a deadly allergic reaction to the next one she was prescribed.
That pain ended with the flick of a lighter. Malott, who today runs Phyre Gardens, which sells flower and concentrates, says medical marijuana helped her in a way nothing else could. Though medical marijuana tends to get less attention now that Oregon has moved into full-on recreational use, talking with her you come to understand that while prohibitionists derided medical cannabis as a scam, the way medical users have reacted to legalization demonstrates the flip side of the argument.
"When you're diagnosed young, you have to grow up really fast," Malott says. "The people around you don't believe you. Even doctors weren't taking my symptoms seriously. It all started with a raised rash on my hands. I remember running them under hot water to get it to spread so I could miss school the next day. Little did I know."
Because of her rheumatoid arthritis, Malott suffered from fibromyalgia and strained ligaments that were often inflamed by the smallest movements—reaching up for a plate in her kitchen, or turning the steering wheel at the wrong angle, which led to a dislocated wrist.
And because of her body's sensitivity to pharmaceutical medications, she feared for her life with each new drug. Her first drug treatment, before she was 18, caused skin ulcers, severe anemia, and left her passed out in a pool of blood after a ruptured ulcer.
"I've had close calls about five times with allergic reactions to Western medicine," she says. "It got to a point where I fell asleep with my hand on my heart, feeling sure that I would have another extreme reaction and die in the night."
Methotrexate, Enbrel, Celebrex, naproxen, Humira, Neurotin, Percocet, Darvocet, Oxycodone—Malott tried them all. She says she couldn't live a normal life on these meds—there were times when she forgot how to drive while in her car.
"I had tried cannabis in college, and heard of medical marijuana programs in some states, but I didn't understand how it worked with different symptoms," she says. "It took a moment of desperation for me to give it a shot."
One weekend, an unsympathetic pharmacist refused to refill Malott's pain medication two days early.
"I was in extreme pain, and walked away emotionally hurt from being treated like a junkie," she says. "It was the last straw."
Malott and her husband started reading studies on medical marijuana.
She selected a few high-THC strains and made cookies that weekend. Although the cookies were way too strong, she noticed the absence of the shooting pains from fibromyalgia. Her body went from stiff to rubber, the bones in her feet and hands cracking with glee as she stretched them without discomfort.
More research prompted Malott to vape CBD oil and try transdermal CBD patches. She learned THC was better at night to relax her muscles and let her sleep peacefully, while pure CBD topicals soothed inflammation. She still keeps a few homemade CBD cookies from her own plant in her daily regimen.
Malott's heavy pharmaceutical doses took a long time to taper off, and her body had been ravaged from decades of taking steroids.
"Prednisone had destroyed my adrenal system, my body wasn't producing cortisone, and my endocrinologist was preparing me to be disappointed with my experiment with medical marijuana," she says.
Yet by wearing CBD patches every day, religiously applying CBD topicals to her skin and joints, she says her system rebooted. She has been healthy and free of pharmaceuticals for four years.
"Now I chase my boys around the house, play video games with them," Malott says. "I actually want to start making gloves for people who want to grip things while wearing CBD salve on their hands. I'm like the Windex-happy dad from My Big Fat Greek Wedding: I tell everyone to put CBD on everything!"
She wants to empower other pain sufferers to let go of their embarrassment and share their stories.
On April 20, as we celebrate recreational cannabis, Malott's story is a reminder of why the medical marijuana program began, and where marijuana research can go from here.
"I encourage people to consider it. If you've been considering it, try it. Try a cream, try an oral dose, try vaping," Malott suggests. "I am grateful for that pharmacist that wouldn't help me, because it made me try something that changed my life."