Wendy Zaharko refers to herself as Aspen, Colorado’s country doctor. She has seen mangled limbs from bad ski injuries, broken bones from hang-glider accidents, the toll of cancer and the impact of sleeplessness. For all these ailments, she has one first-line recommendation: cannabis.
Zaharko, a well-known squash player who competed at Princeton in the early 1970s, says marijuana was always available in her college days. It was a private campus, so few of her peers were ever hassled about it. Even outside of school, the substance had become a vital element for Vietnam War opposition.
“It was almost like it was legal,” Zaharko said during an interview Wednesday in Aspen, a ski town of about 6,000 residents where Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson made a name for himself. “People got caught with it, but it was almost a part of the whole movement to stop the war.”
Despite the substance’s prevalence, Zaharko rarely smoked. Occassionaly she would partake if she was at a party and people were recreating. What she disliked most was the five- to 10-day haze that followed every time she got high. Today, she recognizes that much of the cannabis in those days was contaminated. She claims the Richard Nixon administration was spraying marijuana fields in California or Mexico with paraquat, a chemical similar to agent orange.
“It was usually contaminated. If it was around, sometimes I’d have a little hit or something,” Zakarho said.
For the next 40 years, she mostly stayed away from cannabis, as she was earning her medical degree, completing her residency and mothering two children. In 2003, she and her family found themselves in Colorado. By 2009, she had heard about legal cannabis, which she thought “was pretty neat.” With that in mind, she began to take note of every time she passed L.E.A.F., or Locals Emporium of Alternative Farms.
When curiosity got the best of her, she went inside L.E.A.F. to ask about the operation. The shop owners explained to her that in order to get a medical card, you needed a doctor’s referral. Zaharko asked which doctors the shop was dealing with, and they told her that they had a few commuters from Denver. When she explained that she was a medical doctor, they asked her to see some patients.
The next day she saw about 15 people. The first few were skateboard rats, who listed their reasons for cannabis as their desire to skate while high. Zaharko told them that their reason “was nice” and sent them on their way without medical cards.
Other patients had various ailments from ski injuries. Another patient suffered a dislocated shoulder, injured back and broken ankle when he collided with a tree while hang-gliding. Though they all raved about cannabis’ pain-relief qualities, Zaharko was skeptical until her eleventh patient.
That patient was a 65-year-old woman, who had survived breast cancer after a diagnosis 10 years earlier. The patient told Zaharko how cannabis had helped alleviate vomiting and nausea associated with chemotherapy. And by the way, the patient was convinced the substance had helped cure her stage 2b breast cancer. Though it’s a more mild form of cancer, it still has the potential to spread to the lymph nodes.
For Zaharko, all of this equated to anecdotal evidence of cannabis’ medical qualities. Her perception changed when her cancer patient explained the effect of cannabis on her asthma. The patient had been hiking in the wildnerness without an inhaler when she suffered an attack. One of her hiking partners suggested she take a hit from his roach. She went along with it, and the attack cleared
When Zaharko learned of this, she went home to research. What she found was that cannabis dilates the bronchi, which is exactly what an inhaler does.
“There it was in front of me on the Internet — the truth, the fact that this really did happen,” Zaharko said. “As a doctor, I was totally blown away.”
Zaharko has seen at least 5,000 patients since 2009. She has traveled to Colorado’s Front Range and west to Durango, Telluride and Norwood, near the Utah border. She meets with patients in trailers, cabins, hotel rooms and at home.
During one consultation, she saw a Parkinson’s disease patient, who was shaking and had a trembling voice. A nearby dispenser gave him some cannabis, and Zaharko watched his anxiety disappear.
“He started laughing and talking,” Zaharko said, adding that the effect took three to five minutes. “As soon as he took one hit, as soon as he smoked that weed, instantaneously he had a smile on his face because he knew what was going to happen.”
Zaharko contends that cannabis isn’t right for everyone, and she continues to prescribe pharmaceuticals. But she has grown increasingly skeptical of anything synthetic. During her medical training, all she did was prescribe pharmaceuticals. But she was disillusioned when she witnessed the amount of addiction to opiates.
The issue with pharmaceuticals, she said, is not the drugs themselves, as they are all inspired by naturally occurring substances. The issue is that the drug companies add synthetic chemicals, so they can patent the drugs. She also said it’s profit, not helping people, that drives these drug companies.
When she began her house-call practice, she found people who were interested in more than just prescription pills.
“My purpose is to educate. I want to talk about what I do to spread the wisdom of the weed,” she said. “Because there’s a lot of wisdom in it.”
Zaharko herself won’t smoke during the day or in the evening. She’ll take a hit or two of tincture when she can’t sleep.
“It’s a crime that everyone in this country doesn’t have access to this legally for sleep,” Zaharko said. “Sleep is a major problem in this country. This is something that can give you a good sleep and make you really happy.”
She also raves about cannabis treatment for seizures. She recently saw a six-year-old girl suffering from 300 seizures a day. When the girl saw Zaharko, she was accompanied by her mother and grandmother. Zaharko started the girl off with 5-miligram tinctures of indica a day.
“This was a kid who was rolling around on the floor when I saw her,” Zaharko said. “And she’s now riding a bike. She is in regular school (part-time).”
In Colorado, the options for consuming, the combinations and the strands are endless. Zaharko said because the substance is so new medically, it’s like going back to ancient medicine, when it was trial and error.
“It’s like, here try this ancient root,” she said. “The bottom line is: The worst that will happen is you might get high or you might fall asleep or you might giggle a lot or you might eat a lot. That’s the worst that’s going to happen.”