Shaking a stigma of smoking marijuana

STOCKTON – For Scott Benesh, smoking marijuana means he doesn’t have to take as many heavy narcotics such as morphine and Norco to combat daily pain.

It’s not about getting high.

He doesn’t do it outside of his home or drive a car.

“It gives me energy to get out and do stuff,” Benesh said. “I wouldn’t be if I wasn’t smoking it.”

Pain and illness is no joke for the 48-year-old former licensed vocational nurse, who now lives on public assistance.

At age 19, he learned he had contracted HIV, which progressed to AIDS. He copes with a host of other ailments – migraine headaches, glaucoma, kidney and liver disease and fibromyalgia, a condition which causes widespread muscle and joint pain.

“It’s hard for me to get out of bed,” he said. “When I do, it’s because I smoke marijuana.”

A medical cannabis cardholder, Benesh buys marijuana from a dispensary in San Joaquin County that operates under the radar. Businesses such as this will soon be legitimate in Stockton.

Yet, marijuana use remains stigmatized. Many believe the medical marijuana movement is largely made up of so-called “potheads” seeking to legalize their recreational drug use.

Benesh feels no shame talking openly about his use of the drug because it improves the quality of his life. It lifts him from depression, which compounded when his life partner, James Payton, died in 2004 of lung cancer.

“Not having him here did a real number on me,” said Benesh, who smokes throughout the day. In an interview Friday, Benesh credited marijuana for allowing him to go five days straight without taking any pain pills, which by contrast leave him feeling lethargic.

During the interview, he spryly moved around his small apartment, once showing visitors a photo album of him during healthier days performing in drag as “Tokyo Rose.”

He next fetched his large black cat, Prince, a source of joy in his life. The cat, he said, also helps him get through each day.

Benesh’s openness about his marijuana use is not common. Many medical users contacted for this story declined to talk publicly.

A 48-year-old former Marine and Stockton native, who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity, said she keeps quiet about it because she fears people would look upon her badly.

“It’s not something I want to brag about. That’s for sure,” she said.

Now on disability, she said she suffers post traumatic stress syndrome from events she experienced in the military. She also has trouble keeping on weight, which doctors have never diagnosed, she said.

Marijuana stimulates her appetite and calms her nerves, she said. Describing herself as an athletic type, she didn’t use marijuana as a recreational drug before her health declined because she said it wasn’t her thing.

“For some people, it improves their quality of life,” she said. “That’s ultimately the goal.”

An outspoken advocate of medical marijuana and a user, Stockton’s Peg Dohlan, 52, sits on the board of the Stockton Patient Cooperative. This, the Port of Stockton Wellness Center and Port City Health and Wellness recently became the first three proposed dispensaries to be recommended for permits.

They next have to clear the city’s Planning Commission for use permits and pay a $30,000 fee. City leaders have said they are eager to regulate the dispensaries and reap the tax dollars.

Rather than smoking marijuana, Dohlan said she prefers to drink a cannabis tea or ingest it as a tincture, a cannabis extract. Dohlan works in a dispensary in Sacramento, where she assists medical marijuana patients.

She doesn’t advocate children smoking pot, just as she wouldn’t want a child to abuse a parent’s prescription drug. And she wasn’t always an advocate.

Dohlan for decades has suffered from fibromyalgia, which put her on pain pills. The pills made her feel weird, she said.

“I was down on the whole marijuana thing,” she said. “I just didn’t understand how it could help.”

About a year and a half ago, a friend introduced her to a strain of cannabis that got her back on her feet. She has embraced the alternative pain remedy, and her doctor recently began quizzing her about its benefits, she said.

It has caused her to reflect on her long battle with pain.

“Why wasn’t I doing this 10 years ago?” she asked herself. “It’s made such a difference.”

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