More Mothers, and Others, Seeking Expanded Access to Medicinal Cannabis in Utah

Editor’s note: Christine and Tenille are two of the new faces of Utahns seeking increased access to medicinal cannabis in Utah, following last year’s law that narrowly opened up access to a limited group of people.

Senator Mark Madsen is working on legislation, not yet made public, to expand access to Utahns with other conditions who can benefit from medicinal cannabis.  The comments in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of Libertas Institute. 

Christine, left, with Tenille and her infant son

Libertas Institute: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Tenille Farr: I grew up in a small farm town in Idaho and am the fifth of nine children. I graduated from BYU, served a mission for the LDS Church, and my husband and I have five sons who I stay at home with.

Christine Stenquist: I’m originally from Miami, Florida, and have lived in Utah for 23 years now. I’m married and have four children.

LI: Both of you have an experience dealing with cannabis that is changing people’s minds. Can you share what happened to you?

Tenille: Until five months ago, I didn’t know what cannabis was. I had heard about marijuana and believed that people smoked it as a drug. But I was diagnosed five months ago with stage 2 Hodgkin Lymphoma cancer in my neck and chest. I was 18 weeks pregnant when I discovered it. I went to the Huntsman Cancer Institute for a series of tests, and because I was pregnant, chemotherapy wasn’t an option for me.

We began to research alternative treatments and put a lot of prayer into our search. We found a friend who had had cancer just like me, when she was pregnant, and she introduced me to a variety of people whose lives had been changed—their ailments big and small healed—because of using cannabis.

We went to a convention to learn more about it from scientists and doctors, and we decided that that was the route for me to follow. So, I left my family behind and moved to Colorado to juice the cannabis leaf for six weeks. My symptoms, such as a persistent cough and my whole body itching, began to quickly go away.

I went home after that and had tests done to check the growth of my cancer—and it had stopped growing. So at that point I went to California and got a license there and began taking the oil. I did that until December and came home to have my baby. I had some tests done on my cancer after the baby was born, and they found that my cancer had moved into a benign state.

But I still have lumps in my neck, and I need to get back on the cannabis—I stopped taking it when I moved back to Utah, because it is not legal here.

Christine: I’ve been suffering from migraines since I was seven years old, and when I had my first child the migraines became much more frequent. I was being treated with several medications until one day I fainted at work, and some scans revealed that I had a tumor, which was acoustic neuroma.

I had surgery a month later, and during surgery I began to hemorrhage. So, they could only remove part of the tumor and I still have 60% of it left. Because of the bleeding, I had a lot of bruising on the brain, spoke like a stroke victim, and had a hard time speaking, balancing, etc. I was in a coma for severals days because of the swelling that had occurred. Recovery was tough—I was in the Intensive Care Unit for nine days.

I spent the next 16 years confined to my bed and home. I was put on disability, unable to work. About three years ago, I was at a bad spot in a cycle of intense pain, and after five weeks where I was bedridden, unable to walk anywhere (including the bathroom), I spoke to my father—a narcotics officer—who suggested I look into medicinal cannabis.

I told him that I lived in a state where it was illegal, and he said, “Do you really think there’s none anywhere in Utah?” So I found some street cannabis and started vaporizing it. It immediately helped with my spasticity in my legs, and my nausea. That was the first indicator to me that something good was happening.

In about six months of vaporizing the flower of the plant, I was walking and driving again. Six months after that, I discovered the oil—and it was the game changer for me. The migraines are now down to nothing. I am pain free on a daily basis now! Out of the 30 medications I was on before, nothing has helped like this. I’m now completely weaned off of pharmaceuticals.

LI: What does your doctor think about that?

Christine: My physician is amazed, because he only ever knew me as the lady with sunglasses and a cane who came in twice a month to get shots or other medication. Now I’m up, functioning, and doing well. He’s supportive of me finding something that works for me, and has a lot of questions all the time.

LI: Before learning about the medical benefits of cannabis, what were your positions or thoughts on its use?

Tenille: I was super conservative and thought all drugs are bad. I didn’t even know about “medical marijuana” at all—that sounds naive, I know. I just thought people died from it, so we shouldn’t use it.

All of my family was in this process with us—we’re a very religious family, so they were fasting and praying with us. When we discovered cannabis, they learned along with us. All nine of my siblings and their spouses support me and are amazed at what they found about cannabis. My dad is the most conservative man you’ve ever met, and now he’s eager to see it available in every state because he has seen what it’s done for me. My friends in my community all support me as well!

Christine: With a narcotics officer for a father, you can imagine what it was like for me growing up. I was behind the “blue line,” and everything associated with drugs was criminal. I grew up in the “Just Say No” era, so my perception of cannabis was that it was a casual, recreational drug that had no significant value to it.

LI: When you see the federal government claim that cannabis has no medical benefit, classifying it as a Schedule I drug, how does that make you feel?

Christine: I think it’s deceitful and dishonest, and I think there’s an ulterior motive there. It’s frustrating to patients like me who have no desire to be a criminal, and who don’t want to cause other people concern or discomfort because we’re using a medication. I think the federal government is going to change—there are too many of us showing that they’re wrong.

LI: In advocating for increased access to medical cannabis, do you worry about it being abused by others who simply want to use it recreationally?

Tenille: Not really. I kind of feel like the people who are going to do that are going to find a way to do it anyway. Studies have shown that in states where access has been legalized, the abuse and teenage use actually declines.

I get frustrated by this argument, because I need this—and when I had to leave my four kids, including a three-year-old, to legally seek treatment in another state, sitting in an lonely apartment just to juice a leaf that has no adverse effect but simply makes me better… it just seemed ridiculous to me that I couldn’t do that here.

That was the point where I said to myself, “This is crazy, and we need to do something about it.” I just had a baby, and the drugs they offered me at the hospital have way more effect on me than the cannabis—and they’re legal. I didn’t take them because I don’t like the way they make me feel.

People are afraid of this stuff, and are ignorant as to its benefits. I was that person five months ago! So I can understand the opposition—but it’s changing quickly.

LI: Do you worry about needing to convince people who have no personal stake in the issue? Those who experience this like you have, or family members who have somebody involved—their minds tend to change. How do you persuade others with no experience?

Christine: It boils down to freedom of choice for your own medical care, and being compassionate to people who are suffering from things we don’t yet fully understand. The pharmaceuticals I’ve been on over the years were not beneficial, and I had exhausted all of my resources and options. That’s where the compassion comes in—when we’re left with no other choice, people should have access to this option, because it can work. It worked for me.

LI: Tenille, as you learned about last year’s legislation to open up limited access to cannabis extract for medical purposes, what did you think?

Tenille: Once I heard about it, I assumed the oil was available to everybody, but quickly discovered it wasn’t. But it did excite me that Utah was recognizing that cannabis had medicinal value, and that people can learn and be educated and recognize it. That gave me a lot of hope that maybe I can help educate people a little more, and see another side of it.

People are generally good and want to help—and if we can help people see that this can help me, and others like me, they tend to support our desire for access. The fear of the unknown is scary, along with the stigma cannabis has had for decades, but when people hear my story and see how it’s helped, they tend to want to see medical cannabis in Utah.

LI: Christine, you were very aware of last year’s bill, and at first the group of eligible people was fairly broad. As the bill was amended and that group narrowed, and you found yourself excluded, how did you feel?

Christine: Oh, I was devastated. I was bawling, because I don’t want to be a criminal—I don’t want to be a felon. And that was, I felt, sort of my chance to actually be legal. At this point, I’m having to contend with telling my children to not break the law while mommy breaks the law. It was tough to be excluded, and I know there were many others like me who felt the wind come out of their lungs, watching the bill be narrowed down so strictly.

LI: A lot has changed over the past year. How do you feel about making the case this year for expanded access?

Christine: Yes, especially nationally, the conversation and understanding has improved dramatically. I think we have a fighting chance this year! You only have to meet a patient, and hear their story, to know that cannabis has legitimate medicinal value.

LI: Tenille, you’ve been told by several lawmakers here in Utah that you should just go ahead and take the cannabis and break the law. What’s your reaction to that?

Tenille: I’m kind of amazed by that. There is risk in me doing that—I don’t want to go to jail, and I don’t want to lose my kids. Those are very real concerns. There are many stories about this happening to mothers in my position around the country.

I do want to obey the law. It’s frustrating when a lawmaker tells me to break the law, because I think, “If you want me to do it, then we should probably pass legislation making it legally possible!” That’s frustrating, and I don’t understand how they can even say that to me.

Three Representatives said this to me. It was heart wrenching to hear that, because I’ve bent over backwards—separating myself from my family—to keep the laws that they’ve put in place, and that they expect us to keep. I went home devastated, wondering why I should keep any of the laws they pass, if they don’t even care? It was very offensive and hurtful to me, since I had tried to be so diligent in obeying the law.

LI: Christine, why not move out of state if it’s legal elsewhere, in order to legally obtain it? 

Christine: I have family here, and I’ve lived here for 23 years. I don’t think we should create an environment where we have medical refugees! We don’t want a concentration of extremely sick people showing up in a few states. It’s foolish that we can’t allow other states to implement a program that helps people.

LI: What’s your perception of cannabis being illegal, while there are many other medicines that are very toxic and psychotropic, that are regularly prescribed to patients?

Tenille: I think it’s ridiculous, honestly. It’s one of the least addictive substances, and here it is on Schedule I with the big ones. There’s something else going on—the government hasn’t been honest with us. I have dear friends who have struggled with addiction to pharmaceuticals. To think that I can get those things any time, but not this plant that actually helps? My doctor gave me 20 morphine pills, and I used half of one. It’s crazy that I can’t juice a leaf, but I can have all these opiates?

LI: Christine, you are breaking the law in continuing to take cannabis. How do you feel about that?

Christine: I feel I have no choice—I’m between a rock and a very hard place. If I want to have a life at all, that’s my choice. I’m left with breaking the law. But I can also now choose to help change the law, because it’s not a good one.

LI: If you had the attention of lawmakers for two minutes, what message would you share?

Christine: I feel like my rights are being violated when I can’t be allowed access to the medical choices I and my doctor choose. I don’t want costly and harmful pharmaceuticals to be my only choice. My freedom to choose is being limited by this prohibition, and I don’t think that’s what the law should say. We need to be compassionate to those who are chronically or terminally ill!

Tenille: I’m just a mom who has cancer and wants to get better and and have a healthy baby. I wanted to raise my kids and watch them grow up, teach them right from wrong, and have grandkids just like everyone else. And I found a way to do that in cannabis. Because of the law in Utah I had to leave my family. I missed my oldest son turning 12, I missed the first time he passed the sacrament in church, I missed my three-year-old turning four, I miss my kid’s concerts, volunteering in their school classes, helping them with their homework, and going trick-or-treating with them on Halloween.

I know cannabis has much to offer the medical world. I know it helped me with my cancer and I saw how it helps so many others. We need to pass this bill and allow everyone the freedom to choose.