Miracle, or just a drug?

Opinions vary, locally and nationally, on medicinal marijuana

Date Published: 
Nov. 10, 2017

Special to the Coastal Point • Christina Weaver: Tina and Charles Abrachinsky in their home. Charles recently started using a tincture to help control pain.Special to the Coastal Point • Christina Weaver: Tina and Charles Abrachinsky in their home. Charles recently started using a tincture to help control pain.“At 10:15 a.m., I took my first ‘cocktail,’ as I call it. It was a couple of drops of ‘jet fuel’ marijuana tincture mixed with orange juice in a shot glass. I didn’t know what to expect,” said 81-year-old Charles Abrachinsky, who lives in Ocean View.

It was Wednesday, Sept. 13, and Abrachinsky recorded the time and amount in his notebook.

“Twenty minutes later I turned to Tina, my wife, and said ‘Wow!’ I didn’t feel any pain. It was unbelievable.”

Abrachinsky has lived with his pain all his adult life. His injuries started when he played football at the University of Pittsburgh and included a broken pelvis and torn meniscus. Back then though he was more disappointed by not being able to play in the Sugar Bowl than he was worried about future pain.

From 1958 Abrachinsky owned a Farmers Market in Lehighton, Pa., and until 1998 when he moved to Delaware, he managed the meat market.

“It was hard work,” he said. “All the time I had to unload trucks of food for the market, including 150-200 pounds of sides of beef, slung on my back. It didn’t matter if there was wind, snow or rain. I was in and out of the refrigerated area and walking on that cement floor all day long. Arthritis kicked in early on, but that was my job.”

Abrachinsky described his pain by the time he moved here as being high level and constant. Since then he has had the following surgeries: two knee replacements, a fusion of his cervical spine, lumbar laminectomy, five shoulder surgeries and, most recently, the implant of a spinal stimulator designed to be adjusted for use as needed. For many years he took three to four doses of hydrocodone and morphine every day, as well as other medications.

One would think someone with that degree of pain would be sorry for himself and reclusive. But not Charles Abrachinsky. He sings in the choir at St. Anne’s Church. For many years he volunteered at the CHEER Coastal Leisure Center in Ocean View, where he made lunches as many as five days per week. For five years he volunteered at Compassionate Care Hospice where he visited dying patients in their homes. And, for fun, he sings with the Nautical Sounds.

“When you have pain of your own, you can relate to other peoples’ problems and you end up helping each other,” he said.

Six months ago his family practice physician told him that he would qualify for Delaware’s new medical marijuana program. Later his orthopedic doctor told him there was nothing more medically that he had to offer and he too suggested that medical marijuana might be the best option to relieve his suffering.

“I didn’t know what to think,” said Abrachinsky. “I’ve never smoked pot in my life, and I’ve chastised my children and grandchildren, in no uncertain terms, that I didn’t want them to ever try it. Here I was taking opioids just to get through the day but I was wary to try cannabis.”

“That kind of thinking is not uncommon when new patients, especially those who are older, come to the center for the first time,” said Mark Lally, owner of First State Compassion Center.

The process to become legally qualified for Delaware’s Medical Marijuana Program, including the application form and other information, is detailed on the website www.firststatecompassion.com.

First the patient and their doctor have to agree that the need is as a result of a specified medical condition including cancer, terminal illness, AIDS, agitation from Alzheimer’s Disease, Autism with aggressive behavior, PTSD and others. Also listed are the following chronic or debilitating conditions including severe pain that has not responded to other treatment for at least three months: seizures, intractable nausea, severe persistent muscle spasms and wasting syndrome.

The application form includes a two-page physician certification in which the doctor signs that he or she has a bona fide relationship with the patient and the patient meets the necessary medical criteria. It is not a prescription for marijuana and not all physicians choose to involve themselves or their patients in the program.

The completed application is mailed to Dover along with a $125 fee. One is notified of acceptance by mail and then you drive to Dover to be photographed for your registry card. Four thousand Delawareans have qualified to become patients since June 2015.

First State Compassion Center, with facilities in Wilmington and Lewes, is the not-for-profit entity selected by the State to acquire, cultivate, manufacture, dispense and sell marijuana and related items to registered patients according to Chapter 49A, The Delaware Medical Marijuana Act.

“It’s our responsibility to serve our patients according to the exact requirements of the law, and with as much compassion and knowledge as possible, from seed to sale,” said Lally. “Delaware’s medical marijuana laws are among the strictest of the 29 states and Washington D.C. where it is legal.”

The Lewes dispensary is located in a new building complex off Route 9. In the vestibule is a security guard who verifies that the patient’s registry card and driver’s license match and that the patient is in the system before entry into the center is allowed. Except under some circumstances at the first visit, only registry card holders are allowed entrance.

“Patient privacy is really important to us,” said Judy McNutt, First State’s Engagement & Education Specialist. “As well as limiting access to patients only, we call them by their first names to avoid full names being overheard. Also at the counter, where patients meet their advisor, see our products and select what they want to purchase, it is on a one to one, private basis.”

Abrachinsky was appreciative that his wife could join him for his first time at the center.

“There were so many choices and I hadn’t the slightest idea,” he said. “But the people there are wonderful, they show care and it’s a light, attractive, relaxed atmosphere. They explained to me about THC which provides the “high” in Marijuana and CBD which doesn’t. I learned that Sativa was for daytime medicating and Indica was better to take at night. I didn’t want to start smoking so I was pleased I could use a tincture instead. I told them I just wanted pain relief and was given suggestions.”

“I can really see only positive changes in Charles,” said Tina Abrachinsky. “Now he’s not taking opioids any more, he’s not as forgetful, not searching as much for his words. The extreme pain I could see in his face and how he moved is gone. He doesn’t take naps every afternoon and doesn’t wake up at the crack of dawn in pain. I bet he gets three extra hours of sleep a night. Also, and this is a big deal, he is no longer constipated.”

“My pain is 80 percent better,” said Charles Abrachinsky. “It’s amazing but I’ve only taken four hydrocodones total in the seven weeks since I started the marijuana. The only trouble is my health insurance doesn’t cover it so that’s an extra $160 per week to account for.”

Twenty-seven year old Tyler Powell is another Ocean View resident who is grateful for the availability of medical marijuana.

“About nine years ago I had my first grand mal seizure,” he said. “I had been accepted into the Coast Guard and was driving home from having my physical when it happened. Since then I’ve continued to have seizures. After I had to have brain surgery, they sent me an official letter stating I was out of any armed service employment.

“Instead, for several years I worked in the disaster restoration business. But using power tools and climbing ladders became too much of a risk.

“I’m seen by my local doctor and a neurologist at Johns Hopkins and have been diagnosed with multiple cavernous angiomas near the temporal lobe. Over the years I’ve been on different, increasingly stronger medications. Sometimes just noise can set me off. Both my doctors thought I would benefit from the new law.”

Powell agreed to be interviewed for this article because he wants to educate people about the benefits of medical marijuana.

“It’s sad that people see it as negative. I’ve been helped in so many ways. The small petit mal seizures I used to get all the time happen less often. I still take my regular medication but the marijuana helps me prolong the time between doses so I have less fear that I’m going to end up on the floor with a major seizure. It also helps me feel more like me, if that makes sense. It’s hard not being able to work or drive when you’re my age.

“What I like about First State is that it is regulated. I know what I’m getting. They put it in a white, plastic packet with my name and information on it and that is for me and only me. I take it back and forth whenever I need a refill. I’ve found the tincture form works best for my seizures. And the people are the best, so knowledgeable and helpful.”

Ocean View’s Chief of Police, Kenneth McLaughlin has a different perspective.

“I’m against it. There hasn’t been enough research to justify it. I think the medical marijuana industry is bogus; it is their first step toward full legalization. It’s all about greed and concentrating power, just like the tobacco industry.”

“I’ve talked to lots of doctors who are against it,” McLaughlin continued. “First, smoking marijuana is worse for you than smoking cigarettes and we’re just getting a handle on that problem. Also I’m told there are enough prescription medications including Marinol, a synthetic form of marijuana that can take care of cancer patient symptoms and pain. And I’m told marijuana is addictive. I’ve got all the compassion in the world for people in real pain but I’ve seen the bad effects of drugs in my community too much to support this.”

McLaughlin is also concerned about the environmental impact of 24-hour hydroponic grow houses which release waste water into the ground system.

“It’s ironic because the pro marijuana people tend to be environmentalists,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin believes Delaware “should proceed with caution and science, not politics. I encourage the legislature to take a deep breath. Give those other states, like Colorado, that started with medical and then legalized for recreational use, five to 10 years to have complete data to report how it’s really working.”

Dr. Nick Biasotto is a primary care physician in Newark who serves as a spokesperson for the Medical Society of Delaware on medical marijuana. Biasotto is on the board of the organization and is a past president.

“The position of the Medical Society on medical marijuana is one of neutrality,” said Biasotto. “We are neither for nor against it because we have to rely on anecdotal, not research-based evidence. We need the Federal Government to make it a schedule 2 rather than schedule 1 drug so we are able to conduct the necessary research here in America.”

“I do have a handful of patients in my practice that are qualified to use medical marijuana. They feel they benefit and I see the potential benefit for many medical conditions,” he said. “There are medical cannabis continuing education classes available for physicians to learn more, as they choose.”

Like Chief McLaughlin and Dr. Biasotto, First State Compassion’s Mark Lally also wants more research to be able to be undertaken. He would also like the government to release banks to make financial transactions easier for patients, allow qualified patients to be able to obtain their medical marijuana in other states where it is legal, and allow patients to continue taking it if they are ever hospitalized.

McLaughlin said he personally knows an individual who was able to convince his doctor to support his application for marijuana. He believes the person did so in order to have the comfort of smoking legally rather than a real need. McLaughlin thinks there are many others in that same boat.

But for others, like Abrachinsky and Powell and Jay Liesener, medical marijuana appears to have made a profound life-improving difference.

Jay Leisener’s story appeared in the October 20 edition of the Coastal Point in an article entitled Team Surfgimp. Now 47, he has been paralyzed since age 17 and his body is deteriorating. As soon as marijuana became legal in Delaware, he tried it for the first time. His wife, Melanie recounted that the relief he felt was so extraordinary he broke down in tears. “It takes away his fever and chills, relaxes his limbs and allows his whole body to rest and sleep better,” she said.