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Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Medical Marijuana Caregiver

Rules, restrictions and guidance on how to obtain and use the pain-relieving drug

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Yasu + Junko/Trunk Archive

My first experience with medical marijuana was when I was 17. I visited a girlfriend’s house for the first time. It surprised me to see that her father was smoking marijuana in the living room. I’d never seen an adult do that before! My friend explained that her dad had colon cancer. He had become excruciatingly thin and wasn’t expected to live much longer. Pot was the one thing that stimulated his appetite, which kept a little weight on his body and gave him a bit more energy. Unbothered by my awkward questions about her father lighting up a joint in the living room, my friend was happy for anything that could help her dad.

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Relief and respite

Fast forward one decade and I was the one caregiving for a parent with terminal cancer. It was an uphill battle to get my mom’s discomfort under control. The side effects of chemotherapy, radiation and medication piled up. Mom wasn’t doing anything except sleeping, but it wasn’t quality rest. I heard her moaning and saw her grimacing in pain. She barely ate and constantly battled nausea and digestive woes. Bag after bag of IV fluids was the only way to stave off dehydration. She was depressed about her illness and about knowing that her body would not survive the cancer. After months of adjustments, trying to find her relief and better quality of life, I gently suggested — and she agreed — it was time to try the one option we hadn’t yet: medical marijuana.

My mom’s cancer had spread throughout her body, including her lungs, so smoking was not an option for her. But edible marijuana was. Although she was a bit hesitant (“It’s not going to make me act weird, is it?” she asked. “Not any weirder than usual,” I joked), she was hopeful that it would help.

The first time my mom tried the edible marijuana, she was able to eat (and keep down!) the medicine along with dinner and even asked for something sweet for dessert. We watched a movie together (her in her living room hospital bed, me curled up on her couch) and it tickled me to see her chuckling at Will Ferrell’s antics. I watched her more than I watched the movie.

For the first time in a long time, she looked relaxed. Almost happy. That night, she slept. No pain. And so, I was able to sleep too. Medical marijuana gave us both respite that night and in her final months of life.

How marijuana can help

Since I experienced caregiving for my mom, several of my family members, friends and clients have shared stories of how they’ve also benefited from medical marijuana. Marijuana use has increased among the population since then — with older adults as one of the fastest-growing populations of cannabis users in the U.S. In 2007, only about 0.4 percent of people over 65 reported using cannabis in the last year. As of 2022, it was more than 8 percent. Today, 84 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be available for medical use according to a 2024 Pew Research Center poll.

Despite this, many people don’t know where to start to obtain it, what the laws and rules are surrounding it, and what the “right time” is to consider it an option in the course of managing and living with a disease.

Unfortunately, the patients with the most severe symptoms — the infirm, the immobile and the dying— may have the most difficulty incorporating medical marijuana into their treatment. This is where their caregivers come in.

Caregivers are the front line in helping patients obtain and use marijuana as medicine. And although marijuana is legal in most states for medicinal purposes, that doesn’t mean that patients and caregivers automatically have access to it.

How do patients and caregivers obtain medical marijuana?

The first step is to become educated on what your state permits. 

Some states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.  Basically, this means that personal-consumption amounts are not a crime (or are a misdemeanor with no sentencing of jail time), but a civil or local infraction. At this time, more than half of Americans live in a place where cannabis is legal.    

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Medical marijuana laws are determined by each state’s statutes and regulations. By 2024, 38 states, the District of Columbia and several territories have legalized medical marijuana, with varying rules about who can buy or grow it, when and where a person can use it, and how much they can have. Also, there are states with more restrictive policies that only authorize low-THC/high CBD plant-derived products. Only three states have a total ban on cannabis.

The person who wishes to have a medical marijuana prescription will have to qualify as a patient. Generally, that means having diagnoses of certain conditions and a specially licensed doctor’s involvement in the decision to seek medical marijuana certification. Which illnesses qualify for treatment with medical marijuana differs from state to state.

From there, the caregiver who wishes to be designated as the patient’s medical marijuana caregiver must apply for the role. In some states, a registered medical marijuana caregiver is not permitted, although a designated person may pick up marijuana on their behalf. If more than one person cares for the patient and the state allows multiple medical marijuana caregivers, more than one person may be designated. 

Who makes a good marijuana caregiver?

Selecting a designated caregiver means choosing someone who is reliable. They should be willing to educate themselves on the laws and the benefits and drawbacks of medical marijuana. They need to be able to procure it for the patient whether through an ordering process, transporting it themselves or cultivating it at home (if allowed by law).

It’s important for the patient and caregiver to feel comfortable with the use of the medicine and its possible effects on the patient. The caregiver also has to qualify under the state law’s eligibility requirements.

How do you qualify to become a marijuana caregiver?

There are a few factors that make a caregiver eligible, and this also depends on your state’s laws.  Typically, a qualifying physician is the only person who may add a caregiver (sometimes also called an authorized companion, designated provider or registered agent) to the patient’s medical marijuana use profile. Caregivers must be over a certain age, and may have to pass a background check, take a certification course and submit the proper application to the agency that oversees medical marijuana. Search for requirements in your state to learn what you will need to do.

There may be disqualifying factors that prevent a person from being accepted as a designated caregiver. A criminal background with felony convictions might disqualify a caregiver.  Not residing in the same state as the patient may as well.  A marijuana caregiver may not be allowed to be employed in the medical cannabis industry or serve as the patient’s doctor.

Once accepted, the caregiver may have to renew their registration occasionally, including retaking the certification course, and cannot assist a patient if the registration has lapsed.

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What is a marijuana caregiver allowed to do?

Depending on the state, there are varying degrees of assistance a caregiver can provide to a patient to help them use medical marijuana.

The caregiver may purchase the medicine from a licensed dispensary. Marijuana purchased from other sources may not be considered medical marijuana — and could be illegal to possess.

In some states, caregivers are allowed to cultivate, produce and store the plant themselves. There may be limits on how many plants a caregiver may grow, and they will need to comply with the legal amount.

The caregiver may administer the medicine, which means they can help the patient use it. The caregiver should be willing to become knowledgeable about the different types of marijuana products available and how they manage different symptoms and conditions.

Physically using the medicine may be difficult for patients with disabilities or weakness, so the caregiver should discuss the different forms of delivery with the dispensary. Patches or oils applied to the skin may be easier for the patient to use versus edible medicines or vaporized or smokable cannabis.

Depending on the area of the country, the caregiver will have the authority to transport the medicine. They will be allowed to possess it on behalf of their care partner. Just like in states that allow cultivation of plants, there may be limits on the amounts of usable marijuana that a caregiver can possess legally.

When is the right time for a patient to use medical marijuana?

The answer to this question depends solely on the patient and their readiness. If there are any questions about whether it is appropriate for the patient’s current condition, the patient and their caregivers should talk to the patient’s doctors. Learn what is available and legal for the patient and caregiver, what the risks and benefits are to the patient, and whether marijuana is a valuable tool to add to their treatment toolkit.

Above all, I encourage caregivers and patients to not wait to explore medical marijuana until it is the medicine of last resort. There was no gift greater to me as a caregiver than to see my mom able to laugh, to eat, to rest after months of suffering. Medical marijuana freed her from her pain, and for that, I’m forever grateful.

Editor's note: This story, originally published in 2020, has been updated with new information.

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