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Madeline Colli is the Associate Editor for Cannabis Patient Care and Cannabis Science and Technology magazines at MJH Life Sciences.
Jessica Mandile, a Veterans Affairs caregiver, shares her experience helping her husband use medical cannabis as a treatment for his chronic pain.
An interview with Jessica Mandile, a Veterans Affairs (VA) caregiver with experience helping her husband use medical cannabis as a treatment for his chronic pain.
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that there was an estimated 20.4% of adults in the United States living with chronic pain. The painful condition has been linked to numerous mental and physical conditions, which can result in a lower quality of life (1). Conventional treatments for chronic pain are often opioids and other prescription medications that can cause their own side effects. To escape the negative side effects of prescriptions, more and more patients are beginning to look into alternative natural remedies such as cannabis. Through working in a women’s prison using her master’s degree in criminology, Jessica Mandile witnessed the devastating effects of heroin, opioids, and other hard narcotics. Mandile was troubled by the hold those drugs had over people’s lives and saw that a large amount of addiction was coming from prescribed pharmaceuticals. As a caregiver for her husband, Stephen Mandile, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and veterans’ advocate (2), she became uncomfortable with the idea that her husband was on some of these addictive medications that caused side effects and turmoil in people’s lives. Here, Mandile shares how her and her family came to find relief with medical cannabis and the benefits she's seen firsthand.
In her younger years, Mandile had used cannabis a few times recreationally and was not of the belief that it was a danger or drug of abuse. When her husband Stephen was suffering from chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she thought medical cannabis might be a good alternative treatment plan to look into. Through studying up on medical cannabis, Mandile learned that there was no harm in trying the option. The main concern was what would Stephen get from using the plant. There were far fewer negative side effects and no chance of overdose death. The benefits of cannabis outweighed the cons. After his military career, Stephen was diagnosed with anxiety, chronic pain, and PTSD. He tried 57 different medications to treat the variety of his symptoms, but instead of helping him feel better, Stephen felt numb and not his normal self. This is when Jessica stepped in and suggested he give medical cannabis a shot.
“His chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and PTSD controlled his life. All the prescribed medications that were supposed to help him had instead made him an empty shell of a person. He was angry, could not concentrate, would go days with no sleep and would then have days where he slept most of the day while on conventional treatments. He had no enjoyment in life. This is no way for anyone to live,” said Jessica.
Jessica noticed a huge change in him the first time he used medical cannabis. “I saw him come back to life. He was able to play with his daughters and laugh again," she said. "The change was from physical pain relief and physiological. He could think clearly. He barely left the house for 10 years on opioids. Just going to holidays with families was a struggle for him mentally and physically.”
Stephen eventually took himself off all of the prescribed medications and swapped them for medical cannabis. Seeing these benefits firsthand, he was inspired to help his fellow veterans. His goal became to give them hope that there are other methods to treat health conditions and that cannabis could be a potential remedy. Jessica explained that her husband knew that he had to show other veterans there is hope. "Cannabis can help change your life. He came up with crazy ideas to hold signs in Boston in front of the Statehouse. For someone who struggled to leave the house, now he was going to Boston almost daily," she said. "It seemed a little crazy to me at the time, but he was right that veterans deserve to know there is safe medicine. For all those that sacrificed so much for us, it was time to sacrifice things to bring them relief. They deserve better.”
The biggest challenge Jessica and Stephen faced on his cannabis treatment journey was the stigma surrounding the plant. Many times, Jessica was concerned about what other parents of kids at school thought of the situation or if they would prevent their children from coming over to play with their two daughters. As more people heard Stephen’s story, opinions began to change because they seemed to understand the situation better. “He challenged their ignorance and misconceptions because here was a veteran on cannabis sharing his story of healing and growth who didn’t look or sound 'high.' When he told people his story they were amazed and came to see the possibility of cannabis as a medicine,” Jessica explained.
There aren’t many resources offered from medical professionals for patients to research cannabis. A lot of information has been found online or through cannabis advocates. As Stephen’s experience has been shared, they have seen hundreds of peoples’ views of cannabis change. Unfortunately, there are many people out there who still lack knowledge about cannabis and how different strains work as well as the different ways cannabis can be used. “People truly had no idea that there was any pain relief associated with cannabis," she said. "I’d ask people if my daughters don’t deserve a dad who can be there for them just because they don’t believe in cannabis. It got into people’s heads and made them think. Then we ran into people who never considered their views to be wrong about cannabis. Stigma also has a lot to do with the way people look. Stigma causes people to think cannabis users look high and appear not put together. The fact that I am educated in criminology definitely helped me get through to people. It gave me credibility.”
With stories from Stephen and other medical cannabis patients, there is hope that the stigma surrounding cannabis will eventually disappear.
Cannabis’ biggest obstacle is the United States government. Due to the stigma and regulations reflecting those negative opinions, access and cost are challenging and troublesome. Jessica explained that the cost of cannabis is so far inflated and it is wrong. “Many veterans that get their healthcare through the Department of Veterans Affairs are getting thousands of dollars’ worth of prescriptions medications a month for free as an earned benefit. However, now those veterans are having to make a decision to use cannabis and pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket to get safe access," she said. "There is not a doubt in my mind that if it wasn’t for cannabis that Stephen would be dead.”
In the future, Jessica hopes to see cannabis legalization throughout every state across the country so that veterans can access cannabis for their medical treatments. The US Veterans Affairs (VA) is not open to recommending medical cannabis use. Another ambition of hers is to see the US VA adopt a program similar to what the Canadian VA has—providing access to the veterans and covering the cost of patients’ cannabis. Nationally, it would be exceptional for laws to be passed expanding access to patient care and lowering the cost of cannabis so that patients don’t become bankrupt trying to afford a natural remedy to treat their chronic pain and other symptoms. As time passes, more states have recognized the importance of cannabis and its medicinal properties through their legislations to legalize for both recreational and medical use. Hesitancy is still at large because of the lack of research on the cannabis plant. How can something be judged only based on the stigma from its past? Hopefully, with stories from cannabis advocates and caregivers like Jessica and Stephen Mandile, it will inspire trust in the plant that will allow for more research, further cementing the medicinal benefits we have all known the entire time.