Sarah Bargas has experienced the benefits of medical marijuana.
A stage four colon cancer patient who is a registered nurse, Bargas moved to Oregon in 2013 in order to use the drug to treat the disease that doctors said would take her life in three months after her second cancer diagnosis.
Three years after she began using cannabis oil, the New Castle native still has cancer — but it hasn't progressed, surprising not only her family and friends, but especially her oncologist, who had treated her cancer the first time with the traditional chemotherapy.
"My cancer hasn't changed in three years, and my oncologist says that I'm the patient who makes him question everything," said Bargas, a 36-year-old mother of three who last year moved back to Lawrence County following her husband's death.
So when Gov. Tom Wolf recently signed into law a medical marijuana bill, the 24th such program in the nation, Bargas was thrilled.
The law establishes standards for tracking plants, certifying physicians and licensing growers, dispensaries and physicians. Patients will be able to take marijuana in pill, oil, vapor, ointment or liquid form, but will not be able to legally obtain marijuana to smoke or grow.
"It's history. I was super excited; we have been working hard core on it," said Bargas, who in recent years has worked for a startup cannabis extracts company and advocated with groups like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Parents 4 Pot.
"But I need a program here now. I need access (to medical marijuana) now," Bargas added, referring to the estimated two years' time the bill's drafters say it will take to write regulations and get retailers open.
"So I keep going back to my legal state," she continued. "It's far, but it's worth it. I'd rather take an herb extract in a capsule than narcotics."
Bargas, who hopes to educate people about medical marijuana and break down stereotypes associated with its use, said that using the drug allows her avoid the constant haze of narcotics.
"If you're dying, you want to be present in your kids' lives. They've seen the effect of cannabis versus the effect of the narcotics, when I'm out of it all the time," she said.
Dr. J. Fred Stoner, who runs the Pain Centre of New Castle on Moody Avenue, said he has read the research proving that medical marijuana can successfully treat a number of conditions, ranging from epilepsy to multiple sclerosis.
But he's also heard first-hand from his own patients how the drug has dramatically helped them or family members.
He described how the condition of a patient with reflex sympathetic dystrophy — a rare disorder of the sympathetic nervous system characterized by chronic, severe pain — was improved after he began smoking marijuana.
"He's told me when he smokes it, it calms his symptoms down," said Stoner, who is president of the Lawrence County Medical Society. "I'm not going to kick him out of my practice for that; these are severe conditions these people are managing.
"I've seen it with my own eyes. For certain conditions, marijuana gives people a little bit of hope."
Stoner said opponents to the new law who are concerned about potential abuse of medical marijuana have many of the same concerns as those worried about the problems associated with the opioids he prescribes.
"But you're always going to have that — faking to get drugs," he said, adding that he uses fluid testing on a regular basis to help root out those seeking drugs illegally.
Both Stoner and Bargas said they'd advocate for making recreational use of the drug legal, too.
"Now I really feel that all use is therapeutic use," Bargas said. "In states where they have medical programs, opiate deaths have dropped, and people are getting off of opiates and incorporating cannabis, which has a synergistic effect. It increases the feeling of the opiates, so you can back off of them."
"There are definitely benefits to legalizing it for recreational use with responsible people," Stone agreed, adding that there should be a regulated market of marijuana, like tobacco. "If it's legalized, it becomes the individual's responsibility."
But in the meantime, Bargas said she's planning on returning to Oregon this summer in order to obtain another 60-day dose of cannabis oil.
"It's a waiting to die story, but I don't live that way," Bargas said. "Everyday is a gift. Cancer has been my biggest teacher. The first time I was diagnosed, I was angry; I asked, 'Why me?'
"But this time, it's helped me to change my life and get the good out of it," she continued. "Not everybody has that reminder to live every minute and find the happiness and peace inside."