Wellness Revolution: Medical Cannabis is Changing the Landscape of Treatment

Shannon Gaines Bowman is not a pothead. In fact, before her diagnosis of stage four appendiceal cancer in early 2021, she had only tried marijuana a few times for pain relief from abdominal pain. But with the legalization of medical marijuana in 2018, patients like Bowman could finally find relief from chronic pain, insomnia, and a host of other ailments, including detoxing from other more problematic drugs.

“I was diagnosed in January and had surgery,” says Bowman. “I was having a lot of post-surgery pain. The opiates they give you for that—oxycontin—causes constipation. In addition, they had me on nausea medication. I ended up in the ER twice for severe constipation, and I thought, ‘There has to be a better way.’ That’s when I applied for my medical marijuana card and started going down that path.”

After obtaining her card and finding products and dosages that worked for her, Bowman cut her opioid needs from every four hours down to two or three times a week. Bowman credits the Leafly app for helping her find information about appropriate dosage and products, as well as her local dispensary.

Bowman’s story is familiar to Mary Ann Denzer, the COO of Riverside Wellness. With legalization came a flood of dispensaries, both corporate chains and independently owned operations like Riverside. Far from the shady, dimly lit dispensaries many may expect, Missouri’s dispensaries offer a bright, personalized shopping experience with patient-centered services, such as drive-throughs and delivery options.

Denzer, who worked in the cannabis industry in Colorado before opening Riverside Wellness, says that the differences between medical cannabis states and recreational states are few but significant.

“The difference between the direct market and the medical market is that you have to have a patient card, which means a medical recommendation,” Denzer says. Most dispensaries refer patients to an authorizing third party, which can cost around $100 in addition to the application fees. Denzer says that while it may not seem like a lot of money to many, it can still be a barrier for low-income patients.

Another difference is dosage—since cannabis is ostensibly used for medical purposes in Missouri, patients can purchase higher dosage products. In Colorado, products cannot exceed 100 mg of THC. For those struggling with intense pain from cancer, migraines, Parkinson’s, or the like, they can find higher dosage products that address increased pain levels.

While there are benefits to having recreational marijuana available, Denzer says she enjoys working within the medical arena right now.

“It’s such a beautiful time. You’re able to really help people. You hear these stories like, ‘I got off opioids and got to see my kids for the first time,’ or ‘I haven’t had a grand mal seizure in eight months.’”

Bowman agrees. “I honestly cannot imagine what I would be experiencing right now if I was not able to have it. It’s truly been a lifesaver,” she says.

Activists are gathering signatures to add recreational cannabis to the ballot in Missouri this year, but until then, medical cannabis is changing lives. Could medical cannabis help you? We’ve rounded up the basics on what cannabis can do, who has access, and the types of products you can expect on your first trip to one of Kansas City’s many dispensaries.

To purchase cannabis in Missouri, citizens over 18 must qualify for a medical marijuana card. Patients can apply through the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services website. Applicants need a physician certification form from a licensed MD or DO in good standing in the state of Missouri to apply. This recommendation can come from your primary care physician or a physician specializing in medical marijuana approval services.

For those who want a little extra guidance, services like Elevate Holistics will walk you through the process, including obtaining the necessary recommendation from a medical marijuana-certifying physician.

Patients aren’t the only ones who can qualify for a card. There is also a caregiver option for those purchasing or picking up cannabis for those in extreme cases. Caregivers can also apply through the Department of Health and Human Services but must be 21 years old or older.

When applying for a medical card, physicians typically look for qualified medical conditions such as cancer, epilepsy, or mental health issues like PTSD, but that’s not the only way to qualify. Doctors will also approve based on conditions with established drug protocols that may have more significant side effects or potential for dependency.

There are two different levels of cards—the standard approval allows a patient to obtain four ounces of cannabis per 30 days on a rolling basis. An alternative card requires two sign-offs from two different physicians who both believe that an increased amount of cannabis is appropriate for the condition. Only then may patients exceed four ounces a month.

A separate patient cultivation identification card is available for those who prefer to grow their own. For $100, a cardholder can cultivate up to six flowering plants. Those who grow do have to follow security regulations. Many dispensaries can provide information on growing marijuana as well.

Medical marijuana is still illegal in Kansas, but the wheels are in motion to move forward. A bill authorizing medical cannabis for the treatment of 22 conditions including cancer, Parkinson’s, and PTSD passed in the House but not the Senate in 2021; it will vote again on the bill when they reconvene this year. Although the bill would allow marijuana in treatment, the formulations would be restricted. While oils, tinctures, edibles and patches would be available, smoking and vaping would still be prohibited.

“Everyone is different, and your tolerance will be different, especially if you’ve never done it before.” – Shannon Gaines Bowman

Since marijuana use is still illegal on the federal level, research that would allow doctors to prescribe specific dosages is still lacking. In Bowman’s case, her doctors support her use of marijuana to decrease pain, increase appetite, and subdue the psychological effects of cancer treatment. Still, the dosage has been a matter of trial and error.

“Everyone is different, and your tolerance will be different, especially if you’ve never done it before. I took baby steps—half an edible when an edible starts at 5 mg,” she says.

Denzer says that the staff at Riverside Wellness recommends working with the Cannabis Care Team, which can work with you to explore the appropriate dosage for your condition, best delivery methods, and potential medication interactions. Staffed by licensed health care professionals, services like the Cannabis Care Team or the Leafly app can help find the best protocol for personal wellness.

There are as many delivery systems for THC as there are uses for it, it seems. When looking at a dispensary, ‘budtenders,’ as some are called, are available to guide patients to the best products. While the traditional loose flower is available, patients can choose pre-rolled joints, resins, tinctures, and vape products. Infused lotions can target muscle aches and pains. And then there are the edibles.

Edibles have taken the humble idea of a pot brownie and elevated the form into high art. Famed Kansas City chocolatier Christopher Elbow has teamed up with Clovr to create artisan chocolate bars and bonbons that contain 10 mg of THC per piece. There are also gumdrops, gummies, mints, and lollipops. Infused sodas by Keef offer liquid options.

When choosing a formulation, work with your cannabis advisor online or in-store to learn how each type of cannabis product will affect you. Some, like joints or flowers, take effect immediately, while edibles have a slower onset. The formulation also affects how the body absorbs the THC, i.e., smoking means absorption through the lungs, whereas edibles are absorbed through the liver. For those on other medications, this can be an important distinction.

Dispensaries have seemingly popped up on every corner in Kansas City, and they are all changing the perception of what it means to buy marijuana. Enter, and you’ll find a personalized experience—patients are welcomed into the dispensary room in limited numbers so that they can discuss treatment options one-on-one with the product experts.

Since cannabis has been an emerging market within the last two years, there’s plenty of start-up energy. The largest chain of dispensaries is BesaMe Wellness Dispensary, with four locations in the Kansas City metro and five additional locations across the state. From The Earth Medical Marijuana Dispensary boasts the most metro locations with five, including Raytown and Independence. All locations are 100% owned by Missouri residents.

Fresh Karma is a growing contender as well. With community service at its core, the dispensary has three locations in the metro and a production facility in Riverside. Fans of Fresh Karma are apt to see its staff out doing community clean-up projects, tailgating, and spreading the word about medical cannabis in unique ways.

While the larger chains are thriving, there’s plenty of space in the field for independent dispensaries like Riverside Wellness, Nature Med Dispensary, or Emerald Garden. All of the dispensaries emphasize education, and Emerald Garden even offers cannabis gardening products and information.

Some dispensaries focus on marijuana only, but many offer both THC and CBD products or products that feature a blend of both chemicals. Since separate licensing is required to sell medical marijuana in Missouri, most CBD stores do not sell medical cannabis right now.

While cannabis is only intended for medical use, dispensaries go the extra mile to build brand loyalty. Many companies offer loyalty programs for repeat customers to save money down the line. Convenience is a big draw as well. Shopping online and using drive-throughs and delivery services are becoming more common, especially for those who struggle with chronic conditions.

Cannabis is a centuries-old remedy, but Missouri is just now experiencing the benefits (at least legally). Patients are poised to make the most of the ever-changing legalities of the evolution.