Patient Profile: Kelsey Krebs

[This article originally appeared in Cannabis Health Journal in October 2006.]

HBK11RenderWe supposedly live in the day of the “miracle drug,” a title garnished on everything from Prozac to Viagra. Despite the medical marijuana community’s overall contempt for pharmaceutical drugs—or, more accurately, their slew of negative side effects—it’s true that many med pot patients wouldn’t be alive if not for their pills, injections, and other treatments. But is a drug really a “miracle” if it delivers such negative side effects that patients can’t decide which is worse, their disease symptoms or the culminated side effects of their pharmaceuticals?

Ask Alberta resident Kelsey Krebs about a miracle drug and he’ll point you in a significantly more natural direction than the local pharmacy. Krebs, a 58-year-old multiple sclerosis (MS) sufferer who contracted the disease in 1991, sees no ambiguity in labeling cannabis his personal miracle story. In a wheelchair for nine years as a result of MS, cannabis gave Krebs the gift of mobility in 2004. Unable to walk for nearly a decade, this optimistic Canadian told me how he routinely strides four blocks to collect his mail and can spend more than an hour browsing his local Costco—without the complimentary battery-powered mobility scooter.

MS is more common in women than men and typically targets those between the ages of 20 and 40. It became a part of Krebs’ life when he was 43. This neurological disorder, affecting more than 2.5 million people globally, normally strikes in a form called relaxing-remitting (but often worsens into progressive forms). Krebs’ initial onset of the disease went straight for the jugular in the form of chronic progressive MS—the most debilitating manifestation. His doctors informed him that he’d never experience a remission. “Which I didn’t…for 13 years,” said Krebs. “It just slowly kept getting a little worse. Until I started using cannabis, that is.”

Krebs is a testament to the power of word of mouth. In 1998, after having suffered from MS for nearly seven years, one of Krebs’ co-workers asked him if he had ever used or considered cannabis to treat his disease. A few days later, his co-worker gave him a gift that would forever change his life: a joint.

The Lame Shall Walk

Considering the example of Krebs, theories that Jesus Christ healed the afflicted with cannabis aren’t so far fetched. After spending nearly one-third of his adult life confined to a wheelchair and being told by doctors that his condition wouldn’t improve, it certainly must have seemed like a miracle to his friends and family when Krebs began walking unassisted for significant distances.

kelsey_krebs“I probably had about a fifteen second standing span,” Krebs told me during a phone interview from his home outside of Edmonton. “If you said stand, my legs would just crumble and I’d fall. I would have to sit down. Today, I could probably brace my legs and stand for an hour,” he said. Krebs shared his excitement of no longer being restricted to a wheelchair. “You’re looking up, always on the ground, asking someone to open the door…. Now I just open the door myself and walk in,” said Krebs. “I’m standing at the same height as other people. It just feels so good.” In addition to the emotional and psychological benefits of mobility and independence, the exercise gained from walking contributes to Krebs’ overall health, enhancing his ability to battle the slow erosion of his nervous system that is the core destructive force behind MS.

“When I first got MS, I was very strong from hunting and walking,” he said. However, as the disease progressed and he lost his mobility, Krebs became increasingly weaker. “The less you can walk, the weaker you get. The weaker you get, the less you can walk. It’s just a downward spiral,” he said. “Now I’m on an upward spiral. The more I can do, the more I walk. Which means there’s more I can do,” he said happily.

Benefits Beyond Mobility

If going from wheelchair bound to full mobility isn’t enough to convince one of the efficacy of cannabis, Krebs has also gained significant relief from double vision (16 percent of those with MS suffer partial or complete loss of vision). “Before I used cannabis, when I looked at my lawn, I could hardly see anything. When I had a few drags of a joint, my vision would go back to singular,” he said.

Krebs believes that he has regained normal vision and mobility as a result of the relaxation that cannabis affords his body. Referring to the protective and insulating myelin sheath surrounding the nerves that an MS patient’s immune system erroneously attacks, Krebs said he believes the key to the benefits he gains from cannabis lies in its power to relax him. “I truly believe that my body is so relaxed using pot that it gives it a chance to build more myelin than is being eaten away. That’s what I think the whole [benefit] is,” he said.

Reduction of Pharmaceutical Drugs

There’s something perversely exciting about the ability to replace pharmaceutical drugs costing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop—and that carry a laundry list of negative side effects—with a simple plant one can grow in their back yard (and that carries arguably no negative side effects).

Like many MS patients, cannabis has allowed Krebs to reduce his pharmaceutical drug consumption from seven to only two drugs. This has reduced his expense to Health Canada and—more importantly—eliminated the negative side effects of the drugs he no longer requires. “Just being off those poisons, I feel better,” he said.

Drugs such as the anti-inflammatory steroid Prednisone, Solu-Medrod (basically a stronger form of Prednisone), and the anti-spasticity drug Baclofen caused Krebs to suffer a wide variety of negative side effects.

“Baclofen was the ugly one, the one that made my ears ring,” said Krebs. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, in older adults, Baclofen can cause “hallucinations, confusion or mental depression, other mood or mental changes, and severe drowsiness.” Krebs explained how he no longer needs Baclofen—or its harmful side effects—now that he consumes cannabis on a regular basis. “Pot takes the tremors right away. I can be sitting here, shaking like a leaf, and I’ll have three or four puffs and I’ll calm right down,” he said.

Prednisone, another drug that Krebs no longer needs because of his use of medicinal cannabis, is one of the most commonly prescribed steroids on the market. It also carries some of the most severe side effects. Symptoms such as dizziness, difficulty sleeping, extreme changes in mood, bulging eyes, red or purple blotches under the skin, and extreme tiredness are but a few of its “less severe” symptoms. The “serious” list of side effects includes seizures, depression, loss of contact with reality, uncontrollable shaking of the hands, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, swelling or pain in the stomach, and difficulty breathing or swallowing.

When his neurologist put him on Salu-Medrod, Krebs was told it was newer and more powerful than Prednisone. All he can remember, however, is that it carried some intense and life-altering side effects. “I know you cannot believe that a person can stay awake for three weeks, but [on Salu-Medrod] you do! Even when you close your eyes, you’re still wide awake. And that lasted for three weeks [after the treatments],” said Krebs. Having undergone a Salu-Medrod treatment once every three months for a period of three years, Krebs reported that, although he no longer takes the drug, he continues to experience sleep disorders. “I haven’t had Salu-Medrod for two years and I still have to take a sleeping pill and cannabis or I can’t sleep,” he said.

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Before adopting cannabis as medicine, Krebs had fallen into the sad category of patients who have become so bombarded with pharmaceutical drugs that their doctors begin prescribing secondary drugs simply to reduce the negative side effects of the primary drugs. Which, in turn, often requires even more drugs, in an ironic pattern of treatment escalation with no theoretical end. “Do you see the contradiction here?” asked Krebs. “You take Baclofen primarily to stop shaking, but Prednisone causes shaking. The drugs are working against themselves,” he lamented incredulously. 

Krebs also explained how, when watching television, “…my eyes would turn digital.” He explained how his TV screen would turn into moving colored squares. When he inquired with his neurologist, he learned this to be a prelude to migraine headaches. “With cannabis, migraines never developed. The only time I got severe headaches was when I was on Baclofen,” he said. 

Strain Efficacy & Tolerance Building

Krebs, a Health Canada MMAR (Medical Marijuana Access Regulations) exemptee with a legal garden of 25 plants, grows five plants each of White Rhino, White Widow, Northern Lights, Northern Berry, and Louie (a Northern Lights hybrid). Krebs reports that he gains roughly equal relief from the tremors, double vision, and pain produced by his MS from each of the strains he’s growing. Because the efficacy of the strains is roughly the same for him, he chooses varieties based on yield and robustness.

“Louie is a very heavy, sappy, gooey, crystalline plant and a good yielder. I like that one,” said Krebs. “White Rhino and White Widow are pretty finicky. I’ve had little problems with them here and there. Leaves falling out or burned or whatever. Whereas the other strains, like Louie, just seem to grow,” he said.

To maximize his harvest and help him remain independent from the dangers and expense of the black market, Krebs employs CO2, plentiful ventilation, and appropriate lighting for each stage of plant growth (metal halide for the vegetation stage and high pressure sodium during flowering). “I use CO2 and, you know, I can tell the increase in growth. You can see the difference. To me, CO2 is very important,” he said.

“When I first started, I took any F1 female I could get,” said Krebs when asked about his early experience growing for himself. “I’d like to get in Blueberry. I’d like to get in Chemo. I’d like to get rid of White Rhino and White Widow.” Krebs said he’s happy he has a grow license and doesn’t have to depend on Health Canada for his medicine. “I’ve read where medical users have wanted to send their [Health Canada] weed back, it was so rough,” he said.

To prevent tolerance building and maximize the medicinal effects of his crop, Krebs (who consumes about three grams of cannabis per day), has devised a rotation schedule based on the five strains he’s growing. “Mind you—don’t forget this—your body gets accustomed to [a particular strain] in two to three weeks,” he said, explaining how once, early in his growing, he had a small amount each of five strains. “I was really happy; I finally had good pot! So I smoked a small amount of four or five of the strains each time. Well, in a couple of weeks, I was immune to everything! I had to quit all the other strains and start going back to one at a time. You want to have one for two or three weeks, cut if off, and go to the other one for two or three weeks,” he recommended.

Krebs enjoys vaporizing because he’s able to avoid a headstone. “I want a body stone more than a head stone,” he said. “With vaporizing, I don’t get any kind of head stone. You’d never know I even smoked,” he added. Like many patients with chronic progressive MS, Krebs reports that he rarely feels “stoned” in the conventional sense, as would a recreational smoker. “To me, stoned is just my muscles relaxing. I don’t get goofy or get a head buzz,” he said.

Unlike recreational smokers, Krebs seeks only relief from the symptoms of his MS, not to get high. “I don’t like that big head bomb when you’re seeing triple…that’s what you want when you’re a kid or want to get stoned. I don’t want that. I’m that way when I wake up on a normal day, unsteady and shaky and everything. With MS, it’s like you’re half stoned all the time. I don’t like that. It’s out of control. I want to get my feet so when I take a step, it’s really a step. When I’m thinking, I want the thought to be there.” Krebs illustrates the major difference between hard core medical users and recreational consumption. “I’m not smoking to get high. I’m smoking to get rid of the shaking and the pain,” he told me.

A Semblance of Normalcy

“Since I began smoking all the time, I’m surprisingly pain free. I can sit in a chair—I’m sitting here right now, in my TV chair—and, by bending certain ways, I can get to a point where absolutely nothing will hurt, not even have one finger, one toe…nothing hurt. I’m pretty fortunate for that,” Krebs said.

Krebs especially appreciates the reduction in his double vision that daily cannabis consumption has provided. “Without smoking, I can sit and look at a tree and it’s like a mirage. I can see green, but I can’t tell you if it’s four branches or two. It’s just blurry,” he said. “If I have a couple of puffs, I can feel the range move in…and I can see. Cannabis has definitely helped my vision.”

If the ability to walk and see isn’t enough to convert the cynical, Krebs enjoys other benefits from his use of cannabis. One of the biggest problems experienced by those with chronic progressive MS is overall loss of muscle control, which often manifests itself in the form of a weak bladder. Since adopting the use of cannabis in his daily life, Krebs has significantly greater bladder control. “When I first started driving again, about two years ago, I’d wet my pants on the way to the city and have to turn around and come home,” he said soberly. He explained how his accidents weren’t for lack of a service station or restaurant. In a condition known as Key in Lock Syndrome, MS patients experience the rapid onset of a great urgency to urinate (resulting from one or more bladder contractions). This condition (not limited to those with MS) rarely allows sufferers to find facilities in time to prevent embarrassment. “Using cannabis, I haven’t had an accident for a couple of years now,” Krebs told me.

Like Alison Myrden in Ontario, Grant Krieger in Calgary, and thousands of fellow patients throughout North America, Krebs is another success story in the use of medicinal cannabis to effectively—and often astonishingly—treat MS. The mere fact that cannabis has single-handedly allowed him to regain the ability to walk is a miracle in itself. However, the reduction in pharmaceutical drugs (and their negative side effects), dramatically improved vision, and the fact that he’s now able to drive and work are obviously major improvements in his quality of life.

Not bad for a man who medical professionals advised to get used to his wheelchair because, they said, he’d never walk again. The fringe scholars might just be right: Jesus may have healed with cannabis. After all, anything that can help the lame to walk and give vision to the blind must be considered a miracle.


All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003-2017 Gooey Rabinski. All Rights Reserved.

Gooey Rabinski is a technical writer, photographer, and compliance documentation specialist for cannabis businesses who has contributed feature articles to magazines and media outlets such as High Times, CannaBiz Journal, MERRY JANEEmerald Magazine, Grow Magazine, Herb.coThe KindSkunk, Cannabis Culture, WhaxyHeads, Weed World, Green Flower MediaCannabis HBK11RenderHealth Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself.

He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.

His cannabis-related freelance photos, spanning back more than a decade, are available on Instagram and Flickr. He tweets from @GooeyRabinski.

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Patient Profile: Dennis Lillico

If you inquire with a medical specialist regarding dystonia, you’ll learn that it’s a family of neurological disorders similar to Parkinson’s Disease, only more severe. Due to its relative rarity, the average layperson has never heard of dystonia. Severely degenerative in nature, it is actually—behind Parkinson’s—the third most common movement disorder, afflicting more than 300,000 people in North America.

Dystonia disturbs nerve signals from the basal ganglia in the brain to various muscles. Some dystonias are genetic, while others are the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs. Brain injuries are a third causal classification.

The Dystonia Medical Research Foundation defines this ailment as “a syndrome of sustained muscle contractions, frequently causing twisting and repetitive movements or abnormal postures.”

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But ask British Columbian and dystonia sufferer Dennis Lillico for a definition (whose dystonia is genetic in nature) and he’ll convey to you a very personal story of pain, depression, incredible optimism, and overwhelming challenge.

“I suffer from severe depression and involuntary movements in my body that are stress induced,” Lillico said during an August phone interview from his home in Trail, B.C., about 140 miles north of Spokane, Washington. “It causes my brain to have an auto dominant nature. That means I look at things with an analytical mind.”

While most sufferers of severely debilitating diseases would rather indulge in forgetting their symptoms, Lillico has accumulated a knowledge of his condition that approaches that held by most doctors. “I have seven high signal legions within the frontal lobe on the right side of my brain,” he said. “My condition is classified as essential myoclonus, which means that it is degenerative, based on myelin deterioration.”[1]

Lillico described his condition in a manner more seeming of a medical professional than a man who can label a weekly two block walk to a public park a major victory. Unlike a medical professional of the western variety, however, he is particularly good at describing the human side of his ailment.

“The perception of time doesn’t mean much to me,” he said matter of factly. “Dates are not very important to me either. I have to look at things differently.”

Extreme Sensitivity to Stress

Lillico’s daily existence hinges on his ability to prevent or reduce stress. He suffers from continual involuntary movements throughout his body, severe depression, and extreme sensitivity to stress. He is also afflicted with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Based on MRI scans of his brain, doctors believe—but cannot conclude—that he may also suffer from multiple sclerosis.

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Lillico only wishes he could define stress by the same metric as the rest of the world. Workplace politics, rush hour traffic, and misbehaving children are stress sources of which he can only fantasize. His personal stressors—activities such as walking, talking, eating, and personal grooming—are things that healthy people take for granted. Tasks that others perform several times per day, almost as afterthoughts or background activities, are monumental challenges for this humble Canadian.

“I find amazing that, by listening to the children who are playing in the pool, laughing, having fun…it helps me connect my heart with my brain,” he explained. “There are lots of things that you can do for stress reduction. And hanging around kids playing in the pool is some of the best stress reduction that I can do.”

The compassionate tone in Lillico’s voice dispels the notion that he may be living vicariously through the energetic, carefree children. He has seemingly accomplished the rare feat of channeling his pain and suffering into a compassion for his fellow humans.

Lillico’s voice and his enunciation are as I envision Dr. Stephen Hawking if he were capable of speech. It’s easy to gain the perception that Lillico might literally be a sub-genius, his condition being so severe that it would drive those of a lesser intellect or mental tolerance into psychosis, severe chronic depression, and even suicide.

Simple Tasks Difficult or Impossible

Lillico described in painful yet objective detail an incident when a friend prepared pancakes for him. “I couldn’t put my hand to the plate. It was a hard struggle, very hard,” he said. He described how it was impossible for him to cut the pancake, place it in his mouth, chew, and swallow, because his disorder affects every muscle in his body.

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“Just the simple movement of me taking a fork and trying to put it to a plate…I couldn’t physically do that without fighting very hard,” he said.

After witnessing Lillico’s struggle, his friend began to weep. Without the ability to chew or swallow, however, there was little his friend could do to assist.

“Without any hesitation, after smoking a doobie, I wolfed the whole pancake down with no problems whatsoever. At that specific point in my life, there was no one on this planet that was going to tell me that I couldn’t smoke my medication. No one.”

In only six years, Lillico has endured a lifetime of suffering. Many simple pleasures in which people indulge on a daily basis will never be enjoyed by this soft spoken 40-year-old. A brief phone conversation taxes his energy and can be a monumental challenge.

A man of above-average intelligence, Lillico’s brain produces thoughts that his mouth and tongue muscles have difficulty expressing (similar to stroke sufferers). The stuttered lethargy of his speaking can easily tax an impatient conversational partner. The knowledge that his stilted speech can be frustrating to his conversation partners, in turn, further stresses him—thus deteriorating his speaking ability to an ever greater extent.

Simply by attempting to engage in a common activity (such as eating or walking), Lillico can, ironically, cause himself enough stress to prevent his ability to engage in the activity. His life is a physical metaphor for an emotionally crushing Catch 22: Engaging in activities that potentially reduce his stress level threatens to cause him stress.

Familial Autosomal Dominant Myochronic Dystonia

Officially labeled Familial Autosomal Dominant Myochronic Dystonia, Lillico’s condition began to manifest itself in pain and muscle spasms in 1999. But it was not until 2003 that neurological specialists in Vancouver were able to accurately diagnose his disease.

To Lillico, the exact label on his ailment is of little consequence. Regardless of its Latin name, pain and struggle are pain and struggle. The perpetual lack of control he exhibits over the muscles in his body needs no medical title. It is a constant reminder of his minute-to-minute challenge to fight his disease and overcome the lure of depression and hopelessness.

“Leading neurologists and experts on my condition have told me, in writing, that there is very little that can be done about this disability because it is a genetic mutation,” Lillico told me.

Leading Edge Desperation

Dennis Lillico is a man literally ahead of his time. Unlike those with more common and more treatable conditions such as epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, or Hepatitis C—where at least some form of credible medical treatment and understanding of their illness exists—Lillico finds his condition to be on the cutting edge of medical ignorance. Hopelessness can easily spring forth from responses from the medical establishment such as “We simply don’t know.”

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“Most people who have had my disability before have committed suicide because they can’t take it…and I can imagine why,” he said, his already-weak voice crackling with emotion. “So it was no question for me to legally take on whoever I had to take on after realizing exactly what benefits cannabis was giving me,” he said.

Pharmaceutical Treatments Not Effective

It is soon obvious that Lillico perceives the responsibility to research and treat his disease to be his own.

“There are such things as botox treatments, injections into the muscles that can relax them, that have been found beneficial with disabilities such as dystonia and other neurological conditions,” Lillico said objectively. “But, because all of my muscles move, [doctors] are afraid to inject botox because I will just go limp and won’t be able to move at all.”

Lillico described how many neurological conditions run parallel to autosomal dominant features such as his own. “I have been tested and told by Vancouver General Hospital—through a formal neurological psychiatric evaluation—that I use an extremely large portion of my left brain hemisphere, which would make sense if the right hemisphere isn’t working properly,” he explained.

Despite the severity of his condition, Lillico is a testament to the human body’s ability to reprogram itself to adapt to adverse conditions, such as the myelin deterioration suffered by his nerves and brain. “They told me I use approximately 94% of the left [brain] hemisphere and 6% of the right hemisphere. So I use a lot of the ‘put it together’ side of the brain,” he said.

90:1 Efficacy Improvement with Cannabis

“[My doctors] have documented in their records that even the best medical drugs out there, the newest drugs out there, are only working for 1% of this disability,” said Lillico. “Whereas cannabis helps me with 90%. So I just told them, ‘You know what, guys [laughing], you think I’m going to sit here and go through this when I don’t have to?! No way!”

Lillico acts as the “cannabis is good medicine” poster child for every doctor he meets. “I have changed every doctor’s opinion I have come across about medical cannabis,” he said proudly. “They have acknowledged, in all of their reports, that it is beneficial to me.”

When asked his opinion of cannabis and its efficacy for his ailments, Lillico couched his response philosophically. “It is a fight for quality of life for me. If I don’t have cannabis or any cannabinoids in my body, I wake up and I’m in pain from the neurological damage that’s being done to my system,” he said.

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Using cannabis to manage his pain and movements, Lillico smokes (or uses a vaporizer that a neighbor donated) throughout the day. He can quickly fall into a downward spiral if he is without cannabis. His pain causes stress, which in turn causes more painful myochronic movements within his muscles. “If I’m not able to shut down that vicious cycle, I will live a very debilitating life,” he said soberly.

Lillico’s affinity for cannabis is understandable, given that the best medical treatments available have almost zero efficacy for his condition. “I have noticed that, when using cannabis, I am able to do things with a smile and totally relax every muscle in my body. Using stress reduction tools, such as meditation and proper breathing, I am able to confront a lot of my movements and reduce stress as much as I can,” he said.

Without cannabis, Lillico often cannot walk. If he can’t walk, he can’t transport himself to soothing environments, such as parks and pools where children play. If he can’t achieve the simple task of walking to a park, he also can’t enjoy the benefits of self-reliance and stress reduction.

Lillico is adamant about his choice of cannabis for treatment (although he has little choice given the lack of efficacy from pharmaceutical treatments). “I can choose to be up and energetic. I can choose to put one foot in front of the other. I can choose to have a smile instead of frowning,” he said. “Those are choices made available to me only by cannabis.”

“I do believe, in my specific position, with what modern science has to offer me, that cannabis is the best medication possible for my condition,” he concluded.

More Than Cannabis

While he readily admits “Cannabis is the only medicine that has given me any relief,” Lillico freely acknowledges that his condition is treated by more than cannabis. But he just as readily says that, without it, he is incapable of indulging in his other stress-reducing activities. Cannabis makes his other treatments possible.

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“The Heart Mass Institute in California has taught me how to breathe properly,” he said. “By breathing and thinking something good—and, of course, using cannabis as well—I am able to reach deeper states of meditation, which is healing me and giving me the strength to put one foot in front of another,” he said with a tone of victory.

“Sometimes, that’s a real challenge for me,” he added.

Blessed

Does he feel cursed by his disease? Lillico is quick to offer a more optimistic course of thought. “Oh, no, I feel blessed! I feel like I’m the luckiest person on this planet right, now…I do. Because I’ve been given an opportunity to try to help people,” he said emotionally.

Of course, due to the relentless efforts of a monopolistic pharmaceutical industry and prohibitionist politicians bent on fear mongering, most of the world doesn’t understand the efficacy Lillico gains from cannabis. “Even one of my closest friends doesn’t believe in medical cannabis that much,” he said.

“I acknowledge the international efforts to destroy the medical benefits of cannabis in the United States. I have very strong opinions about that,” he added, hinting at his activist side.

“Cannabis benefits every neurological condition except for Parkinson’s,” Lillico told me. “Health Canada has even acknowledged that there is benefit and, in every case, they have stated that there must be more research done. They have reported 54% to as much as 94% symptom relief in every neurological condition out there,” he said.

Finding Medicine

Lillico can’t afford to purchase cannabis on the black market based on his meager income (unable to work, he receives public assistance). He relies on the charity of others who contribute medicine. “Some people have, through the internet, helped. But a lot of the local people think that I’m too outspoken and are afraid to help me.” At the time of this interview, Lillico was out of cannabis.

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Lillico has attempted to grow his own cannabis, but with little success. Prior to obtaining a medical exemption and grow license, Lillico’s small grow effort was confiscated by the police.

“The RCMP came in February of 2005 and took out my grow room and two pounds of dry medication that I had locked up in my room,” he lamented. “They went in and they destroyed half of my grow equipment and shut down the power to my house. They put me out of my house for two months.”

There are many who believe medical marijuana is a farce, due in large part to governments that continue to propagate this notion. But to patients such as Dennis Lillico, the efficacy of cannabis is more real than healthy individuals will ever comprehend.

Patients such as Lillico, who often search for years or even decades for a credible solution to their pain and suffering, are perplexed by the inability of their own government and the medical establishment to recognize such a simple and natural source of relief as cannabis. Couched in politics, corporate monopolies, and a government insensitive to peer-reviewed scientific research, current marijuana policy is clearly not meeting the needs of people like Lillico, arguably society’s most vulnerable citizens.

[1] Healthy nerves in the human body are coated with a myelin sheath. This protective tubular casing consisting of specialized fat cells that protect nerves from electrical activity and allow them to function properly. It is the myelin sheath that contributes the color to the white matter of the brain.

[This article originally appeared in Cannabis Health Journal in October 2005.]


 

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003-2017 Gooey Rabinski. All Rights Reserved.

Gooey Rabinski is a technical writer, photographer, and compliance documentation specialist for cannabis businesses who has contributed feature articles to magazines and media outlets such as High Times, CannaBiz Journal, MERRY JANEEmerald Magazine, Grow Magazine, Herb.coThe KindSkunk, Cannabis Culture, WhaxyHeads, Weed World, Green Flower MediaCannabis HBK11RenderHealth Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself.

He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.

His cannabis-related freelance photos, spanning back more than a decade, are available on Instagram and Flickr. He tweets from @GooeyRabinski.

Vaporization: Modern Cannabinoid Consumption

While images of joints and bongs will permeate cannabis lore for decades to come, alternative consumption methods have existed for thousands of years. From the drinking of tea-like Indian bhang (cannabis buds soaked in hot milk and spices) to the ancient middle eastern tradition of marinating cannabis flowers in olive oil for anointment to the skin, the smoking of cannabis is actually a fairly contemporary means of ingestion.

The emergence of the medical marijuana movement has motivated the development of alternative cannabinoid consumption methods. Joining sublingual sprays, tinctures, capsules, and edibles is a relatively old technology: Vaporization. This method of extracting THC and other valuable cannabinoids from the cannabis plant offers the advantages of decreased harm to the lungs, long-term cost reduction, and significantly decreased smell during consumption (aiding in stealth for those where consumption is illegal).

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Medical quality vaporization requires a device called, appropriately enough, a vaporizer. Available in a wide variety of forms—from temperature controllable forced air vaporizers, such as the $500-600 German-produced Volcano, to simple manually operated glass devices for under $20—vaporization is more than a cultural experiment. In fact, it is becoming more common for dispensaries and smoking cafes to rent or offer free use of high-end vaporizers.

In the world of vaporization, the terminology is different. All metaphors related to the combustion of cannabis suddenly fail to apply to this often high-tech method of separating THC from the cannabis plant for administration to a patient. No longer do generations-old references to “burning a spliff” or “torching some herb” suffice. Instead, one toasts or vapes one’s stash.

Pen vapes have recently become all the rage, especially in trendy legalized states like Colorado and Oregon. While some of these devices produce a good vapor stream and extract as much medicine as possible, others are cheap imposters that are reported to produce a cheap high that doesn’t approach the experience of smoking. This post focuses on desktop vaporizers.

A Brief History

While high-end vaporizers are relatively novel, references to the vaporization of cannabis date back at least as far as the 5th century B.C. Greek writer Herodotus described a plant cultivated by the Scythians that they threw upon red hot stones within a closed room, producing a vapor. Herodotus humbly noted that the Scythian vapor bath produced an effect “…that no Grecian vapor-bath can surpass. The Scythians, transported with the vapor, shout aloud.”

In 1989, a self-purported U.S. government employee who identified himself simply as “Dr. Lunglife” provided a manuscript to High Times in New York City. The paper detailed the process for building a basic vaporization machine from parts purchased at a local RadioShack electronics store (see Vaporizing THC Oil: An Alternative to Smoking Marijuana in the May 1989 issue of High Times).

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In 1994, at the 7th Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, Sensi Seed Bank employee “Eagle Bill” demonstrated what is believed to be the first temperature controllable heat gun version of a vaporizer. Using only trim leaves and bottom-of-the-plant buds, Eagle Bill wowed passers-by with a clean, powerful high. Shortly thereafter, commercial vaporization units began to trickle onto the market.

The Reality

Objectively, vaporization provides many of the “convenience” advantages of smoking while avoiding most of the—albeit controversial—health risks associated with the burning of cannabis leaves and flowers. It offers rapid onset (a characteristic of smoking, but not eating) and very efficient extraction and utilization of cannabinoids (clearly superior to smoking).

This greater efficiency means that vaporization sings a siren song not heard on the island of smoking: More for your money. High-quality vaporization simply stretching one’s medicine supply. In a world where the price of cannabis often competes with that of gold—and the most ill are typically those with the least financial power—this is a tremendous advantage (especially for patients consuming high volumes).

Vaporization allows most patients to consume 50-75 percent of what they typically would smoke to produce the same effect. For those who are chronic smokers, this can result in significant savings over a period of only one or two years.

While vaporization offers significant mid- to long-term cost savings compared to smoking, it sports a heavy duty upfront expense—at least for the most efficient machines that are best suited to medicinal users. The benchmark, at least for the time being, is the Volcano. At $500 USD, however, this model is simply beyond the budget of many cannabis consumers.

Many patients report that vaporization produces a more heady, sativa-like high. “It does seem to be more of a body engagement when one smokes cannabis as compared to vaporization,” Dr. Rick Doblin, founder and president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in Sarasota, Florida, told me during an interview. “Maybe that’s from the smoke or the particulate matter…it’s hard to say exactly. But there does seem to be an ethereal, heady effect that comes from vaporization,” he said.

The Science

When one burns any herb, the goal is to extract the substances of medicinal or psychotropic value. Unfortunately, research has shown that burning cannabis typically produces more than one hundred toxins, when a handful of cannabinoids and terpenoids is all one really wants. The combustion of cannabis is akin to collapsing an entire building, when all you need is to redecorate a single room.

Despite studies linking marijuana smoking with a decrease in the likelihood of contracting lung disease, a lack of toxins is simply superior to an abundance of what may or may not carry negative health consequences (especially for weak or very sensitive patients). Chemic Laboratories in Massachusetts illustrated this when it found that the Volcano can produce vapor that is 95 percent pure THC, with only three additional compounds present in the vapor (one of which is a cannabinoid). Regardless of the pleasures of smoking, many patients must necessarily seek the most efficient and least risky consumption methods available. Currently, this is either vaporization or edibles (with tinctures running a close third).

Vapolution 3.0 glass-on-glass vaporizer

One of the most confusing elements of vaporization is the temperature at which it takes place. This is due, in large part, to the fact that vaporization occurs within a range of temperatures, not at a specific thermal point. To be more precise, each cannabinoid (111 have been discovered) vaporizes at a slightly different temperature.

Thus, different cannabinoid profiles are produced by variations in vaporization temperature. While the average recreational smoker will be hard pressed to perceive minute differences, a near-combustion temperature (about 220 degrees Celsius, or 428 degrees Fahrenheit[1]) will produce a noticeably different medicinal effect or high type than a setting at the base of the vaporization temperature range (about 50 degrees cooler). This can have an impact for medical users who find maximum efficacy from a particular cannabinoid profile.

According to MAPS’ Doblin, lower vaporization temperatures result in a headier, more ethereal high, while higher temps produce a more body-engaged, indica-type effect. He recommends using higher temps in order to extract a maximum volume of cannabinoids.

Torching vs. Toasting

A thorough and fair comparison of smoking and vaping is outside the scope of this article. However, because the vast majority of patients smoke their medicine, comparing vaporization with this universal benchmark creates helpful and realistic reference points.

The greatest difference between a common form of smoking, such as a joint, and the pinnacle of vaping, the Volcano, lies not only in the efficiency of the extraction of cannabinoids, but also in the completeness of the collection and consumption of the transfer medium (vapor or smoke). When smoking a joint, much of the smoke is lost and never consumed, escaping into the air. This is obviously less true of bongs and pipes, but significant loss from “sidestream” smoke still occurs. In fact, a 1990 study by Mario Perez-Reyes (Marijuana Smoking: Factors that Influence the Bioavailability of Tetrahydrocannabinol) revealed that as much as 40-50 percent of the THC in a joint is lost to sidestream smoke.

While most vaporizers are not designed as well as the Volcano, many models do offer the efficiency of capturing all vapor for consumption by a patient, allowing none to escape or go to waste. The Vapolution is an affordable ($100) and efficient model that doesn’t waste medicine.

While burning herb is a one-pass process (for a given quantity), vaping involves several passes over a single portion of marijuana. Depending on the resinous nature of the sample, up to ten vaporization passes (ten bags of vapor, in the case of the Volcano) can be made over a single portion of cannabis. The first two passes produce the greatest strength vapor, with each concurrent pass producing less and less medicine (the collection bag becoming less hazy). For best results, one should stir the “duff” (toasted cannabis) after each vaporization pass.

volcano-vaporizer-classic

True to the thousands of uses of the hemp plant, the spent duff that is a by-product of vaporization continues to offer utility. Toasted cannabis herb is well suited in the kitchen, complimenting soups, casseroles, and meats during cooking. It can even be used as a crude potpourri.

Both smoking and vaping offer excellent titration (dosing). Like smoking, edibles, and tinctures—but unlike pill solutions such as Marinol or the sublingual spray Sativex—vaping provides the economy of allowing patients to grow their own medicine, providing the added benefits of affordable supply and strain selection via targeted genetics.

Finding Perspective

It should first be noted that the “superiorities” of vaporization are sometimes subjective, especially for recreational smokers, but often for medical consumption as well. Even some hardcore medical users prefer smoking. “I’m a cigarette kinda girl,” said Alison Myrden, a noted Ontario-based multiple sclerosis patient/activist who has tried the Volcano. “I have too much trouble with my hands due to the MS to play with vaporizers or pipes,” she said.

Myrden’s situation highlights the reality that there is no best consumption method for cannabis. MS patients such as Myrden and others with severe neurological disorders (epilepsy, dystonia, etc.) often are forced to seek simplicity. The stress reduction that accompanies one’s preferred and highly subjective ingestion method is of significant note. The psychological stress produced by displeasure or frustration can easily eclipse the benefits of a technically superior means of consumption.

Caregivers and others in the medical marijuana community should consider vaporization as simply another option in the ever-widening range of consumption avenues. 

Harm Reduction

According to the latest peer-reviewed research conducted by Dr. Dale Gieringer of NORML and published in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics, vapor produced by the Volcano was overwhelmingly populated by THC, but did contain trace amounts of other compounds (collaborating the previous findings of Chemic Laboratories).

DSC_4239

“The major finding of this study was a drastic quantitative reduction in non-cannabinoid compounds in the vapor from the Volcano,” read the Gieringer study. “This strongly suggests that vaporization is an effective method for delivering medically active cannabinoids while effectively suppressing other potentially deleterious compounds that are a byproduct of combustion,” it summarized.

A leading edge unit such as the Volcano produces cannabis vapor that is pure enough, in fact, that it qualifies to be used as a scientific medical device. Doblin points out that the purity of cannabis vapor produced by a professional unit is great enough that even medical patients should harbor little worry regarding health risks.

“Vaporization does such a good job of reducing the risks that we’re aware of that I think there’s an excellent chance that high potency marijuana, vaporized, can be considered a medicine by organizations such as the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration],” said Doblin. Thus, vaporization is a technical advancement in the consumption of cannabis that is also serving as a political tool for researchers like Doblin.

The Future Will be Vaporized

While smoking will probably never fully disappear from the cannabis landscape, the future of vaporization promises to increase efficiencies and convenience even further. Smaller, more portable units will continue to emerge that provide results approaching the quality of today’s Volcano. While rabid detractors perpetually fail to establish a link between smoked cannabis and lung cancer, a significant percentage of the cannabis community will prefer smoking over vaping. Vaporization, however, will continue to lure greater numbers of disciples, both recreational and medical.

“The whole science and technology of vaporization is developing in a really good way,” said Doblin. “The whole process of vaporization is just going to become easier, more convenient, and less expensive,” he concluded. “I think there’s going to be a lot more people moving to vaporization in the future.”

[1] Thus, the urban legend of the perfect vaporization temperature being 420 degrees is actually true. In Fahrenheit, 420 degrees is within the recommended upper range of the vaping temperature scale.

[This article originally appeared in Cannabis Health Journal in November 2006 and was updated July 26, 2015.]


HBK11RenderGooey Rabinski is a technical writer and instructional designer who has contributed to magazines such as High Times, SKUNK, Heads, Weed World, Cannabis Health Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself. He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle, and a contributing writer at Whaxy.com.

His marijuana-related freelance photos, spanning back more than a decade, are available on Instagram and Flickr. He tweets from @GooeyRabinski.