Lance Sanders was surprised and appalled when he found himself on the psychiatric evaluation floor of Dallas County jail in 2014. He shared a cell with seven other men, all of whom wore paper gowns or nothing at all. His cellmates were, in his words, “completely out of it.” During his two-and-a-half-week stay in those horrific conditions, the 38-year-old Arlington resident saw unconscionable acts of depravity, desperation, and anger.
“I saw some really bad shit,” Sanders said. “There was a guy who would shit in his hand and wipe it all over the windows of his cell.
“We’re locked in there for 23 hours a day,” he continued. “We were let out anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to take a quick shower and call your family. But most of these guys were so out of it, they never came out of their cells.”
Sanders landed in that predicament for smoking pot, which violated the terms of his probation stemming from a 2008 felony arrest for selling mushrooms. (The Drug Enforcement Administration considers the hallucinogen a Schedule 1 narcotic – on par with heroine, crack, methamphetamines, and marijuana). The singer/guitarist for local psych band Mammal Virus wasn’t just ignoring the law. He was using marijuana to help control symptoms of his diagnosed epilepsy.
Sanders remembers that county officials told him that he was in the psychiatric wing of the county jail so its medical staff could monitor his medical conditions – he also suffers from bipolar disorder and was taking Zoloft.
“I said, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m not suicidal,’ ” he said, “and most of those other guys were.”
Though he was ultimately moved to general population and then to a drug rehab facility, he remembers, Sanders is still dealing with the fallout of his arrests. He said he still has to attend regular meetings because the state law indicates that he is legally considered a drug addict.
“Now I’m in a court drug diversion program for people who have what they call ‘dual diagnosis,’ ” he said. “They say I’m a drug addict, and I have a mental health diagnosis.”
His saga might have played out very differently were he living in one of the 28 states that have legalized some form of medical marijuana. Sanders was in the wrong state at the wrong time.
Now, because of his court-ordered programming, he’s using Keppra to treat his epilepsy, which he said is way less effective than marijuana and comes with upsetting side effects, including weight gain and extreme fatigue.
Sanders didn’t start having symptoms of epilepsy until he was 24, and he was initially diagnosed as having a seizure disorder until doctors induced a seizure during a sleep study. He has tried numerous prescription drugs that all help a little, he said, but nothing that works as well marijuana.
“I was having seizures once every couple of weeks,” he said about the early days of his diagnosis. “But it was managed with marijuana, so it really wasn’t that bad. The seizures themselves, they weren’t as intense.”
Though the medical community is still split on the merits of using marijuana as treatment for seizures, there is mounting evidence that cannabis is more effective in treating neurological disorders than traditional medicine.
Although Texas does have a law on the books that allows certain people to use very low-grade THC oil to treat epilepsy, any other use of the drug is still illegal. In 2015, Gov. Gregg Abbott signed into law the Compassionate Use Act (SB 339), which allows patients diagnosed with intractable epilepsy to use the oil to treat their ailment, but there are a few restrictive stipulations patients have to meet. For example, a person who suffers seizures can acquire the oil only if he or she is under a physician’s care, has already tried two FDA-approved drugs, and is a permanent resident of Texas.
After four states legalized the recreational use of marijuana last year and twice that many approved new medical marijuana laws, 11 states, including Texas, are considering changing their pot laws this legislative session. Sen. Jose Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat, has sponsored Senate Bill 269, which aims to expand legal uses of medical marijuana in Texas. As of the print date of this story, that bill is still in committee.
After Sanders completes his state-ordered treatment, the county will wipe the felony off his record by February 2018. While he’s grateful to be out of jail, he said, the court’s costly and time-consuming mandatory programs might be useful for someone with a real drug problem – but not him.
“I think they have really good intentions,” he said. “It’s good for people who are addicted to PCP and heroin, but I don’t feel it’s necessary for people who like to smoke pot to help with their medical conditions.
“It was one of the most traumatic things I’ve ever been through,” he added. “I’m still going through PTSD.”
Numerous studies have also shown that marijuana is an effective treatment for PTSD.