Journal of the California Cannabis Research Medical
A Day in the Life of a Cannabis
By Philip A. Denney, M.D.
Ah! Southern California, another day of glorious sunshine.
I’m up early and at the office before 8 a.m. for what promises
to be a busy day. We’ve scheduled 32 patients but expect our
usual 20% dropout rate. Unfortunately, many people remain frightened
about getting a physician’s approval to medicate with cannabis.
They summon the courage to make an appointment, then get cold feet.
The phone starts ringing before I’ve finished making tea. An
appeals attorney requests a letter to a judge regarding a patient’s
use of cannabis while on probation. This turns out to be a complicated
case that will require me to confront the bias of law enforcement.
I agree to write a letter. The day has officially begun!
The next call is from a patient requesting help convincing his workers
compensation carrier to continue paying for his cannabis. Again, a
very complex issue and again I agree to write a letter.
My staff arrives with their usual energy and good humor, the office
comes alive with focused activity. I return a phone call from a patient
with questions she had meant to ask during her recent visit —could
her chronic fatigue be the result of Toxoplasmosis caught from her
cat? I sensed that she, like many patients, is not comfortble with
her diagnosis and is anxious to find something “curable.”
I also return a call from a patient with questions about how much concentrated
cannabis he is allowed to possess. This is another complicated topic with no
easy answers. We discuss the issue for a few minutes and I give him some names
and numbers of knowledgeable attorneys.
The medical office of Denney & Sullivan (I alternate weeks with my partner,
Robert Sullivan, M.D.) is in a business park in suburban Orange County. There’s
a waiting/reception area, two examining rooms and an office where we keep our
records and I can talk on the phone and do paperwork. The examining rooms have
a desk, chairs for the patients, an examination table, a blood pressure cuff,
otoscope, tongue blades, etc., the standard equipment you’d find in most
We begin the exam by greeting the patient and taking a medical history-which
can be straightforward or extensive depending on the circumstances and whether
it’s a new or established patient. New patients get a review of systems
and complete family history and social history. Those who have the most obvious
problems are the easiest to evaluate.
We do a head-to-toe physical exam. In most cases this can be fairly rapid: we
observe behavior and mental status, look in the ears, eyes, and throat, we palpate
the neck, we listen to the lungs, we listen to the heart, we check for enlarged
lymph nodes, check the reflexes and balance. We ask patients to stand, squat,
walk on heels and toes, and so forth. We do a more focused exam if the complaint
calls for one. For example, if someone has a complaint of carpal tunnel syndrome,
we would look for neurological evidence of that.
The vignettes that follow briefly summarize my interaction with patients on an
unexceptional Monday in March of this year.
He prefers cannabis to narcotics: “I hate how the pills
make me feel.”
The first patient is Mr. C.M., a 51-year-old construction superintendent,
who has a history of chronic back pain following four failed spinal
surgeries resulting in a multilevel fusion. He prefers cannabis to
narcotics: “I hate how the pills make me feel.” He uses
about one quarter ounce per week.
Ms. S.M., the next patient, is a 21-year-old retail clerk who continues
using cannabis for her Bipolar Affective Disorder. She reports great
success with cannabis and has been able to eliminate all of her psychotropic
medications. Her dose is stable at one quarter ounce per week. Her
affect and mood are normal, she looks healthier than she did on her
previous visit; she is happier.
Mr. Z.R. is a 44-year-old research technician who uses cannabis for
chronic low back pain secondary to Degenerative Disc Disease. He uses
one quarter ounce per week and reports that cannabis allows him to
reduce his narcotic use by at least one half.
Mr. B. S. is a 53-year-old musician who suffers from Chronic Gastritis
resulting from radiation treatment of a gastric lymphoma. He reports
that cannabis not only helps his abdominal pain but stimulates his
appetite as well. He uses one half ounce per week and happily reports
being able to discontinue all narcotics.
Mr. S.J. is a 30-year-old cashier who uses cannabis to successfully
treat a generalized anxiety disorder and insomnia. He uses one quarter
ounce/week and prefers cannabis to Xanax which made him feel “hung
Mr. G.G. is a 50-year- old boilermaker with longterm Cluster Headache
and neck pain following a work accident. He uses one ounce of cannabis
per week for pain and sleep and states that regular cannabis use decreases
the frequency of headache. We spend a long time discussing the potential
risks of anabolic steroid use for body-building.
I’m reminded that the privilege of being a physician comes with
the daunting task of staying current. I’m still a family doctor
and even in my new specialty practice, am often called upon to discuss
a wide variety of healthcare concerns.
I’m now 20 minutes behind schedule. I pause to take a call from
a distraught mother whose disabled son (our patient) has been arrested
on methamphetamine charges. He claims it wasn’t his.
The next patient is Ms. N.A., a 23-year-old retail manager who uses
cannabis for chronic right knee pain following an Anterior Cruciate
ligament repair. She uses one eighth ounce per week primarily for sleep
and much prefers it to previously prescribed narcotics. (Are we beginning
to see a pattern here?)
Mr. L.L. is a 26 year old construction engineer with chronic mid-back
pain following multiple spinous process fractures and chronic anxiety.
He uses one quarter ounce per week for pain and sleep and also finds
that cannabis eliminates the need for narcotics.
Mr. S.J. is a 50-year-old pressman who uses cannabis for chronic bilateral
knee pain following multiple surgeries for Anterior Cruciate ligament
repair. Mr. J uses cannabis orally by making “tea.” We
discuss the relative inefficiency of his method for extracting cannabinoids
but he is very happy with the results and states that a single dose
provides longterm relief!
Mr. C.P. is a 24-year-old importer who sustained a complex facial injury
at age 17. He underwent orbital reconstruction and is left with daily
headaches for which he has previously been prescribed a wide variety
of pain meications. He uses one quarter ounce of cannabis per week
and only has to use narcotics “occasionally.”
Mr. B.M. is a 53-year-old stage manager with Chronic Migraine Headache
since his teens. He finds he must use cannabis as soon as possible
after symptoms begin in order for it to be effective. If he waits too
long “it doesn’t work.” He also reports that regular
use of small amounts of cannabis significantly reduces the frequency
of headache. (These findings are very consistent with reports from
most other migraine sufferers who use cannabis.) He uses no other medication.
It is now noon. If I hustle, I may get lunch.
Mr. H.J. is a 23-year-old telecommunications computer consultant who
has a history of Chronic Hematemesis (vomiting blood) with abdominal
pain and weight loss. Despite an extensive evaluation by his primary
care doctor, no cause could be found and he was told it was “stress.” Mr.
H.J. finds cannabis to be very helpful to decrease pain and nausea
and to increase appetite. He uses one ounce per week and claims it
is far superior to any other medication he has used.
Ms. B.M. is a 44 year old homemaker with a long term diagnosis of Myasthenia
Gravis. She continues to use one half ounce per week of cannabis to
treat a tremor. The tremor is related to her use of Mestinon, the medication
used to treat her disease. We discuss the emotional impact of her disease
and I’m uplifted by her positive attitude.
While I was with the previous patient a process server arrived to serve
a subpoena. He was angry that my staff would not interrupt me and apparently
made some disparaging comments. He was asked to leave and did so reluctantly
when the patients in the waiting room offered to help him find the
I grab a second cup of tea and return two calls —one to an attorney
regarding my expert testimony in a Ventura County marijuana case, and
one to a Medical Review Officer to discuss the urine-drug-test results
of a patient. I carefully explained that under California law, a qualified
patient has the right to use cannabis and therefore the test is and
should be read as negative for illegal drugs. This is a difficult concept
for the drug testing industry to accept.
A medical review officer is a physician hired by an employer to determine
whether a drug screen is positive or negative for an illegal drug.
For example, if a patient was taking a prescribed narcotic pain medication —Vicodin,
for example— the lab would find opiates in the specifment and
can’t tell if they are there legally or illegally. Enter the
trusty MRO, who calls the patient for clarification. If the patient
can prove a legitimate prescriptiion, the drug test if resported as “negative” for
This is exactly what should happen if patients have physicians’ approval
for medical cannabis use. Unfortunately, this remains a significant
problem because most MROs especially those outside of California, refuse
to accept California law, instead citing the federal position that
cannabis has no legitimate use.
MROs and the drug-testing industry need as many positive tests as possible
to justify their position that the American way of life is at risk
because of rampant, illegal drug use. To combat this evil, they must
test everyone from unborn babies to residents of nursing homes. Cannabis
is the perfect answer to their prayers because it is widely used and
is easily detectable for many weeks.
Mr. B.J. is a 51-year-old chauffeur who uses cannabis for chronic upper
back pain. He denies specific trauma but his x-rays show severe degenerative
changes with bone loss. He is encouraged to ask his physician for specialty
referral. Again, I note that cannabis allows Mr. J to use no prescription
Mr. P.G. is a 52-year-old decorator with a complex injury to the right
knee and a 30-year history of heroin addiction. He has used cannabis
very successfully to manage pain and to maintain longterm abstinence.
He uses up to two ounces per week and denies any adverse effects. I
literally applaud patients who are recovering from destructive addictions.
P.G. describes the struggles he’s had and we’re both moved
to tears. I have doubts I would be as successful overcoming such difficulties...
My patients continue to teach me humility. Hearing their stories is
one of the great privileges of being a doctor, and not a day goes by
that I don’t hear one that moves me deeply.
My receptionist has ordered lunch from Ameci’s, a nearby restaurant.
Between bites of a killer calzone, I speak with a patient who had his
recommendation seized by the police (I’ll issue a duplicate)
and a probation officer regarding the use of cannabis while under court
supervision. She was pleasant enough, but despite my diligent effort
to explain that cannabis use is legal under California law, even under
court supervision, she wasn’t getting the message. I promised
to write her my thoughts on the subject.
Back to work!
Mr. A.M. is a 40-year-old chef with Chronic Atrial Fibrillation. He
is on multiple cardiac medications which cause insomnia. He uses one
quarter ounce per week of cannabis for sleep, which works well. His
cardiologist approves his use of cannabis but won’t write a recommendation —a
common situation, unfortunately. There would be no need for practices
such as ours if mainstream physicians understood the safety and efficacy
of cannabis and were unintimidated by law enforcement.
Ms. G.C. is a 42-year-old oncology nurse who uses cannabis for chronic
nausea. She has had access to every anti-emetic available and states
that cannabis “works better than anything.” She is chagrined
that she didn’t use cannabis sooner despite her cancer patients’ insistence
that she try it.
Doesn’t that say it all?
Mr. M.T. is a 59-year-old old disabled by Parkinson’s Disease.
He continues to use cannabis for muscle spasm particularly at night.
I’m impressed once again by our patients’ grace and dignity
in the face of devastating illness. He uses one eighth ounce per week
of cannabis because it is all he can afford. How sad that the war on
drugs supports the high price for an herb that now costs more than
Mr. K.L. is a 56-year-old old disabled human resources manager with
long term PTSD and panic disorder. He uses one half ounce per week
of cannabis for anxiety and to help him sleep. He also uses Xanax and
Klonopin. A considerable amount of time was spent discussing the use
of cannabis in light of documented Coronary Artery Disease and tobacco
use. I told him it made no sense for him to smoke anything and that
nicotine addiction and heart disease made it uncomfortable for me to
approve his cannabis use. We discussed tobacco cessation and set a
stop date. He agreed to use cannabis by vaporization and to call me
with his progress. The risk/benefit analysis is difficult in these
situations, however I feel strongly that the risk of imprisonment is
higher than the risk of cannabis.
Mr. K.B. is a 24-year-old photographer whose records doument longterm
Tourette’s Syndrome. He continues to use cannabis, one half ounce
per week in foods. “Cannabis allows me to lead a normal life.” Such
a simple statement yet so profound! I continue to be impressed by how
effective cannabis is in treating Tourette’s Syndrome. It’s
a rare condition, I’ve seen at most 10 patients, but they all
tell me essentially the same thing: “Cannabis allows me to lead
a normal life.”
Mr. R.C. is a 55-year-old insurance broker who continues cannabis for
chronic neck pain following a complex fracture with multilevel fusion.
He uses one quarter ounce per week, no narcotics. He continues to surf
Mr. G.R. is a 30-year-old student who uses cannabis for chronic right
knee pain following ACL repair. (The tendon graft site is very painful.)
He uses one ounce per week without problems.
Ms. C.L. is a 41-year-old disabled dental technician who sustained
multiple spinal fractures in a boating accident (T-11, T-12 and L-1).
She uses cannabis for pain and has been able to stop all narcotics.
She notes marked improvement in quality of life.
More phone calls! I speak with a pain management physician who wants
to refer patients and to a union attorney about drug testing issues.
A second process server arrives, this time more friendly and gives
me the papers with a smile. This starts a familiar routine that wastes
an enormous amount of my time. I find dealing with the legal system
the most stressful part of my practice. I testify frequently in court
and lose sleep, hair and stomach lining each time.
The last patient of the day has arrived —Ms. C.A. a disabled
59-year-old truck driver who continues cannabis for Fibromyalgia. Her
dose is stable at one ounce pre week and she states she doesn’t
know what she would to without it. We talk trucks, my favorite subject.
A few more phone calls regarding cannabis growing guidelines, police
searches, lost recommendations and, last but not least, a person who
wanted to get in the “cannabis dispensing” business. I
told her I was not involved with dispensaries and recommended she hire
a good attorney.
All in all, a typical day. We saw 24 patients over the course of nine
and a half hours (approximately 24 minutes per patient). Eighteen were
male, 6 were female. Thirteen were new patients and there were 11 renewals.
The average age was 41.7 years and the most common diagnosis was chronic
pain (14 of 24). As usual there were a wide variety of other diagnoses
including Lymphoma, Tourette’s, PTSD, Myesthenia Gravis, Parkinson’s
Disease, Heroin addiction, Fibromyalgia and panic disorder. It’s
6:15 by the time I finish my notes, do the accounting and head for
our apartment at the beach.
More fun tomorrow!