BLOOMINGTON — Medical cannabis has meant that dozens of McLean County residents with a variety of debilitating conditions have a quality of life that they didn't have before.
More importantly, the medical cannabis community has given them something to live for. What they're living for is to help each other.
That's according to several McLean County residents who have been approved to use medical cannabis and have organized a group to support each other and educate themselves and the community at large about medical cannabis.
"The medicine (medical cannabis or marijuana) can do something but love and having a healthy lifestyle will do so much more for people," said Tyler Jon Hargis, primary organizer of the Central Illinois Cannabis Community.
"I'm trying to build a community," the 26-year-old Bloomington resident said.
"Medical cannabis has given me my life back," said Rachel Martinez, 30, of Heyworth, who suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining) following a 10-year abusive relationship and the death of her 3-year-old son to brain cancer in August 2014.
"PTSD robbed me of my life," Martinez recalled. "I was thinking about suicide every day. I had no friends. I was terrified to go outside. Everything was a trigger. I isolated myself for three years."
But after being approved in January 2017 for medical cannabis for her PTSD, Martinez not only no longer has flashbacks and suicidal thoughts but her appetite has returned and she has something to live for.
"I met Tyler and he opened the medical cannabis community to me," she said. "It's like a family. We connect with people who know what we're going through.
"I have my life back and my love back," she said.
Illinois allows patients diagnosed with 40 debilitating conditions to be eligible for a medical cannabis registry identification card, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Conditions include HIV/AIDS, cancer, Crohn's disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson's disease, PTSD, rheumatoid arthritis and seizures.
From Sept. 2, 2014, when IDPH began accepting applications for the Medical Cannabis Registry, through April 4, the department approved 34,700 patients. There are 54 licensed medical cannabis dispensaries, including The Green Solution Illinois, 501 W. Northtown Road, Normal.
"There's a stigma about cannabis," Hargis said. "So we all need to be educated about it. We want to talk with other people so they can see it from a different perspective."
"Medical cannabis is not about going home and getting stoned," said Scott Haynes, 55, of Ellsworth.
Hargis, a Bloomington native, has suffered from anxiety, depression and migraines since age 13.
"The migraines impaired my vision," he said. "My peripheral vision is blurry."
The three conditions meant that it was hard for him to focus in school.
"Some days or weeks, I would stay home," he said. "Other days, I would take Tylenol and tough through it."
Hargis got his GED (general education diploma). But after high school, family issues intensified his anxiety and he began to have panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.
He tried cannabis for the first time at age 16.
"It relaxed me," he said. 'It would calm me and help me to think more clearly."
At age 22, he had his first seizure. While two spots have been discovered on his skull, Hargis said he doesn't know whether those are related to his seizures.
He has a seizure about once every three months. Sometimes they are mild and pass in a few minutes. Other times, he passes out and wakes up in the emergency room. Fear of having a seizure has resulted in PTSD.
Hargis was prescribed sertraline, an antidepressant.
"When I was on it, people described me as a zombie," Hargis said. "I was zoned out. I wasn't focusing on anything. I had no desire or ambition. I wasn't thinking about anything sad. But I wasn't thinking about anything at all."
Hargis applied for and received a medical cannabis registered qualifying patient card. He buys his medical cannabis at The Green Solution, where he also works as a retail associate.
Hargis has tried different forms of medical cannabis and has determined which work best for him to regulate his anxiety, depression and PTSD.
"This medicine allows me to slow down and think through things more clearly," he said.
"We have access to regulated, scientifically grown, clean medicine," Hargis said. "This isn't stuff from the street."
Haynes has had diabetes for 30 years, affecting his heart, nerves and blood vessels. He's had three heart attacks and has diabetic neuropathy, meaning he can't feel the bottom of his feet. He has lost part of one toe and has problems with balance.
"I was on eight pills (include two opioids) but I was like a zombie," said Haynes, who is on Social Security disability because of his condition. "I was not myself. I just didn't care. That's no way to go through life."
Haynes got his medical marijuana card last July.
"I was off all the pills by the first of this year," he said. "How is that a bad thing?"
"I am able to eat," Haynes said. "I feel like doing stuff. I live a pretty decent life."
Martinez has received her GED, is in college and has signed up to join the concrete finishers' union.
Hargis said medical cannabis and the support of others who use it has "given me my passion back. I have a job I love and I have a purpose."
That purpose, he said, is helping others with a variety of debilitating conditions by helping them to determine, through The Green Solution, which form of medical cannabis may work for them and by offering support through the Central Illinois Cannabis Community.
"People come in (to The Green Solution) and they open up to you," Hargis said with tears in his eyes. "I want them to know they are loved and supported. That's why I formed the community."
The efforts began with a potluck where information and support were shared in December. "Then people asked me when the next event would be," Hargis recalled.
The next event will be a Walk for Awareness at 10 a.m. April 22 at White Oak Park in Bloomington. In addition to the walk, the event will include information about medical cannabis, yoga, picking up trash in honor of Earth Day, a scavenger hunt for children and a collection of nonperishable food for Bloomington-Normal homeless shelters.
"We want to do public events every three months," Hargis said, "so the cannabis community and the non-cannabis community can know about each other."