Rocco’s Story

I have been struggling with back pain since 2000. Of course, everyone complains of a bad back these days and I was also one of those gym rats at the Y, who worked out like it was the Olympic trials, and also complained of a bad back to everyone who would listen. Then one morning everything changed. My alarm went off just as every morning at 6:00 AM. I attempted to lift myself up and was hit with the most excruciating pain of my life. Terrible sharp pains in my lower back and running down my legs. After x-rays, my primary care doc prescribed Motrin and rest. After a few weeks there was little progress. I was refereed to an orthopedic surgeon, who said I had spinal stenosis and herniated disks and needed a spinal fusion and a Laminectomy, but also said I should wait 6 months to see if symptoms changed. I had no intention of a spinal fusion or any other operation. I waited a few more months and went to another spine specialist. I asked him if he thought I needed phycial therapy and he said no. His contention was that I had a structural problem not sore muscles, (which would respond to therapy). I then went to a neurologist since I was having urinary problems and sexual problems due to the spinal stenosis. She said the same thing….surgery. As the months went by I was forced to make significant lifestyle changes. I could no longer go to the gym. I could no longer run in Central park. I needed a neighbor to buy grocery’s for me since I could not walk to the market. In short I had gone from 45 year old to a 75 year old in one year. I started using a Cain and my weight went up 20 lbs. Finely, I decided to go to a pain specialist. I ended up at the Pain and Palliative center at Beth Israel hospital in New York City (one of the best pain centers in the country). Dr. kaplan tried me on various medications until we settled on MS-contin. MS-contin is a brand name for Morphine Sulfate. This medication has helped me lead a much more normal life. I can shower without pain. I can shop for my own groceries. I can take a short walk and go to the gym providing I don’t do things that require pressure on my lower back. I can even tie my own shoes (an ability I always took for granted). The MS-contin brings me back to my real age. Without it, I become 30 years older.

I first went to the pain clinic 5 years ago and have been a patient there ever since. I put surgery on the back burner and decided to just live my life. I was able to do that with the help of the morphine. In recent years my condition as been getting worse , requiring higher dose’s of morphine. MS-contin has many side effects. It can make you drowsy and of course its addictive. It also has a nasty habit of lowering Testosterone in the blood, which can lead to impotency. This could also lead to low bone density and loss of energy. It is because of these symptoms that I decided to seek out a way to curb my intake of narcotics or at lease make it unnecessary to increase my dose. After a long Internet search I discovered an organisation called “The Marijuana Policy Project” This is an organization that works with all the states legislators to help to change the marijuana laws. I started a correspondence with Karen O’Keeffe who is Assistant Director of State Policies at MPP. I told her of my interest in Medical Marijuana and she told me about a study in San Fransisco that was doing research on medical marijuana so I inquired by calling Mr. Paul Couey at San Fransisco General Hospital. He interviewed me by phone and told me I fit the criterion to be a participant, which was being on either MS-contin or Oxycontin. I considered going but soon realized after looking into hotels and plane fare that I would not be able to afford such a venture. Months went by and I was contacted by Karen O’Keeffe who informed me that (MAPS) The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies was offering qualified applicants who cannot afford to travel to San Fransisco the chance to participate in this landmark study. I jumped at the opportunity. I called Rick Doblin, PH.D at MAPS and we talked logistics.

Rick D. made all plane, and hotel reservations for me. All I had to do was print out the flight schedule cross my fingers.

I arrived at San Fransisco General on Monday morning at 7:00 AM sharp. I was a bit apprehensive going into a study like this but my anxiety was short lived. Paul Couey, my contact at San Fransisco General went over details of the study with me.

I would be there for 5 days 24/7. I would be given vaporized marijuana 3 times a day. The nurses would take my blood every 30 minutes the first day and every 30 minutes the last day. They would then compare the blood of the first day,(before any marijuana was in my system) to the blood of the last day(after 5 days of marijuana) to see how Marijuana affects the levels of pain meds in my blood. For example, if the blood shows an increase in Morphine after 5 days of marijuana this may indicate that marijuana increases the effects of the pain medicine and a patient my have increased relief without actually taking additional morphine.

My Private room at the hospital had a flat screen TV, semi Private shower and bathroom and a bed. As a participant in the study I also received three meals and a snack at 8:30 pm every night. there was a computer and TV in a community room which I spent many hours. The nurse’s and aids where very helpful and courteous.

Marijuana seems to be helpful in producing an elevated mood thereby decreasing the perception of pain. I have arthritis in addition to my back issues and with the marijuana I feel increased flexibility. So far that would be my evaluation of how medical marijuana works based on my 5 days in this study. Unfortunately, I am not permitted to be active and go for walks since I am required to be on this unit 24/7. Walking, standing and being active brings about my pain so it would be advantages to take the marijuana at those times but for now I am restricted to this unit and the guidelines of the study.

I also take a drug called Dilaudid, for what is called breakthrough pain. (Breakthrough pain is pain that comes on suddenly for short periods of time and is not alleviated by the patients usual medication). I am back in new york now but when I was in the study I did not need to take my dilaudid which I usually take every morning and sometimes during the day. I attribute this to the marijuana I took when I was in the study.

With the help of MAPS, MPP, our legislators and individual citizens, marijuana will one day be legal in NY state but as of now it is not. I am back to popping my dilaudids throughout the day when I need it but it would be much better to have a non- narcotic alternative such as medical Marijuana. No one knows the long term side effects of these drugs as opposed to marijuana which is natural and has been around since the dawn of time. Thanks to this study, I now know I have an alternative to narcotics which up to this point has been my only outlet for pain relief. I also have Hep-C, and may be taking interferon as treatment soon. It would be helpful for me to have medical marijuana to combat the horrendous side effects of interferon, (which is basically poison) but as of now it is not legal and not an option in New York State.

Many thanks to Rick Doblin and all the people at The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Without them this trip would never have taken place and Also Karen O’Keeffe” Assistant Director of State Policies at (MPP) who introduced me to the people at MAPS.

Rocco Puzzo