The seizures used to come 20 times a day for Levi Sowell.
The Hermiston teen's mother, Lenay Sowell, said usually they were marked by a blank look as Levi "zoned out" and couldn't process his surroundings. But about four times a week they turned into frightening full-body convulsions that left him speechless for hours and sometimes sent him to the hospital or left him with deep bite marks on his tongue.
Doctors prescribed a parade of different neurology medications, many of which Levi, 19, said left him with unpleasant side effects like severe stomach cramps.
"Usually I was in a tremendous amount of pain," he said.
Desperate for something better for her son, Lenay turned to the Internet and began reading stories from parents who claimed marijuana had cured or greatly reduced their child's epilepsy. When Levi turned 18 she took him to a doctor who helped Levi become a card-carrying member of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.
Now mother and son, along with Levi's cousin/caretaker Zack Jensen, 20, said the number of seizures Levi has in a week has reduced by 75 percent. He can usually hold off the seizure long enough to warn them it's coming, they said, and he is no longer skeletally thin. They said the turnaround came thanks to marijuana-infused products Levi buys from a dispensary on Highway 395 known as the Columbia Basin Compassion Center.
"They've been a godsend," Levi said.
Now, Lenay said, her son can leave the house more often and can socialize with friends.
"He can actually go do things that teens do," she said.
Rejecting the image of a stoner looking for a legal fix, Levi said although he sometimes smokes marijuana to control the nausea and pain from his other medications, most days he just uses a product called Rick Simpson Oil Capsules that don't include the high-inducing THC.
"The parts that don't use THC, they don't make you feel high or stoned but they still have medical benefits to me," he said.
There is also a "calming spray" he spritzes in his mouth when he feels a seizure coming on, which he said can sometimes stop an oncoming attack.
"It really calms my brain down," he said.
Mike Parker, who owns the Columbia Basin Compassion Center, said people like Levi are the reason he runs the center and gives so many card holders, including Levi, his products for free. He said he gave away $28,000 worth of products to card holders last year.
"I've seen such an improvement in him ... it's such a joy to see," Parker said.
Parker has been running the dispensary north of Hermiston for a little over two years. He said many of the stereotypes people have in their mind about him, his shop and his customers are false.
For example, Parker is against full legalization of marijuana and said even if he could legally sell to non-cardholders he wouldn't. He said marijuana is a medicine, just like oxycodone, that should only be taken by people with a legitimate medical need for it and not used recreationally.
"I want to keep it medical," he said. "We have enough drugs out there that mess people up."
Parker said the majority of his patients are over 50 and "can't or won't" smoke marijuana. Instead they use a variety of pot-laced foods, salves, tinctures, sprays, oils and capsules to ease their ailments. He said there are a handful of local physicians willing to sign medical marijuana cards.
The Compassion Center was closed this week while the state processes Parker's application to become licensed with the state. Previously he, like all dispensary owners in Oregon, was operating outside the law. He said when he opened two years ago he was told unofficially that if he "kept his nose clean" and didn't sell to people without cards or sell other types of drugs he would be left alone by law enforcement.
"Still, (having a license) will make me breathe a lot easier," he said.
Some medical marijuana proponents claim cannabis is a miracle cure for just about everything, including terminal cancer. But Parker takes a more pragmatic approach.
"It's mostly just pain management we do," he said. "I'm not saying don't take your pharmaceuticals. But maybe you can take a lower dose if you pair it with the right strain."
Marijuana's federal classification as a Schedule I substance prevents much research into the drug's medicinal uses. The American Epilepsy Society released a statement this week calling for the federal government to allow clinical studies on the effects of cannabis on epilepsy, but also cautioned that the evidence right now is purely anecdotal and it is unknown whether marijuana is actually effective in treating seizures.
Levi doesn't care what the medical community says -- he's already a believer.
"Now I can just hang out with my friends, go to the movies, go bowling, visit my dad," he said. "It's stuff I couldn't do before."
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.