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Using Marijuana to Treat Insomnia

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Photo illustration by Jeromino Sanz

In The Magazine

Using Marijuana to Treat Insomnia

It seems like nearly every flat surface in Terry’s home is inhabited by crotchet doilies of varying circular shapes and sizes. One of the decorative knits by her bedside, not immediately discernible at first glance, is in the shape of a seven-point plant that looks conspicuously like a cannabis leaf. Near it sits a digital alarm clock playing “The Surf of the Pacific Shores” CD on repeat. Terry says it was a Christmas gift from a friend who knows she suffers from chronic sleeplessness.

“I sometimes play it all night long,” says the 64-year-old mother of three and grandmother of seven from Chattanooga, Tennessee. “It really helps me relax.”

Right beside the knitted leaf doily and CD player sits a full, unopened bottle of ZzzQuil.

“It’s sometimes a godsend,” she says, about the medicine that at times helps her sleep when she’s at her wits end.

Terry, of course, isn’t alone in her struggles for restorative sleep. The Center for Disease Control has classified sleep issues — ranging from insomnia to sleep apnea to restless leg syndrome — a silent epidemic, reporting an estimated 50 to 70 million adults in the U.S. alone experiencing sleep or wakefulness disorders.

Terry says she’s tried most of the recommended remedies for insomnia, all the usual suspects: valerian root, chamomile, lemon balm, magnesium, passionflower. Taking warm baths and drinking warm milk. She even tried the sleep aid Ambien for a short time — until she heard about the guy who took the sleeping pill and inadvertently “sleep-drove his mini-van right into the side of a neighbor’s above ground pool.”

To hear Terry talk about her nighttime restlessness feels like someone relaying the scenes of a waking nightmare. She strings together images of extended bouts of sleeplessness that sound troubling and never-ending.

“I often only sleep one or two hours a night for weeks and weeks on end,” says Terry, her voice cracking, betraying the threadbare nerves below the surface. “It’s awful, having no control over such a large thing in your life.”

Talking with Terry over Skype, she’s surprisingly perky and alert, walking around her house carrying her laptop as she moves from room to room.

“I’ll generally come in here into my sewing room and just do work until the sun comes up,” she says.

Completing the tour of Terry’s house, she ends up in the kitchen. Reticent at first, Terry eventually starts to reveal the topic she’s been reluctant to talk about until this year. She puts her laptop down on the dining room table and opens a counter drawer. She smiles and holds up an object roughly the size of a roll of quarters — a pink, portable vape pen.

“Here’s my number one sleep remedy,” she says.

Terry begins to share the story of how cannabis has become a routine ritual in her life — at the age of 64. That is, when she can obtain it. Living in Tennessee, a cannabis prohibition state, she’s often hard-pressed to locate medicine. Luckily, she has been successful lately and says that’s why the ZzzQuil bottle by her bedside remains unopened. She explains how last year a friend of hers went through chemotherapy for cancer and as part of her rehabilitation was made aware of a variety of alternative, holistic cures for pain, loss of appetite and sleep. Cannabis was one of them.

“When [my friend] suggested for me to try pot for sleep relief,” says Terry, “I couldn’t believe my own ears when I heard myself say, ‘Ok, where can we get it?’ I was so desperate for sleep, I think if someone told me I had to go outside and stand on my head, I would have gone outside and stood on my head all day … now I don’t get kept awake like I once did.”

Berkeley, California-based Family Practitioner Dr. Frank H. Lucido, MD feels some cannabis strains can directly promote sleep, but suggests another indirect way that cannabis might help to alleviate sleeplessness, “If one is kept awake by perseverative thoughts, cannabis in general, can ‘change the channel’ in your head, and allow you to think about other things less likely to keep you awake, thus allowing sleep.”

“I used to stare at the ceiling a lot when I was trying to fall asleep,” says Terry. “I’ve had times where I just lay there terrified thinking I’ll never fall asleep ever again. That doesn’t happen really so much anymore.”

She opens the pink portable vaporizer pen and explains how it works — looking every bit the grandmother coaching a youngster how to correctly spread icing on a chocolate cake.

“This little area here is where you put the ground up stuff in,” she says while loading the vape. “My friend explained to me that it never burns up because it stops [increasing in heat] right before that, so there’s not all that smoke and unhealthy part.”

Over the past few years, this method of vaporizing cannabis has become a key way for patients to ingest medicine in a more healthy manner than traditional smoking. In a 2012 study performed at the University at Albany in New York, researchers found that cannabis users who complained of respiratory irritation reported a stark improvement in their symptoms just a month after switching to vaporized forms of cannabis.

The sleep Terry gets after vaping cannabis is an improvement over other remedies she tries.

“I actually sleep well and wake up refreshed. With [over-the-counter] sleep medications, I always feel so groggy.”

The spectrum of sleep aids available on drugstore shelves is currently enormous and ever-expanding. According to Packaged Facts, a division of Market Research Group, the total over-the-counter U.S. market for sleep aids has reached $604 million annually. And the sleep industry on the whole — peddling everything from sleep aromatherapy to advanced sleep sound systems —  has topped nearly $30 billion.

“If you’d have told me a couple years back that I’d be using pot as a cure for sleep, I would have thought you were crazy,” says Terry. “I grew up being taught it was as bad as heroin. But, now I see people I know being prescribed addictive drugs like OxyContin and Vicodan and I can tell you this is better. I’ve been lucky enough lately to get [cannabis] that works for me and can use it every night I need to before I go to bed.”

Says Terry, “Most of my life I suffered unnecessarily. I don’t suffer anymore. This is good medicine. I can finally say that, call it medicine — because that’s exactly what it is.”

Originally published in issue 15 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE.

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