[This article originally appeared in Cannabis Health Journal in October 2006.]
We 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.
“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.
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.
Gooey Rabinski is a counterculture writer who has contributed dozens of feature articles 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 (2015 Edition), available on Amazon Kindle.