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An Accident Turned a Recreational User Into a Medical Marijuana Advocate

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Mark Braunstein has lived on both ends of the marijuana spectrum. As a teenager on Long Island in the late 1960s, he smoked recreationally. As a 67-year-old paraplegic living in the woods of Waterford, he now smokes for medicinal purposes.

In 1990, the then-Connecticut College art librarian dived off a footbridge into a river, breaking his back and injuring his spinal cord. Braunstein spent four months rehabbing at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford. Suffering through leg spasms is common for people with spinal cord injuries, but it wasn’t happening to Braunstein. The reason: Every few days his girlfriend would visit him and they’d sneak out back and smoke a joint.

“Even there we heard rumors ... about how marijuana can suppress the spasms that some of those people in the ward at the time were experiencing,” Braunstein says. Because of built-up tolerance, Braunstein would occasionally stop smoking for weeks at a time in order to be able to enjoy the high again. The first time he did this after his accident, the leg spasms started.

“Unlike other patients in my case — who may have resorted to the pharmaceutical drugs and, then finding marijuana as a good alternate, went to marijuana — I never even used those pharmaceutical drugs to begin with,” Braunstein says. A longtime advocate for legalization, he has testified seven times in front of the Connecticut legislature. One of his favorite go-to statements from those sessions: “As a paraplegic, my use is medicinal for below the waist and recreational for above.”

Braunstein smokes a small amount — “what you would fit into the filter tip of a cigarette” — every few days. He says the euphoria lasts about three hours, but the spasms cease for about three days. “I need very little because it’s very highly potent, both with the THC and the CBD,” Braunstein says. “In my case, for a spinal-cord injury, to suppress spasms, both the CBD and the THC are very effective.”

Connecticut legalized medical marijuana in 2012, with sales beginning two years later, but before then, Braunstein relied on a grower friend in Rhode Island for his supply. Because of his condition, Braunstein says he always got top priority despite high demand for this particular grower’s organic outdoor product. They would meet every year after the harvest, just before Thanksgiving. Braunstein would get a year’s supply, but he still found it inconvenient and says the product wasn’t consistent in its potency.

“The difference now is you go to a dispensary, you buy a little bit, you go home, try it out. Think it works and it’s exactly what you like? Go back, buy more. It can’t be any more convenient,” Braunstein says. Despite the convenience, he still has his qualms with the system. Due to the state’s precedent-setting pharmacy model, all dispensaries must have a licensed pharmacist. “It makes it unnecessarily more expensive than it needs to be,” Braunstein says. “Some people maybe need to consult the pharmacist, especially newbies. This is true with a lot of elderly people who might be trying it for their first time. They might need the advice of the pharmacist, but I certainly don’t.”

Another negative issue Braunstein identifies is the use of “pot docs.” He says there is still a stigma among some reputable doctors to sponsor their patients, who then have to find other means to obtain the product they need. Pot docs fill in the gap for patients whose doctors refuse to buy into cannabis as medicine, but they’re not covered by health insurance so the full cost is absorbed by the patient. Appointments can run $200-$300 for the first meeting and $150-$200 more for the annual appointment to get a permit renewed, according to Braunstein. He sees his doctor twice a year and the renewal process is handled by email.

In addition to preventing spasms, marijuana also helps curtail the stiffness in Braunstein’s legs for a few hours. “Whenever I go to an art museum, I’ll always sit in my car first and smoke in the parking lot, or on the street if it’s the [Wadsworth] Atheneum in Hartford. I’ll smoke first, and then I’ll go in because I know my walking is going to be just so much better when I walk for the next hour or two in the museum. I do it as much for the exercise. But when I smoke in my car on the street or in the parking lot, I still have to do it very surreptitiously. I can’t get used to the fact that I could just sit there with my windows open and smoke and I’m totally legal.”

This article appeared in the April 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.

Mike Wollschlager, editor and writer for Connecticut Magazine, was born and raised in Bristol and has lived in Farmington, Milford, Shelton and Wallingford. He was previously an assistant sports editor at the New Haven Register.