Across State Lines: One Medical Cannabis Refugee’s Journey to Colorado and Back

Lauder’s uneasiness about aggressive medicinal intervention ran into the hard reality of his condition: His eyes were deteriorating and causing him excruciating pain. “It felt like someone was in my head with a steel-toed boot trying to kick my eye out,” he says. “It’s hard to cope when you don’t have the relief and medicine you’re used to. It was unbearable.” He began a routine of the steroid Copaxone, which required a self-administered shot, to address his intense pain. It became a daily ritual for almost four and a half years.

During that time, cannabis became a supplementary tool that allowed him to bring down the aggravating discomfort. “When I was in Baltimore, I got in the habit of taking my syringe out and I would put a record on”—his record player hummed with personal favorites from Sigur Rós to Okkervil River—“and I’d pack a bowl, take my injection, then light up to soothe the burn from the shot … [cannabis] was something that helped me on all levels. It helped the pain, the processing of the fact that I had to do it. I never knew if [Copaxone] worked—I never felt better—but I knew cannabis helped.”

Easing Symptoms in Colorado

Cannabis’s potential to soften symptoms associated with epilepsy, PTSD, cancer, MS, and myriad other medical conditions is no secret. And with 2.3 million people affected by MS worldwide (an estimated 400,000 of them living in the US), some patients from states where cannabis is still illegal are willing to uproot their lives for the opportunity to alleviate their symptoms.

Countless stories have surfaced in mainstream outlets, particularly highlighting parents who have moved their whole families to Colorado solely to ensure medical cannabis access for their children.

Though there’s no hard data on the number of medical cannabis refugees that have come to Colorado since legalization was implemented, countless stories have surfaced in mainstream outlets and on social media, particularly highlighting parents who have moved their whole families to Colorado solely to ensure medical cannabis access for their children. CNN followed Kim and Rich Muszynski, who moved from Florida to treat their daughter’s seizures with cannabis oil—a decision that followed their research on Charlotte Figi, the famous namesake of the high-CBD strain Charlotte’s Web. In 2016, Today estimated that 200 families had moved to Colorado as medical refugees, many with stories similar to the Muszynskis’. However, that number could easily reach to the thousands, as Colorado doesn’t keep track of which products are bought for MMJ patients and which are for adult-use consumers.

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By 2013, Barry Lauder had come to realize how critical the effects of cannabis were to his overall well-being, but Maryland’s laws still made his medicine hard to come by. So after much thought and planning, he joined the ever-growing number of medical cannabis refugees and set out for Colorado. Living first in Pueblo County, he eventually found an apartment in Denver’s Holly Ridge neighborhood, and discovered a dispensary, Sacred Seed, whose budtenders worked to set him up with appropriate strains and consumption methods.

Barry Lauder points at some records in his apartment Tuesday, May 16, 2017 in Denver, CO. When Lauder lived in Baltimore, part of his routine was consuming marijuana and putting a record on. He also knows how to play the glockenspiel and the xylophone. He started his collection in 2008 and now owns about 175 records. (Daniel Brenner for Leafly)

He was amazed by the ease with which patients could obtain medical cannabis in Colorado—and also the acceptance that existed around the general subject of consuming. “A lot of the reason why I moved was for the cannabis, and not just the cannabis but the mindset and the lifestyle that came with it,” Lauder says. “I didn’t feel like I was hiding something dirty or looking over my shoulder. It’s hard to describe how nice that was, just a huge relief.”

Cannabis and Overall Mental Health

When Lauder finally approached the last day of his Copaxone injections—having completed that round of pharmaceuticals by doctor’s orders—his vision had not improved and the nystagmus had begun to affect both of his eyes. “My eyes just—I don’t know, they just stopped,” he recalls. “Both started to move rapidly, so I’ve dealt with almost three years of my eyes in constant motion.”

Lauder has not made eye contact with another person in roughly two years, usually faking it to make others feel more comfortable and to project an impression of normalcy. Because his eyes are in constant motion, Lauder often feels extreme nausea and disorientation, which he placates with heavy indicas. When he feels a touch of melancholy cloud his mind, he reaches for well-rounded sativas to help him take his first steps out the door.

‘I didn’t feel like I was hiding something dirty or looking over my shoulder.’

Barry Lauder, on cannabis in Colorado

In Colorado, even as his vision deteriorated and MS continued to plague him, Lauder was able to maintain his independence and passion for helping others. He signed up for classes at the University of Denver, and in 2015 he obtained a degree in social work—a feat that would have been impossible, he says, without medical cannabis. “In Colorado, the patches and the edibles were really helpful to me,” he notes. “I could focus in class; I wouldn’t be [distracted by] the deep pain affecting my legs.”

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Lauder is now legally blind. Having lived most his life with full vision, he’s had to relearn a tremendous amount of everyday tasks in a short amount of time—such as getting from point A to point B by relying on his other senses. The entire process has taken a huge mental, physical, and emotional toll. But Lauder says cannabis has done more than just ease his physical pain: It has also given him perspective and a sense of inner peace regarding his conditions and the ways they affect his life.

“I really think my relationship with cannabis has changed,” he says. “It’s something I used to [consume to] feel good and have a different outlook and to just think about things. Since my diagnosis, it has become a direct [antidote], a direct feeling that I want to create. I want the pain to be less but I also don’t want to be focusing on, you know, the mental negatives that come with it. Cannabis helped with that as well.”

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