I had been told by a friend who knows such things that nobody walks out of an Arizona medical marijuana clinic without a card.
I wanted to see if that was actually true, so I decided I’d go to a Phoenix pot clinic, speak honestly about my health, and see what I walked out with.
I cannot profess expertise on the finer details of medical marijuana programs. I’ve written a couple stories about pot for The Stranger in Seattle and here at Phoenix New Times. I received a B minus in a Newspaper 1 undergrad class for an unpublished story about Missouri’s own medical pot program, despite some constructive criticism from the professor that relying on the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws as my primary source revealed a “little bit of bias.” Everything else I knew from my stoner career, which began around the time I took Newspaper 1 and persisted intermittently through my mid-20s before coming to an abrupt end when some weed — legally procured in a sparse mountain town near the Colorado-New Mexico border, but illegally smoked in the yard of an Airbnb in Santa Fe — induced a terrible paranoia of the “they’re coming to kill me” variety.
Since I had not been diagnosed with any of the qualifying conditions (cancer, glaucoma, or PTSD, among others), my friend informed me that the clinic would most likely write me down for chronic pain. What about the seizure I experienced in high school, for which my doctors never found a cause? Ancient, irrelevant history in the eyes of the Arizona Department of Health Services, which regulates medical marijuana in this state. My anxiety? Not on the list. So the aches I occasionally feel in my back from sitting for long periods at work, squatting at the gym, and lying kinda funny in bed? That’ll be it, my friend said.
I Googled “medical marijuana clinic Phoenix,” randomly clicked a site, and booked an appointment for a Tuesday afternoon.
The lobby was unassuming, with Chinese scrolls on one end and a display case hawking CBD tinctures on the other. A receptionist handed me several forms to sign: a notice of privacy practices, a statement that I would not become a drug dealer, and a patient intake form. The latter asked me to list the symptoms that brought me into the clinic. I jotted down “muscle soreness” and “trouble sleeping.” Did I have chronic pain? “Maybe? Muscles often sore,” I wrote. Muscle spasms? “Maybe? Sometimes, they twitch.”
Minutes after I turned in my forms, the receptionist called me back to her desk. She told me my sore muscles and occasional insomnia would not cut it for a cannabis card. She asked me whether I had any chronic pain. Um, sometimes when I wake up, my back hurts, I said. She wrote back pain in the margin and asked me how long it’s been. I guessed. Maybe 2016?
I saw the on-site chiropractor in a room with an examination table that I never sat on. He didn’t waste much time.
“Where does your back hurt?” he asked, as I draped my jacket on my chair.
“The shoulders and neck,” I said.
“So you have neck pain?”
“Yeah, sometimes when I wake up.”
“Point to it.”
The chiropractor spoke efficiently, like a well-programmed chiropractor machine. He asked me whether the pain came gradually or suddenly, and as I began to explain the gradual nature of my pain, he cut me off and asked me how many days a week, on average, I feel pain in my neck or back. This pattern repeated. “You’re going to describe the nature of the pain. Sharp, throbbing, burning, stabbing, etc.” Um, it’s more like a discomfort and after I exert it, it feels quite sore. “How would you describe it? Sharp, throbbing, burning, stabbing, aching?” Oh, aching. Definitely aching.
After moving through his questions, the chiropractor conducted an exam that consisted of pushing his fingers into my back and asking me to rate my pain on a scale of one through 10. I gravitated between three and five. Finally, he pushed my head from side to side, cupped my chin and lifted my head like a bowling ball, and informed me that my range of motion was “a little bit decreased.” He diagnosed me with neck pain.
The last stop was the doctor’s office. She called me in, gave me a coronavirus elbow bump, and started rattling off back-aggravating activities and asked whether they applied to my work as a journalist. Long periods of sitting and driving, yes, I said, no to heavy lifting. She asked me about car accidents. I recounted a couple of fender-benders, but nothing serious. She took note of my preferred forms of exercise, particularly rock-climbing and hiking, and suggested I carry less weight when I go backpacking. She did not seem interested in my seizure, but perked up at my mention of migraines in 2017.
Then the doctor pulled out a large, illustrated anatomy book and flipped between diagrams of the human muscular and nervous systems. When I carry a heavy backpack, she explained, the weight compresses my spinal disks and pinches my nerves, which could contribute to migraines.
That numbness I sometimes feel in my legs? All that sitting compresses the lower part of my spine, which includes nerves that connect down to my legs.
“I want to show you so you understand what you’re doing to your body,” the doctor said. Cannabis, she explained, is a vascular dilator. It relaxes the nerves and muscles.
I walked out of the doctor’s office convinced I have chronic pain. But I did not walk out with a card. That arrived via email two days later.