Those who say migraines are just really bad headaches have never had one. A migraine — its introduction, its symptoms, its pain and its duration — is an altogether different beast. It comes on like fog to a bay, slowly, steadily and almost imperceptibly. Then you see it, the glitch in your vision experts call the “aura,” and you know what’s coming. The aura grows and, depending on the severity of the migraine, the sufferer can sometimes lose all of her vision, large swaths of her vision or maybe just her peripheral vision. Sight returns, only to be replaced by a sharp headache and nausea. Every light, no matter how dim, and every sound, no matter how quiet, causes pain. Hours, sometimes days, pass in this manner.
Ibuprofen doesn’t help. Aspirin doesn’t help. Acetaminophen doesn’t help. But a growing number of people say they’ve found something that does help: marijuana.
“I get a tightness in my shoulder blades, then it comes up over one side of my head. … A quarter of skull I just want to pull out,” says Phyllis, a migraine sufferer who didn’t want her real name to be used because she uses marijuana to alleviate the pain. “I’ve tried all the triptans [medication used to treat migraines]. The one that works for me is Zomig. And, of course, smoking pot.”
Phyllis is 50 years old, married and a stay-at-home mom with three kids. She grew up in Spokane and now is raising her own family here. She’s what you’d call a very normal Spokanite — except she smokes pot.
When medical marijuana was first legalized in Washington, by voter approval in 1998, its use was limited to “terminal or debilitating medical conditions” such as cancer, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, glaucoma or other conditions that cause “intractable pain.”
A couple of years after voters approved its use, medical marijuana was expanded to cover Crohn’s Disease, Hepatitis C and any other condition that results in nausea or vomiting — two things migraines do all too well.
“It falls under the ‘intractable pain’ part of the law,” says Melissa Leggee, executive director of CBR Medical, Inc., a local support group for medical marijuana patients. Leggee pointed to the long history of using pot to treat severe headaches and the vast volume of studies showing marijuana’s benefits for migraine sufferers.
The use of marijuana for migraines stretches back hundreds of years. Susrata, a famous Hindu surgeon from the sixth century who is occasionally referred to as the “father of surgery,” cited its use as a treatment for headaches. In 1839, William Brooke O’Shaughnessy introduced the Western world to the medicinal uses of marijuana after his time in Calcutta, India, with the British East India Company.
More recently, just two years ago, researchers in Italy showed that migraines may stem from a deficiency in a person’s endocannabinoid system, which is believed to play a primary role in regulating mood, appetite, motor coordination and reproduction. But due to stringent drug laws in the U.S., American researchers are generally prohibited from looking into the medicinal attributes of marijuana. Pot is classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which means the agency says the drug has “no currently accepted medical use.”
This classification puts pot in an odd place: The DEA says it has no medical value, which makes it nearly impossible for researchers to study it and uncover any medical uses that marijuana could harbor. Nobody knows that better than Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist and one of the country’s foremost cannabis researchers. In the late 1990s, Russo won the Food and Drug Administration’s support in conducting a study looking at the effects of smoked marijuana in the treatment of migraines. His study was eventually killed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
“My FDA-approved study on cannabis’ ability to reduce migraine was stone-walled because NIDA holds a monopoly on the legal supply of cannabis for research, and they refused to provide it for my study,” Russo told Cannabis Culture. “As a doctor and a citizen, knowing that researchers in other countries are researching and confirming new medical uses for cannabis all the time, such as its ability to protect the brain after head trauma or stroke, I am dismayed by policies that prevent us from fully utilizing the healing potential of this plant and preventing people from using the best medicine for their condition.”
For Phyllis, marijuana works but she has to hide it from her kids, buy it from a guy “who grows it for me” and is out of luck if she gets struck with a migraine when traveling.
“I’m in Seattle right now and I’m in the migraine phase, but I couldn’t take it with me,” she says, adding that she hasn’t had a migraine, and therefore hasn’t smoked pot, in over three months. “When I get my migraines and I’m not at home, I’m stuck.”
Her migraines can last up to eight days, and she’s not looking forward to spending her vacation with a migraine.
“[Marijuana] takes the nasty part of the pain away, the pain that is indescribable,” she says. “It only takes a couple puffs, two or three. … It’s a fine line because I don’t want to get stoned. I just want the pain to go away.”