Steve Gleason says medical marijuana saved him from a ‘downward spiral’

Gleason speaks publicly about his marijuana use for the first time Friday

By: - August 27, 2021 7:10 pm
Medical Marijuana Commission holds first meeting

Former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason leaves after testifying at the legislature’s joint Medical Marijuana Commission on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

Former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason said Friday that medical marijuana saved him from a “downward spiral” he after his ALS diagnosis. Friday marked the first time Gleason has ever spoken publicly about his use of  the drug. He was testifying before the Medical Marijuana Commission set up by Louisiana Legislature. 

A former special teams standout,  Gleason was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2011 and entered the meeting room at the State Capitol in his motorized wheelchair — a result of the neuromuscular disease taking away his use of all muscle functions.

Speaking through a computer that tracks his eye movements, Gleason drew laughter when he began his testimony by pointing out how he came dressed in a “tuxedo,” which was actually just a tuxedo T-shirt. He cracked similar jokes throughout his speech but captivated the entire room when describing a dark point in his life in 2013. Doctors had recommended that he put a hospital bed in his home to sleep in and prescribed him medications for the pain and anxiety that accompanies the disease. 

He described how the hospital bed had bars on the sides that are designed to keep a patient from rolling off. 

“The irony was here I was staring at the ceiling without any ability to move,” Gleason said. “I was angry and resentful” … “This was something of a downward spiral.”

The side effects of the prescription medication only made things worse, he said. He tried different types and dosages but nothing seemed to work. The physical discomfort brought an “overwhelming fear” to his mind, he said.

One day he told his wife “I have got to get out of this. There must be a better way,” he said.

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A friend recommended medical marijuana. Gleason had only tried marijuana a few times prior to that point — smoking it recreationally, but his friend was recommending something different — a cannabis tincture, which is a pharmaceutical grade liquid extract. The drug was still illegal in Louisiana at that time.

“I felt it was worth the risk of committing a crime, but just for safe measure, I did bring our attorney,” Gleason said, drawing another round of laughter. 

For the first time in a while, he said he was able to function, had more energy and was more productive.

“I felt good physically and my head was much clearer,” he said. “I felt free — free from the downward spiral.”

 Gleason said medical marijuana gave him the ability to find new purpose in life. He went back to sleeping in his king-size bed alongside his wife and worked on growing his ALS advocacy foundation, Team Gleason, which has since given $18 million in adventure, technology, equipment, and care services to over 20,000 people living with ALS. 

“I’m not saying it all happened because of the help of medical marijuana, but I can say with 100 percent confidence that those accomplishments, the inspiration, nor the tens of thousands of people that we serve — none of it happens if I were still on those prescription pills,” Gleason said before exchanging parting words with the lawmakers and closing with his famous motto: “No White Flags.”

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The Medical Marijuana Commission is on a “fact-finding mission” to explore options for improving the state’s medical marijuana law, Chairman Rep. Joe Marino (I-Gretna) said. 

Lawmakers first cracked Louisiana’s doors to the drug in 2015 with legislation that has allowed a very limited market to open. Marino said the law was designed to allow Louisiana to “crawl before we walk.” Since then, state laws surrounding marijuana have slowly progressed. 

“This is 2021,” Marino said. “We’re six years passed that. I think we’re finished crawling. I think we need to do something other than crawling, and I think that this commission is going to help us achieve that goal of getting medicine to patients.”

Among other members of the public who testified was Katelyn Castleberry, who said she purchases medical cannabis as a treatment for her son’s epilepsy. However, because of Louisiana’s limited market, the drug costs her about $900 per month, she said.

Castleberry’s testimony struck a chord with several lawmakers who said they’d like to see insurance companies begin covering the costs of the drug. Another issue is the lack of drug testing exemptions for medical marijuana. 

Rep. Jack McFarland said he has constituents who have lost their jobs and even professional licenses, such as those for truck drivers, due to outdated drug screening regulations.

“As we move forward, I’d like us to consider at least those two things,” McFarland said.

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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