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What I Learned From Medical Marijuana Refugee Families

It wasn’t that they believed marijuana was a miracle drug. Sure, many would arrive at that conclusion, but it wasn’t the reason they left family and friends, uprooted themselves, and resettled in towns and cities beyond the Rockies. Rather, it was desperation — the sobering realization that no combination of pharmaceuticals would save their children — that drove these parents to Colorado.

They call themselves medical marijuana refugees. Left with no legal protection, these parents fled their home states and took asylum in Colorado, the Mecca of the marijuana legalization movement. I met with several of these families earlier this month.

Today, they are advocates. But their activism is informed by firsthand experience, not some abstract belief in the healing powers of a federally controlled substance. I think there’s often a misconception about the “type” of parents who choose to treat their sick children with marijuana, as if they’re united by a set of shared political and ideological beliefs. In reality, the only thing that unites them is an uncompromising dedication to their kids’ wellbeing.

Well, that and the fact that pharmaceuticals didn’t work for many of these young patients. If the pills were effective and reduced the number of seizures that these infants, toddlers, and adolescents experienced each day (the majority of refugee families use cannabis to treat their kids with severe forms of epilepsy), it’s unlikely they would have ever left. In many cases, however, the prescription drugs didn’t work; in other cases, they worsened the very conditions they were designed to treat.

“We’ll do anything — any parent would,” Amy Dawn Bourlon-Hilterbran, the founder of American Medical Refugees, told ATTN:. “You’ll go anywhere, you’ll do anything, you’ll try anything. And for years and years, we’ve tried pharmaceuticals that we knew could potentially kill our children — that certainly had hideous side effects and literally stole our children from us in the form of their personality and happiness.”

“I mean, really, what else do we have to lose?”

Hilterbran’s 14-year-old son, Austin, has Dravet syndrome, a catastrophic form of epilepsy that caused him — for most of his life — to dozens to hundreds of seizures per day. As ATTN: previously reported, the Hilterbrans moved from Oklahoma to Colorado in 2014 after pharmaceuticals nearly killed Austin, causing his vital organs to shut down from toxicity. Like so many parents I met, the Hilterbran’s decision to treat Austin with cannabis reflected the state of desperation the family found itself in, not necessarily their optimism about the plant’s medicinal value.

Oils derived from cannabis treated Austin’s seizures better than any pill had, Hilterbran said. He’s gone days, weeks, and months without seizures — something his parents wouldn’t have expected in their wildest dreams — and they were also able to wean him off the half-dozen pharmaceuticals he was prescribed. Austin’s story is nothing short of incredible, but what struck me during my trip to Colorado was how often I heard parents from all across the U.S. tell variations of the same story.

I met parents from Texas, Wisconsin, Indiana, Florida — even Ireland — who testified to the effectiveness of cannabis as medicine for their children. American Medical Refugees — an organization that helps families transition from states where marijuana is illegal to Colorado — counts more than 150 families as members, and each family’s experience is certainly unique. That said, they share distinct commonalities: namely, they were parents before they were legalization advocates, singularly committed to their children’s health.

The evidence of marijuana’s medical benefits continues to grow, albeit slowly in the U.S., where federal restrictions make it difficult for scientists to access and study the substance. Anecdotally, however, the evidence spills over in Colorado.

When the acting chief of the DEA, Chuck Rosenberg, called medical marijuana “a joke” in 2015, patients and advocates shook their heads. More than 150,000 people signed a petition for the official’s resignation. I asked Yvonne Cahalane, who moved to Colorado from Cork, Ireland, to treat her 2-year-old son with cannabis, what she made of Rosenberg’s comment.

“I would hate for this person to need [cannabis] and then realize that it’s not a joke,” Cahalane said. “But maybe he should visit some children.”

I found that answer powerful and true. It’s one thing to ignore the research; it’s another thing to entirely ignore the parents, their children, their stories and experiences. That’s why I set out to visit Colorado and meet with these refugee families.

Here’s what I learned from parents who treat their kids with medical marijuana in Colorado.

Cannabis Migration – Who’s Moving and Why?

The cannabis migration first gained notoriety in 2013 when legalization came closer to a reality in Colorado. Fast forward to 2020, and it’s still happening. The difference today is that many people are moving to cannabis-friendly states for a wider variety of reasons then they did seven years ago.

This year, more than a dozen states could legalize medical or adult-use cannabis, but still, the cannabis migration shows no signs of stopping any time soon. Marijuana migrants continue to completely uproot their lives in order to move to a state that has legalized medical or adult-use cannabis.

Let’s take a look at who is moving, why they’re moving, and where they’re going.

Who are the Cannabis Migrants?

States that have legalized medical or recreational cannabis have seen large numbers of people move from several key populations, including patients, parents, seniors, farmers, job seekers, executives and professionals, students, and off-the-grid dwellers.

Patients

People seeking relief for their illnesses and chronic conditions have been moving to states that allow medical cannabis for years. This migration began with people moving to states where medical cannabis was available first, such as Colorado.

With medical marijuana now legal in more than half of the states across the country, migration by patients has slowed. However, it’s not over yet.

Many patients still have to move to other medical marijuana states or recreational marijuana states because their home states haven’t approved the use of cannabis for their specific medical conditions yet.

Parents

Parents seeking help for their children’s illnesses and chronic conditions have also been moving to states that allow medical cannabis for minors. Colorado was one of the first states to experience a significant influx of residents who came specifically to access medical marijuana for their children.

Parents who made the move to Colorado referred to themselves as marijuana refugees back in 2013 as they left jobs and family members behind in order to get the medical cannabis their children needed.

Seniors

Retirees have been moving to cannabis-friendly states for years. In 2014, the largest percentage of people who moved to Colorado were retirees. In total, one-third of people who moved to the Mountain West region (which includes Colorado) in 2014 went there specifically to retire.

At the same time, dispensary owners reported that 50% or more of their customers were senior citizens.

Farmers

Farmers who cultivate cannabis are also moving to find better growing and business conditions. For instance, a six-year drought in California motivated many cannabis farmers to move their operations further north within the last several years.

Many of these California marijuana farmers headed to southern Oregon at the time where growing conditions are better despite the fact that competition is also higher for cannabis farmers in the southern Oregon marketplace.

Job Seekers

The cannabis gold rush brought a promise of new jobs to job seekers across the country. As new states launched cannabis programs, people who wanted to get into the industry flocked to those states.

Regardless of whether or not all of those people found work in the marijuana industry, their migration certainly did have an effect on populations and local economies.

Executives and Professionals

It’s not unusual today for cannabis license holders and ancillary businesses to recruit executives and professionals from other industries.

In recent years, executives from Apple, Facebook, and across Corporate America have made the move to the cannabis industry, and for many of them, that meant joining the cannabis migration.

Students

As more states legalize adult-use and medical cannabis, career opportunities increase. The next generation of workers sees this happening and many of them are actively looking for ways to gain the knowledge they need to land jobs in the future.

There are already a variety of colleges offering cannabis courses and degree programs, and students are moving to states where these colleges are located to take advantage of new educational opportunities.

Business Owners

Many entrepreneurs seeking a chance to stake their claims in the cannabis market have made the move to join the industry in states where marijuana is legal for medical and/or adult-use. Today, those entrepreneurs and business owners continue to migrate as necessary to follow the opportunities.

Migration is common among both new market entrants and entrepreneurs who have been working in the industry already. For example, many cannabis-related businesses have closed up shop in their home states when a different state passed new and more desirable medical or recreational marijuana laws. Making the move was worth it when these business owners weighed the costs against the risks of operating in states where their operations could be considered illegal.

Off-the-Grid Dwellers

Some people move to states that have approved recreational cannabis simply because they want to be able to access marijuana products any time they want.

In Park County, Colorado, an influx of off-the-grid dwellers (or nearly off-the-grid) settled in recreational vehicles and tents, and by 2016, 287 marginal dwellings were counted in a single 50-mile loop of land.

Why is the Cannabis Migration Happening?

There isn’t a single catalyst to the cannabis migration. Instead, people are moving for a variety of reasons, but the four key reasons motivating the vast majority of marijuana migrants are freedom, medical needs, quality, and jobs and business opportunities.

Freedom

For many people who move to cannabis-friendly states, the purpose of making the move is simply to have the freedom to use marijuana products whenever they want.

Medical Needs

A large number of cannabis migrants have uprooted their lives and families in order to access marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Quality

People seeking higher quality and consistently safe cannabis products also move to states that have legalized adult-use marijuana.

Jobs and Business Opportunities

Workers and entrepreneurs who want to generate an income from the cannabis market are highly likely to move to cannabis-friendly states if their own state has yet to legalize medical or recreational marijuana or if their own state’s marijuana regulations are overly strict.

Where is the Cannabis Migration Taking People?

Today, the majority of people are leaving their home states and moving to a different state with friendlier medicinal or recreational cannabis laws. They might move to a state with medical marijuana laws that list their illnesses (or their children’s illnesses) as covered conditions, or they might move to a state that has legalized marijuana for recreational use.

For example, in Colorado, a statistically significant increase in migration to the state began in 2011 according to The Pot Rush: Is Legalized Marijuana a Positive Local Amenity research study by Diego Zambiasi and Steven Stillman. Between 2005 and 2009, an average of 187,600 people moved to Colorado each year to access medical cannabis. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of people who moved to Colorado increased by 20,760 per year (an 11% increase).

After full legalization of cannabis in 2014, the number of people who moved to Colorado increased by 15,470 people per year (an additional 8.2%). As of 2015, marijuana legalization had increased Colorado’s overall population by 3.2%.

Will the Cannabis Migration Continue?

As long as cannabis is not legal in all 50 states, it’s highly likely the cannabis migration will continue as people seek medical, educational, and career opportunities that they can’t find in their home states. However, the migration will slow as more states legalize both medical marijuana and adult-use marijuana in the future.

Bottom-line, until the United States has an open market for people seeking freedom, help for their medical needs, quality, education, and jobs related to cannabis, migration will continue.

Originally published 8/7/18. Updated 2/14/20.

Susan Gunelius, Director of Email Marketing Strategy for Cannabiz Media , is also President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc. , a marketing communications company offering, copywriting, content marketing, email marketing, social media marketing, and strategic branding services. She spent the first half of her nearly 30-year career directing marketing programs for AT&T and HSBC. Today, her clients include household brands like Citigroup, Cox Communications, Intuit, and more as well as small businesses around the world. She has been working with clients in the cannabis industry since 2015. Susan has written 11 marketing-related books, including the highly popular Ultimate Guide to Email Marketing for Business, Content Marketing for Dummies , 30-Minute Social Media Marketing , Kick-ass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps , and she is a popular marketing and branding keynote speaker. She is also a Certified Career Coach and Founder and Editor in Chief of Women on Business , an award-winning blog for business women. Susan holds a B.S. in marketing and an M.B.A in management and strategy.