Marijuana and Paraplegia

The worst day of my life was my 39th birthday. Sober but celebratory, I dived off a footbridge into a river and came out a changed man. I broke my back and injured my spinal cord. Paralyzed. But not everywhere, just below the waist. And not forever, just for the rest of my life.

Muscles paralyzed by spinal cord injury (SCI) experience involuntary spasms and suffer intractable pains. Such paralysis cannot be cured, but its symptoms and complications can be medicated. Thus many paraplegics routinely pop five different pills daily, some quadriplegics 10 types, and no telling how many of each.

For spasms, there are tranquilizers such as baclofen, Dantrium, and Valium. Some side effects: liver failure, insomnia, and addiction. For chronic pain, there are narcotics such as codeine, morphine, and Demerol. Some side effects: constipation, sedation, and addiction. Paras and quads would be walking zombies, if they could walk.

In 1990, the year of my injury, I briefly was administered antibiotics, but no painkillers. I have a high tolerance to pain. Before 1990, for 17 years I neither consulted a physician nor consumed any pharmaceutical drugs. Not even aspirin. After 1990, except for two weeks in 1994, I’ve again avoided all pharmaceutical drugs. Avoided them like the plague.

My abstinence is rooted in my adherence to a whole foods vegetarian diet: no meat, no fish, no milk, no egg, no alcohol, no caffeine, no nicotine, no white flour, no white sugar, no white salt. And certainly no pills or powders, neither recreational nor pharmaceutical.

Upon my involuntary induction into the community of paraplegics from SCI, I sought alternatives. I learned of one herbal alternative from the crip grapevine, from testimonies of both doctors and patients shelved in 1988 by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and from animal experimentation, the animal being me. I learned that marijuana relaxes SCI spasms more effectively than do tranquilizers and relieves SCI pains more safely than do narcotics. And it is the one medication that treats both the spasms and the pains. One side effect: euphoria. No problem! I have a high tolerance to euphoria.

So since January 1991, my evening meal has included an extra course. An after-dinner smoke. Also since January 1991, I’ve remained employed full-time. Most paraplegics drop from the workforce, half because of their disabilities, and half because of their debilitating drugs. I remain productive despite marijuana, and maybe even because of it.

I accept full responsibility for my spinal cord injury. Society owes me nothing. Social Security owes me nothing. I receive no public assistance. No one needs to care for me. I live independently, alone in a house in the woods. My body is broken, but my life is not broken.

My life has changed in two ways. I ritually smoke marijuana never more than once a day. And I routinely consult each of two physicians never more than once a year. I may not be whole, but I still am healthy. Both my naturopathic physician and my allopathic physician approve of my medicinal use of marijuana. Up until most recently, neither could legally prescribe it in Connecticut.

In 1996, to remedy this, I traveled to Holland, where medically prescribed marijuana is fully legal. In January 1997, emboldened with my prescription from Holland and encouraged by the recent referendums in California and Arizona, I wrote an essay about my medicinal use of marijuana. The Hartford Courant, Connecticut’s preeminent newspaper, gave very prominent display of my public confession.

Did I suffer recrimination or discrimination at my workplace? No. Did I endure any police surveillance or search of my home? No again. Maybe being very visibly crippled in a wheelchair has some perks. Nevertheless, I have not just sat all day on my duff.

In June 1991, I began to ambulate with crutches and leg braces. While I still use a wheelchair at home and at my workplace, I continue to walk everywhere else, including up stairs and down mountains. Spasms, however, make my feet push out of my leg braces, and thereby hinder my ability to walk. To keep on trekking, I medicate my muscles. My herbal remedy of choice happens to be very old, very natural, very available, and very controversial.

Marijuana may not have promoted my recovery, but neither has it prevented it.