A weed grows in Boston

By VALERIE VANDE PANNE  |  December 4, 2009

Mary's unlikely path to marijuana advocacy began when, while working in the medical field, a freak accident nearly cost her a leg, and left her with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), a wretchedly torturous condition for which there is no cure. The National Institutes of Health describes RSD as "continuous, intense pain . . . which gets worse rather than better over time" and as an affliction in which patients can experience "unremitting pain and crippling changes in spite of treatment."

"They said I'd never walk again," she recalls.

She was then a patient of the Center for Pain Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, and her pain-management treatment was so complicated that her doctors had to work together to coordinate a plan.

"I was on MS Contin and MSIR," she says — noting two types of morphine, one quick-release and one controlled-release — along with an impressive list of other pharmaceuticals, including Percocet, Dilaudid, Valium, Prednisone, Phenobarbital, Flexeril, Lidocaine patches, Diazepam, Klonopin, and more. Not to mention the stool softeners, anti-nausea pills, and antibiotics for staph infections, all taken to offset her treatment's side effects.

"I told my doctor [about nodding out at my son's reading group] and he said, 'That's good. That's how we know it's working. We want you to feel like that, so you're not aware of the pain. That's what pain management is for.' "

But she grew more and more frustrated with her walking-comatose-like state, until a doctor suggested that she try marijuana to help control the pain. The idea did not appeal to her at first. Since her Catholic high-school days, she'd thought smoking anything, even cigarettes, was "gross." And she'd always been anti-drug, especially since becoming a mother. But she was desperately unhappy with how dysfunctional she felt while on the pills, so she gave pot a chance. It wasn't long before she was making the transition from morphine to marijuana.

"It was hell getting off the pills," she remembers. "I was on morphine for eight years. My mind didn't need it, but my body did."

Mary recalls that detoxing from the pharmaceuticals meant spending seven weeks in "torture" with "sweats" and "no sleep."

"You feel like you have restless-body syndrome," she says. "It was against medical advice to discontinue my meds, so the doctors didn't help me. I did it at home, cold turkey. I sat in the tub a lot. And I promised myself I would never touch a pill again."

Ride to nowhere
When Mary picks us up at a commuter-rail station outside of Boston, she looks like she has just stepped out of the pages of an L.L. Bean catalogue.

"I'm your next-door neighbor," she tells me later. "I'm the one who hosts your kid's [sports] team's pasta night."

We hop into her vehicle. "You're lucky!" she gushes, starting up the engine. "You arrived during the middle of a harvest!" I smile and buckle my seat belt. But then in an immediately more serious tone, as we pull away from the station, she instructs: "I have to ask you to remove the batteries from your phone — phones have GPS."

Mary is acutely aware of the precautions she must take to keep her business going and still tell her story. ("Doesn't the CIA do covert shit?" she asks me later. "So do we.")

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