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Travel Continues to Frustrate and Pain Medical Cannabis Patients

What do you do when your medication isn’t legal everywhere?

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Travel Continues to Frustrate and Pain Medical Cannabis Patients
Anna Om/ Shutterstock

Medical cannabis access continues to grow across the United States. However access remains a problem for patients traveling outside their home state. 

Today, 33 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized medical cannabis marketplaces and/or have similar regulations in place. July 2019 numbers from the Marijuana Policy Project estimate that just under 3.1 million patients are currently registered in the American system. 

The improved access has significantly lessened the number of cannabis refugees, or those forced to uproot their lives in search of legal medical cannabis. That is until they have to cross state lines. There, access can, once again, become uncertain.  

If you are visiting one of the 11 legal adult-use states, this shouldn’t be a concern. There, adults can legally purchase cannabis without a medical card. However, that outcome is not certain in every medical cannabis state. Often, if you don’t have a card for the state you’re in, you may be out of luck getting medical cannabis. 

This discrepancy is concerning. Some states and the country’s capital have taken up the issue. Over the years, these states have enacted reciprocity laws. Reciprocity is a law which allows people with qualifying conditions to get their medical cannabis from a participating dispensary when in certain states. 

However, rules tend to vary. Some states aren’t included in other state programs. In other cases, dispensaries in states with reciprocity can opt-out of the law. The inconsistent rules frame reciprocity as a worthy step forward that fails to provide access to all in need. 

As such, travel for work and pleasure is a daunting task for patients around the globe. Their predicament applies to both citizens traveling within the U.S. and those visiting from other countries. As such, some patients factor cannabis access and reciprocity laws into their journeys. 

Sarah Ratliff is one person who does so. The Puerto Rico-based cannabis journalist and medical patient uses cannabis to treat several conditions, including a degenerative disc disorder, insomnia and anxiety. 

Before Puerto Rico legalized medical cannabis in 2015, she had spent some 30 years using opiates on a non-daily basis. Opiates presented its own issues due to her family’s history of substance abuse and the pill’s interaction with her body. 

Today, she avoids opiates, using cannabis when in Puerto Rico. She tries to do the same when leaving the island as well. “Now that I am such a habitual consumer, legality is a huge factor in where I travel,” Ratliff explained. 

Her concerns extend beyond the law to dosage and possession caps as well. “I’d have to buy a lot more product than I need to equal what I need for insomnia and migraines.” 

Ratliff says that cannabis consumption is now “as much a part of my daily routine as breathing, sleeping, and eating.” So much so that when a friend recently invited her on a multi-state trip, she declined after seeing the itinerary. 

The writer’s frustrations shine a light on a scenario U.S. patients are likely to encounter when traveling. Such struggles become that much more difficult for international travelers. 

Shane is a Milton, Ontario, Canada-based freelance writer and cannabis reviewer better known as VapeTheBud. He reached out to me and inspired this story after his recent trip to Las Vegas, Nevada. 

The Canadian freelance writer has been a registered medical cannabis patient back home for five years. Shane consumes multiple times each day to address his chronic pain from avascular necrosis of the hip. A fan of traveling, he estimates trekking over 125,000 miles to date. 

However, much of that was before his diagnosis in 2011. Initially, opiates were a suitable solution, he said. “At the time, these were wonder drugs. It took the pain away and helped improve my quality of life.”

The pleasant results would not last, he said. “However, as time passed, my dose was triple the amount to maintain the same effect.” 

April 2014 saw Canada expand medical access to additional conditions. Shane would take up the opportunity a few months later in September. In medical cannabis, he found a solution for his pains, and could travel in the country. He still had to weigh the pros and cons to using opiates if he ever wanted to go outside of Canada, however. 

He elaborated on what that could mean for his body. “Many opiate patients will understand the irritability, hot flashes, and restless sleep we get from consuming these to manage chronic pain. This is not the last of the issues, he said, adding, “stopping them is never a fun experience.”

Not wanting to cut off international travel, Shane has used opiate medication on trips to the U.S. The experience has been less than desirable. He reported feeling somewhat maintained pain levels. On the other hand, he suffered from a lack of sleep and added stress that built up over time. 

Such a predicament left Shane not wanting to return to some of his favorite destinations, like Hawai’i, where reciprocity laws do not extend to international visitors. 

To satisfy his travel urge and legally obtain his medicine, he and his partner visited Las Vegas, Nevada. Their most recent trip was their eighth time. It was their first trip to the city since it legalized adult use sales began in June of 2017. 

“I hadn’t felt the excitement of going away in years due to my previous experiences,” Shane said. “This was my first trip where I had access to cannabis on vacation and didn’t need to keep reaching for the bottle of pain pills.”

To prepare for his visit, Shane took out $120 before leaving Ontario. He planned on visiting the Planet 13 dispensary on recommendation from an industry friend. At the dispensary, he consulted with the budtender, which included detailed research to find specific myrcene-rich products. 

“The budtender diligently looked at various products since their website didn’t mention this info, and was happy to print off some info labels for me that would work best for my needs,” reported Shane. 

Eventually, he’d choose a GG4 live resin vape cartridge for discreet consumption. The result was what he had hoped for. “I casually needed a few five to 10 seconds sips when pain arose. The concentrate lasted me a few days and was sufficient for my needs.” Shane said he carried his Percocet just in case but never used them.

Upon returning to Canada, he considered the trip to a legal cannabis market a worthwhile investment. “The end result was the best trip I had in years because I had access to cannabis.”

Sarah and Shane represent two stories that could come from countless other medical cannabis patients. Their stories are one that numerous others have shared or lived. While reciprocity is certainly a step forward, medical patients hoping to see other parts of the country or world are likely to say the current solution is far from enough.

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