Bud Voyage: Medical Migrants Are Traveling the U.S. in Pursuit of Cannabis

Welcome to Bud Voyage, the Emerald‘s monthly column by Ashley Laderer discussing all things travel, cannabis, and how combining the two can make your adventures that much better. Wanderlust may ensue…so pack your bags, prepare for takeoff, and get ready to join the other mile high club.

Laderer is an avid traveller, and writer who splits most of her time between New York and Los Angeles.

*Editor’s note: Cannabis remains illegal for medical and/or adult-use in many states, and at the federal level. Last names have been removed to protect the identity of medical refugees.


Medical cannabis is becoming more and more widespread in the U.S., with 33 states (plus Washington D.C.) having regulated medical programs. But there are two problems. 

First, many people who have conditions that could benefit from medical cannabis live in non-legal states. According to the most recent Americans for Safe Access State of the States report, it’s estimated that only 2% of the population is served by medical cannabis programs, “despite a potential addressable market of one-third of the population that are living with chronic pain.”

Second, some patients who do live in legal states are not able to fully benefit due to medical cannabis programs that just aren’t cutting it. 

Both of these result in the same outcome; patients are heading out of state to obtain their medicine.

An Endless Cycle

Amanda, South Carolina resident, accidentally came across the medicinal benefits of cannabis. She noticed that, when she smoked recreationally, her pain and symptoms from Crohn’s Disease and Fibromyalgia diminished. 

Like many, she was self-medicating. This made her curious about how the plant could help her in the long term as a form of treatment.

Amanda says she is tired of the disproportionate trade-off that typical pharmaceuticals offer.

“It’s always, ‘This medication will help treat this, but here’s a list of additional side effects that you now have to deal with,’” she continues. “Then you get prescribed even more medicines to deal with those side effects, and it’s just an endless cycle.”

The only side effects she experiences from cannabis are the occasional increase in anxiety, and drowsiness—which she says is beneficial at night time. 

“I suffer from horrible insomnia, joint pain and stomach upset because of my conditions,” she explains. “Cannabis is the only thing that helps me fall asleep, relaxes my body, gives me an appetite, and settles my stomach all at once.” 

Through regular use, incorporating cannabis into her medicinal arsenal renewed her quality of life.

However, medical cannabis isn’t available in South Carolina. As a result, Amanda has traveled to Oregon and Washington to purchase quality, regulated cannabis. She wearily brings back edibles, like gummies, with her when she comes home, but not enough to last her long term.

“Luckily I have a hookup here that gives me stuff for free for the time being. But I still prefer being able to go to a dispensary and tell them exactly what I’m looking for,” she says.

Eventually, she hopes to move to a state where medical cannabis is legal so she can, “reap the benefits without obstacles.” 

Far From Ideal

Eric, from New York, also uses cannabis to cope with the symptoms of Crohn’s disease. 

While the state does have a legal medical cannabis program, the setup is far from ideal. 

Eric initially turned to cannabis because he was dissatisfied with his current treatment options. Treatment includes use of steroids—which aren’t suitable for long term use due to harmful side effects—or a group of medicines called biologics. Biologics, he explains, “suppress bone marrow from producing white blood cells, essentially deafening your immune system to prevent it from attacking your intestines.”

However, when he looked into New York’s Medical cannabis program, he was let down. “I quickly realized how difficult they had made it for patients to receive their medicine,” he shares. 

He paid a $200 copay at the time, no insurance accepted, to see a state qualified doctor to determine if he was a good candidate. On top of that, New York dispensary prices are not cheap. A month-long supply of his prescribed medicine, which was high in CBD and low in THC, cost him over $400. 

Of New York’s system, Eric says, “It is quite unfair and essentially makes it impossible for those of lower income households to have fair access to medical cannabis.” 

Despite the cost of medical cannabis, he did experience some relief.  

“Overall, the medicine [cannabis] was effective at calming my symptoms of urgency to use the bathroom, lack of appetite, and sleeping issues I had developed,” he shares. “It fell short of stopping the inflammation and achieving a remission of symptoms however. So, due to the high cost, I decided it wasn’t worth it to continue regular treatment [through the New York medical program].” 

Luckily, he was able to use cannabis again after traveling to California and Colorado, and bringing back what he needed. 

“It’s definitely cheaper and more open ended in terms of options to choose from than New York,” he says.

Caregivers on the Hunt for Cannabis

It’s not just patients that are heading out of state to purchase cannabis—it’s caregivers, too. 

Nathan became an outspoken advocate for medical cannabis reform in his home state of Utah after seeing firsthand how much cannabis helped his wife, Shalyce, battle stage 4 colon cancer. 

While Utah has a medical cannabis program in place, it wasn’t working out for their specific needs. Shalyce was hoping for access to raw cannabis plants so she could juice the leaves and reap benefits without getting high. However, the Utah legislature did not allow for plant access. So, Nathan took to Colorado to purchase cannabis for his wife. 

Getting the medical program rolling in Utah has been a struggle for the state. Although voters approved a ballot initiative in 2018 in favor of medical cannabis, lawmakers countered it. That was largely due to the uber conservative Mormon church’s impact on the state. Only this month (March 2020) did the first medical dispensary open in Salt Lake City.

We Need Better Access to Better Quality of Life

Doctors gave Shalyce three months to live. She lived for 27 more months, with the help of cannabis.

The plant was able to increase her quality of life greatly while dealing with such a tough condition, Nathan shares. “It mitigated most of her negative symptoms. It kept her from throwing up, gave her an appetite and helped with pain.” 

He continues to advocate for access to medical cannabis in Utah. 

Only time will tell when all U.S. states will have access to medical cannabis, or when existing systems will improve. One thing’s for sure, though; until then, people will be traveling as far as they have to in order to get their medicine. 


TELL US in the comments below—Have you traveled in pursuit of safe, clean medical cannabis? 

Emerald contributor since February 2016


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