After a car accident left Michelle Graham in constant pain, doctors prescribed Oxycontin. But when the video store she worked at began selling CBD oil, Graham became a convert. Now she’s using the rental counter to fight the epidemic of opioid addiction in her city.
By Casey Kleczek
September 9, 2020
Roughly a mile from the Little Bay de Noc in Michigan’s upper peninsula, tucked in a strip mall off Interstate 2, you’ll find Family Video, the last video rental store in the city of Escanaba.
Family Video has been a dependable source of entertainment in this post-industrial town for 20 years. Today, the store’s neon green-and-orange marquee reveals the only discernible change to the place in the past two decades: instead of the week’s new movie releases, the letters announce WE SELL CBD NOW! The pivot to cannabis might seem like a major branding miss for a “family” video store in a straight-laced rural area, but Escanaba residents who frequent the store aren’t bothered by the change. They know Michelle Graham manages Family Video, and Michelle can be trusted.
When Michelle started working at Family Video five years ago she was well suited for the job. An extremely personable 35-year-old mother of five, it was easy for her to treat her customers like members of her family, which incidentally was part of her job description. The tedious aspects of the job that would bother most people—patiently nodding through dubious justifications for late rental returns, or listening to a scandalized mother rant about movie ratings—were minor obstacles en route to getting to know and understand her customers more deeply. “I’m like a sponge.” Michelle told me, her brown hair and glasses framing her smile when I spoke with her in July. “I soak up everyone’s stories.”
Today, Michelle’s conversations with customers have higher stakes. Since Family Video started selling CBD in 2019, she has been working with the urgency of an ER physician and the passion of a born-again preacher to deliver the good news about CBD—a cannabis compound that doesn’t contain psychoactive THC—to penny-pinching skeptics and convention-loving “Yoopers”. The vigor of her approach makes it clear why Escanaba’s Family Video is consistently named one of the top ten sellers of CBD products from among the chain’s more than 700 outlets nationwide. The breathless excitement with which Michelle speaks to anyone who will listen about the nuances of CBD, the proper way to use it, the different effects of an oil versus a balm and other details might come across as a sales pitch, unless you know the motivation behind it. For years, Michelle has watched as opioid addiction has devastated her community; in CBD, she sees a potential remedy. For Michelle, Escanaba is a city on fire, and through Family Video she’s found herself in an odd position to fight the blaze.
Twelve years ago Michelle was in a car accident that sent her from the back seat of a car through the front windshield. Since then, she says she’s been “living with the body of an 80-year-old.” She’s had chronic back, nerve, and joint pain, a bone spur, vision loss, carpal tunnel tendonitis, arthritis, and deterioration of tendons and cartilage in her knees and ankles. She had foot surgery for plantar fascitis. She lost her spleen which has left her battling hemorrhoids and severe anemia. And she was only managing three to four hours of sleep a night due to pain.
For six years Michelle cycled through doctors and specialists who, to Michelle, seemed keen on pushing a single approach. Every time she saw a doctor, she said, “Instead of digging to the bottom to find out why I’m having the pain, they (would) offer me pain medication and tell me I have to take it while they try to figure out what’s wrong with me,” Michelle explained. “Ninety percent of the time they never give you an answer. I don’t trust doctors anymore,” she told me.
The “magic pill” doctors were pushing on Michelle was Oxycontin, a powerful opioid that Michelle said gave her intense brain fog and made it difficult to form thoughts and sentences while doing very little to ease her pain.
As time passed and Michelle continued to take the Oxycontin she was prescribed, she began to feel like she was part of a larger story. Oxycontin seemed to be the go-to drug doctors prescribed to her friends and neighbors to treat the wide range of ailments and illness they struggled with: what one man received for a work-related back injury, another woman was prescribed for cancer. “I’m a very talkative person,” Michelle told me. “I started to wonder, ‘Why is everyone I’m talking to on the same medication?’” Michelle quit taking Oxycontin cold turkey, despite her physician’s warnings. “I chose to start searching for some answers on my own,” she said.
In January 2019, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published findings from a three-year-study of opioid prescription data. The findings revealed that between 2014 and 2017, residents of rural counties in the U.S. were 87 percent more likely to receive an opioid prescription than residents of urban areas. Researchers suggested the gap could be due to higher prevalence of chronic pain among people who live in rural regions, or a lack of access to medication-assisted treatment facilities (for detoxing from opioids) and few alternative therapies for pain in rural areas.
Other research shows a strong correlation between the prevalence of prescription opioids in a given region and unemployment rates. “On average, counties with worse (employment) prospects are more likely to have higher rates of opioid prescriptions, opioid-related hospitalizations, and drug overdose deaths,” reads a report published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2018.
Escanaba exemplifies this disturbing trend. A picturesque coastal town, the local economy once thrived on the production of lumber and hardwood flooring along with tourism and the shipping of iron ore to other Great Lake ports. After the ore dock closed in 2017, the local paper mill became the city’s largest employer. With brutal winters and a reputation for friendliness characteristic to Midwestern regions, Escanaba has attracted many outdoorsy transplants from western states, but employment opportunities for cradle residents are scarce: In Delta County where Escanaba is located, the median household income is 45% lower than the national average while the number of people living in poverty is 60% higher than the national average.
Over time, as economic prospects dwindled in Escanaba, heroin and Oxycontin abuse began visibly assaulting the scenic landscape of the city. Officials were reportedly finding needles on the streets. Some Escanaba doctors’ offices and medical centers put signs up in their windows reading “We don’t have pain pills here.” Michelle told me the problem became a constant topic of conversation with her customers: “Just walking through the store, you’d hear people talking about this or that person being addicted,” she recalled. One day her family physician suddenly quit and left town. “He couldn’t handle the pressure to prescribe anymore,” she told me.
The tragedy of addiction that could have easily ensnared Michelle was instead playing out in front of her eyes, destroying the lives of her friends and neighbors in the town she loved. The stories she heard were growing more and more tragic: the young combat-wounded Iraq-war veteran battling opioid addiction; a college-bound addict who had started with pills before moving to heroin. Beloved fathers, mothers, and grandparents were spending their golden years like “walking zombies” medicating old work-related injuries, Michelle said. Those who were too scared of addiction to take opioids either suffered unthinkable pain or downed handfuls of ibuprofen.
Watching the devastation in Escanaba lit a fire in Michelle. She grew angry and conspiratorial, wondering if the medical-industrial complex was somehow complicit in the epidemic of addiction. Eager to liberate Escanaba from the grip of opioids, Michelle wanted to fight the problem, but wasn’t sure how.
Family Video started selling CBD immediately after Michigan legalized it in January 2019. The move amused many at the time, but to Michelle it made perfect sense: working at the store had given her positive experiences with affirming people, the antithesis of her experience with the healthcare industry. If Family Video could provide a product to help people manage pain legally and safely, why shouldn’t they?
Her employer’s decision to sell CBD was the final push Michelle needed to jump on the CBD bandwagon herself. The mysterious cannabis compound was now associated with a trusted hometown fixture, and that was good enough for Michelle. She tried it and became a fast and loyal fan.
Michelle said that nothing brought her life back to something close to normal as much as CBD did. After taking it she was finally sleeping through the night, working eight hours a day on her feet and, for the first time since her accident more than a decade earlier, was “pain free, other than minor aches and pains.” Michelle’s customers were some of the first to notice the difference. “She was more cheerful and happy,” Dennis Jahnke, one of Michelle’s longtime customers and friends, told me when I spoke to him in July. “I could only assume it was because (she was in) less pain.”
Michelle’s testimony came in handy when promoting CBD to her friends and neighbors. To date, the FDA has still not issued guidance on what claims can be made about its use and CBD largely remains an unknown quantity in the scientific community. But Michelle’s story was compelling enough for most of her customers to give CBD a try: she estimates that 75 percent of Family Video’s CBD customers were persuaded to try it by a staff member’s testimony. “We’re a small store, we treat our customers like family. We are trusted, and I believe that is what sells CBD. We are not trying to sell it to them, we’re trying to help them,” Michelle told me.
This approach is reflected in Jahnke’s experience. A 63-year-old retiree, he wanted an alternative to opioid painkillers to treat his lower back and Sacroiliac pain. He told me he had been addicted to opioids “many years ago” and didn’t want to take them again. When Jahnke saw Family Video’s updated sign, he stopped in to learn more. “I know Michelle well enough to know she does a great deal of research. She checks into products and news stories, and she provides websites so I can read about it myself,” Jahnke said. He tried CBD and is now one of Michelle’s loyal customers.
Most of Family Video’s CBD sales followed a similar pattern: curiosity brought customers in, and Michelle’s story kept them there. “My customers kept telling me how it was nice to no longer feel like a number,” Michelle told me. Business was slow at first, but soon Family Video was deluged by CBD buyers. A whisper campaign about the benefits of the compound was underway in a region that had been losing trust in the medical system. Customers would come into the store explaining which family member or “friend of a friend” had sent them there, Michelle recalled.
The week that Michelle received a couple dozen elderly customers she hadn’t met previously, she was perplexed before learning they were members of a Christian congregation whose pastor had purchased a CBD balm for his wife, who was suffering from cancer. “These were my first customers in their 80’s. Many of them were on fixed-incomes. Purchasing CBD is a big risk for them. The only way they’re going to be willing to try it is when someone they know and trust can recommend it,” Michelle said.
Another demographic was also showing interest. After Family Video started selling CBD, the store started seeing millennial faces again. Dozens of students from the same college came into the store seeking alternatives to the anti-anxiety medication they had been taking. Like a priest in the confessional, Michelle stood behind the checkout counter, absorbing the private wounds of her city and dispensing oil and balms for what ailed her customers. She felt she was on the front line of the crisis, soothing the psychic and physical pains of people who felt ignored by mainstream medicine.
It’s only been a year and a half since Family Video started selling CBD, but Michelle already has hundreds of regular customers. Some of the customers literally crying at Michelle’s counter today are former CBD skeptics, now doing so in gratitude. “I have lost count of how many people have (stopped taking) their pain medications because of CBD,” Michelle told me. “It makes me feel amazing. I don’t feel like a salesperson. I am offering something that can change someone’s life.”
In 2017 Escanaba joined dozens of U.S. cities and states in filing lawsuits against opioid manufacturers. The decision came after reports suggested that 80 percent of criminal activity in the city was “directly and indirectly related to the opioid problem.” The outcome of the lawsuits remains to be seen: analysts predict that the money the pharmaceutical industry will pay to communities via settlements will likely be far lower than once hoped, even as Escanaba residents fear the wave of unemployment resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to more opioid use in the region.
But Michelle can’t be bothered to think about what she can’t control. It’s too maddening to feel helpless. She’s poised and ready to make change happen in the most effective way she knows: by listening and talking to the next CBD skeptic to walk through the door of Family Video in Escanaba. They’re bound to get an earful.
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Photo via Reddit / jakedaily