ROWLEY — Karen Hawkes was 38 years old when she was stricken by a debilitating stroke in 2006.
A mother of two young children, Hawkes, a Massachusetts state trooper at the time, had to retire from her job.
And then came the pain.
The stroke damaged the part of her brain that influences pain receptors and pain blockers. The result: a whole-body pain that rivaled the worst flu symptoms she’d ever had.
The Rowley mom struggled over the next four years to find the right combination of pharmaceutical drugs that would ease the pain and still allow her to lead a normal life, free of the fog that envelops most people when they are under the influence of strong narcotic medications.
In 2010 she had an important conversation with a friend, who told her about the medicinal benefits of marijuana, how it could ease her pain without turning her into a zombie unable to care for her children, make them dinner, get them off to school in the morning, help them with the homework. The usual kind of stuff.
Despite her years of training and experience as a cop, during which she worked to incarcerate people involved in illegal drugs, she relented. She started out smoking marijuana, then later inhaling it from a vaporizer. The result wasn’t immediate, but once the drug took effect, her life was changed forever.
“It’s counterintuitive, which is why it took so long for me to accept it was good for me and my family,” said Hawkes, who has taken up the cause of Question 3, a Nov. 6 Massachusetts ballot question that would legalize medicinal marijuana. “When I realized it worked, and it was safe and effective, I did a lot of research. It’s a much more amazing medicine than I had ever dreamed of.”
She said that while looking for that traditional, pharmaceutical solution, “my kids were young. For five years, I got letters from school saying they were late and tardy. I was sleep-deprived, the pain kept me up at night. ... I could barely give them the bare necessities.”
As soon as she stopped the pharmaceuticals and went with marijuana, the side-effects disappeared, but more importantly, so did the pain.
“I was more clear-headed; I had energy,” she said. “Now I’m doing fundraisers for the kids, they’re back to playing piano, I am able to be involved in their lives. My life is back, after being in a painful place, and trying to find a legal pharmaceutical.”
She added, “I just wish doctors had the option to prescribe medical marijuana.”
If voters approve Question 3, as some polls indicate they will, doctors will have an option to prescribe medical marijuana to patients who comply with rigorous guidelines, including having been diagnosed with a disease such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV-positive status or AIDS, hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS or multiple sclerosis.
The law, as written in the ballot question, would allow patients to keep a 60-day supply of marijuana, while it would permit up to 35 nonprofit dispensaries around the state as eligible to sell the drug. Growers would also be certified by the Department of Public Health to create a steady and regulated supply.
Proponents say that the marijuana would be ingested in vapor format, similar to an inhaler used to ease asthma, or in liquid form, as a tincture. They say it is not the intent of the law to allow or encourage people to smoke joints to ease their pain, since carcinogens are a byproduct of burning marijuana or any other type of leafy tobacco.
But that hasn’t stopped opponents from using that as a reason to argue against the measure.
They say the ballot question is poorly thought-out, will lead to wider use of marijuana for non-medical reasons and is against federal law, among other problems.
“It’s a sham and a bad law,” said Dr. Jay Broadhurst, a family physician from Worcester whose name appears as an opponent to the measure in the Massachusetts voter guide mailed to millions of registered voters across the state. “We’ve been trying to decrease smoking of another plant material (tobacco) for years, and now we suddenly say this is OK?”
He said the law as written puts physicians in the “middle of a mess” created when state law goes up against federal law. He said patients will be asking their doctors to prescribe something deemed illegal by the Drug Enforcement Agency.
“Nothing in the law protects you (doctors) from federal law,” he said. “You violate your DEA certification if you prescribe medicinal marijuana. Federal law is clear — you can’t do it.”
He said doctors like him could lose their certification if they prescribe an illegal drug, which would drive them out of business.
Further, he said, in some states the law has been abused.
“This brings out the worst in doctors and patients,” he said, noting that patients addicted to marijuana or other narcotics will try to circumvent the regulations to obtain medicinal marijuana while doctors may try to prescribe it when they shouldn’t.
But Jennifer Manley, a spokeswoman for Compassion for Patients, the Massachusetts organization pushing for passage of the law, said that may have happened in other states, but won’t happen here.
“We looked at 17 other states and we know we’ll have the safest, most secure law in the country,” she said. “We even created a new felony — defrauding the medical system — punishable by five years in jail. No one will be foolish enough to defraud the system and get caught.”
She added that even in states having problems, “doctors aren’t arrested. Patients aren’t arrested. They (the DEA) are after rogue pot shops.”
Chestnut Hill’s Dr. Karen Munkacy, an anesthesiologist who is also trained in pain management, said “physicians have to recommend this for medical reasons. If they do it for non-medical reasons, they can have their licenses removed.”
A cancer survivor herself, Munkacy said the question should be passed because marijuana is “uniquely beneficial for patients undergoing cancer treatments and need chemotherapy. Many drugs in use now still cause vomiting and make you feel horrible.
“In those cases, medical marijuana is the only anti-vomiting drug that increases appetite. For cancer patients, that’s important. Cancer patients are often very thin, and this can help them with that.”
Broadhurst and others opposed to the law argue that medical marijuana needs to be vetted through the regulatory process, like any pharmaceutical, before being used as medicine to treat patients.
“We have other medications, in trials or in use for 15 years,” he said. “There are medications, derived from marijuana, coming down the line. Those are the prescriptions I’ll write, because I’ll have the data I need.”
That may be too long to wait for some patients.
Hawkes said she doesn’t need medical marijuana every day, but would miss it if it were gone, because the pain would return and she would be forced to turn to pharmaceutical drugs. She said she hopes the law passes.
“The message to my kids is, ‘Why does my mom have to be labeled a criminal, when this helps her so much more, and she is more active in our lives?’” she said. “If you’re sick and dying in our society, we should make sure you have the safest and most effective medicine available to you.”