Christine Stenquist, a 42-year-old Kaysville, Utah mom, believes safe access to medical cannabis should not be a states’ rights issue as President Obama has recently suggested, but instead a human rights issue that should be addressed at the federal level.
Stenquist says if she had safe legal access to cannabis to treat her medical conditions she would not have had to miss out on over a decade of her life. She has been suffering from severe and chronic migraines since the age of 7, has an inoperable brain tumor and fibromyalgia. She spent nearly 20 years of her life in excruciating pain but today is a healthy, pharmaceutical-free, active parent to her four children, to which she credits medical cannabis.
She says it is time the federal government take steps to address the issue from a scientific and humanitarian point of view, rather than an issue relegated to state politics.
“I was trapped in a body in a bedroom for 15 years,” she said. “I have missed out on chunks of my children’s lives. I have missed out on concerts, I have missed out on games. I have missed out on a lot of things. My kids didn’t have a healthy mom.”
She says medical cannabis gave her her life back and that more patients, even in states where it is illegal, need to make themselves heard.
“I am not so scared to tell my story but I am afraid of losing my kids over something that is helping me,” she said, crying. “That is wrong. That is all kinds of human rights wrong. I am a better mother now than I was when I was sick and I don’t think I should be punished for that. [My children] absolutely love the mother they get to have now.”
Stenquist says at this time she has no plans to uproot her family and leave Utah, but she will if she has to.
“I just wanted my damn health back and I am not willing to give it up now; I don’t see why I should have to flee,” she said. “Nobody should have to leave; nobody should have to run away from their home to be happy… I don’t want to leave Utah, but it is something [my husband] and I are at the point we have to consider.”
Stenquist was raised in Miami by her father, a Vietnam veteran and undercover narcotics officer. Stenquist’s father participated in the second-biggest cocaine bust in Miami history and served on the force for 27 years. It wasn’t until she received his blessing that Stenquist tried cannabis.
Photo: Stenquist, bedridden, with two of her kids.
Stenquist’s migraines were characterized by searing pain, vomiting, dizziness and visual disturbance. She says the headaches really began to increase in her late teens. At 18, Stenquist moved to Utah to live closer to her mother’s family.
In 1996, at 24, Stenquist was a divorced mother of two attending college and working at a local hospital with the aspirations of becoming a nurse, but her migraines started to become more regular and she was prescribed narcotics to dull the pain. One day at work she passed out in the hallway of the hospital and was rushed to the ER. After a CT scan, doctors concluded nothing was wrong. She took her CT scan results to her family doctor, who ordered an MRI and located a large but benign tumor in her brain.
Stenquist was sent to a neurosurgeon and an ear, throat and nose specialist. In 1996 she was diagnosed with acoustic neuroma and underwent brain surgery to remove a portion of the tumor. Doctors could not remove the entire tumor for fear of causing nerve damage to her face and body.
The symptoms of fibromyalgia came 15 months after brain surgery, in 1998. She started having muscle spasms, vertigo, balance issues and unrelenting migraine pain. As her symptoms became increasingly severe, she could no longer hold a job, and so began over a decade in pain cycling through prescription drugs.
“When you are in that much pain daily, you are depressed,” Stenquist said. “It doesn’t matter how many antidepressants you are on.”
Her doctors continued to prescribe various painkillers, steroids, antidepressants and anti-seizure medications. She received a steady dose of morphine through fentanyl patches and 450mg fentanyl lollipops. She was prescribed over 60 Percocet a month, received trigger point injections at a pain clinic and got nerve ablations, to no avail. At one point she was prescribed Marinol, a drug made of synthesized THC, to help with the nausea caused by the migraines, which she says exacerbated her condition, caused anxiety and made it difficult to stay awake.
“It wasn’t living,” she said. “There were many times I wished the tumor was malignant because then there would be an end. I thought if it was cancer then it would be done. No more suffering. It wasn’t existence, I was just occupying this shell of a body.”
Stenquist began a cycle of use, tolerance, dependence and withdrawal from painkillers. She had never used drugs recreationally nor was she comfortable being so heavily medicated, but it was all her doctors could do to treat the blinding pain. She saw a headache specialist who warned her that the opiate use could kill her, and with his help began to wean herself off most of the drugs, though the pain remained.
In the winter of 2011 Stenquist became so ill she lost most of her mental and physical functionality. After three to four weeks in bed she was no longer walking or eating. She had painful migraines that kept her awake vomiting from the pain. Her husband had to physically carry her into the shower just to bathe.
That winter she was in so much pain that she cut her arms to see if she could feel it anymore. Her husband took her to the hospital where a doctor asked if she was suicidal. She said she wasn’t, but she was just in too much pain. The doctor offered her more medication.
“I had been on that stuff for years. I couldn’t do it anymore,” she said. “My husband collapsed on the ground, he was just sobbing because after three months of me in bed and him caring for me and still maintaining a full-time job and caring for our children, it had just become too much. We had hit the point where there were no more answers, no more help, no relief.”
Finding Cannabis Relief
After reading news articles and seeing television specials, Stenquist began to wonder if medical cannabis could help her, so she asked her doctor about it. He recommended she try Spice, aka K2, a dangerous herb and synthetic cannabinoid blend that is available legally in smoke shops. Spice has been responsible for brain damage and death primarily among teenagers who have purchased it legally.
“I realized my doctor didn’t understand cannabis and I don’t blame him,” Stenquist said. “I blamed the laws in place and the ignorance about this plant which had limited his ability to perform his duty as a professional.”
Upon hearing that Stenquist was being recommended Spice, a family friend expressed concern for her safety and offered to help her find actual cannabis. But, it wasn’t until her father, the former narcotics cop, suggested she try cannabis that she finally decided to do it.
“Part of me trying it was getting the OK from my father. I have a lot of respect for the law and for my dad,” says Stenquist. “I was able to try it because he was completely supportive.”
Stenquist began documenting her reactions; she was already keeping detailed notes about the legal prescription drugs and their effects for years. “I didn’t know how to inhale, I didn’t know what to do," she says.
Smoking cannabis has proven scientific benefits as a medicine, and in Stenquist’s case it proved completely effective. But she couldn’t reconcile her view with the drug with the results she was feeling.
“The first year I was using I would cry and battle with the fact that I am breaking the law, but at the same time I am feeling good,” she said. “I used to cry every time I used my medicine. I would lock myself in my room and seal it off so the kids couldn’t smell it. I didn’t know what it was going to do. I lived in ignorance, I felt like a criminal locked up but was so elated that something was finally helping me. It was very conflicting dealing with that.”
Now An Advocate
Today she is pharmaceutical-free and can walk, drive and be present in her family’s life. But in order to overcome the stigma she felt for using cannabis, she knew she needed to learn more about the science behind why cannabis was working for her. After 12 years in bed she had no idea where to start.
“I wanted to know what was going on in the world,” she said. “I didn’t know how to use the Internet or a computer. I had not been functioning at any level during that time and I didn’t know anything about the world at all.”
Her teenage son taught her how to use a computer and how to find other people in similar situations on social media. Reading the story of Lindsey Rinehart, an MS patient and mother in neighboring Idaho, terrified her but also motivated her to get involved. By 2013, she started becoming involved with local activist organizations.
“There is strength in numbers,” she said. “I couldn’t just be someone who used it, I had to become an activist because I am not doing this for enjoyment. I need people to understand that is not what I was searching it out for, it was my last resort.”
In hindsight, she balks at the notion that cannabis should be anyone’s last resort, saying because of its safety it should be the first resort in many cases.
“I think for children who have cancer—this should be the first option before you ever put poisons into their body,” Stenquist said.
Stenquist took a tour of Salt Lake City’s Capitol Hill where she met lobbyists championing various human rights issues. She began volunteering with groups such as the Coalition of Religious Communities (CORC) to help with homeless and mental health charities and learned how politics worked in her state.
She began to feel a new sense of purpose and started visiting Capitol Hill three times a week during the 2014 winter session to speak to Republican and Democrat state legislators.
“I was just trying to be present. You are not going to get anything done boo-hooing in a basement and I am not going to be a criminal. I am not going to wait for somebody else to do it for me,” she says.
Stenquist says this is an issue the federal government must take on, before more human lives are wasted. As the daughter of a cop, she also believes the war on drugs must end.
“People want to blame the police but it’s not their fault. I know what it is like watching my dad walk out the door, hearing the [bulletproof] vest go on and the creak of the leather belt,” Stenquist says. “We used to listen to the police scanner in fear every night. I know the children of police officers everywhere are living with the same fears.”
“I think people need to see a different face of medical cannabis users. They need to see that it is their moms, their dads, their sisters, their aunts, their family members and members of their community who are suffering,” she concludes.
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