Why I Fight
By Amy Cavanaugh, Palm Beach, Florida
People ask me all the time why I fight for therapeutic cannabis, especially since I don’t use it therapeutically or recreationally. Some days the fight seems to be such an uphill battle, I wonder the same thing, but I fight it because it is the right thing to do. I fight to make sense of Keith’s death, I fight for the patients who are too sick or too broke to go out and fight and I fight for the patients who cannot disclose that they medicate with cannabis and along the way I have learned a lot about politics, about myself, about the patients and about the plant.
My husband Keith Downes died on January 3, 2011. While he had been diagnosed with leukemia, he didn’t die of leukemia, he died of respiratory failure which was the direct result of the massive amount of pain killers he had been prescribed while in the hospital.
Keith had chronic pain from a car accident as well as some complex neurological conditions that rendered him with a compromised lifestyle. The good news and the bad news was that he had good insurance. The bad news was that this insurance got him in the door of countless specialist all wanting to prescribe some new drug without taking a holistic approach to his care.
He was totally disabled, but I he had quality of life when using therapeutic cannabis, none when he turned his life over to pain pills. Any time pain pills were involved, it was the pain pills not the pain controlling his life.
During our nine month battle against leukemia, I was surprised at the lack of knowledge and lack of interest in therapeutic cannabis on the part of the traditional medical community. At Jackson Memorial, one of the best teaching hospitals in the country, a young intern said that it was addictive and the hospital’s search engine blocked the words medical marijuana.
However, that same hospital had no problem prescribing Keith over 300 mg of oxycotin a day and discharging homeless people with 250-300 pills. That said, in 2009 the AMA reversed its longstanding position on the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I Narcotic meaning it has no therapeutic value.
On March 10, 2011 I travelled to Tallahassee Florida with my son’s fraternity brother David Jones. I knew we were supposed to be there, but I didn’t know why. It was a long drive from South Florida, made longer by the fact I needed to stop in Jacksonville to pick up David and that it was raining.
We got to our hotel at about 3:30 in the morning and were to be at the Capital at 10 am to meet with Rep Jeff Clemens a freshman Democrat from Lake Worth who introduced House Joint Resolution 1407. This was a gutsy move on the part of Rep. Clemens.
Florida has had a long history with drugs, both legal and illegal. In the 1970s it was a major point of entry for marijuana smuggling. One of the movements most ardent supporters, Robert Platshorn chronicled these days in The Black Tuna Diaries.
Then came the 80’s when Florida and cocaine were synonymous.
Today, Florida is held hostage by oxycoton. It is said that 85% of the nation’s supply is prescribed through Florida. Each day 7 people die from the drug on the street, countless more in hospitals. Pill mills have popped up all over the state, especially in South Florida setting the stage for a very dangerous brand of medical tourism.
I say this because our past and the associated toll on lives is fresh in the minds of Floridians. While informal polls in Florida indicate that residents support therapeutic cannabis, when someone who has not experienced the plant’s healing properties first hand thinks of marijuana, they do not think of sick patients, they think of Miami Vice.
It is no easy task to remind them that the criminal activity came from transporting drugs into the country, and if legal, the cannabis would be grown locally and sold in a safe environment.
I had no way of knowing how much my life would be changing in the next few hours.
On the way in I met Cathy Jordan, her caregiver Apryl and her videographer Ervin. Cathy has been a patient fighting ALS for over 20 years and her neurologist says that the cannabis and the smoking is keeping her alive. Then I met Jodi James of Florida Cannabis Action Network who has been fighting this fight for just as long.
I had constantly been complaining that this movement had no grown-ups and everyone looked like they were on their way to Bonnaroo, well that finally changed. You would be hard pressed to find someone with the knowledge and connections that Jodi has, or the fortitude of Cathy.
Cathy taught me something very important and that is, this fight is about the patients and the plant and anytime we make it about anything else, we have lost our focus.
Mary Lynn Mathre was there as well. Her and her husband have been advocating again, for over 20 years and run Patients Out of Time and Veterans For Medical Cannabis Access and a large group from PUFMM who have been actively soliciting signatures on petitions so that the issue can be voted on by Florida residents in 2012.
We were in the Capitol Rotunda to participate in a news conference and the noise my heels made on the marble floors sounded really important. Rep. Clemens briefly explained the purpose of his bill- was to “start the conversation”.
Cathy Jordan spoke next. Since her voice is compromised by her condition, Rep. Clemens carefully repeated her words so the press and other observers could hear clearly. This was a very touching moment for me because at that point I realized that this fight is about two things-the patients and the plant.
The patients voice needs to be heard, and if it can’t, they need advocates to share their message. It is my job to share the message of the patients, not run off with a personal agenda of my own. A few others spoke and then Rep Clemens called on me. Well for those of you who don’t know me, I love to talk…
Anyway, I said a quick prayer that my words be useful and walked up to the podium with my picture of Keith in hand to share my experience. A word of advice, anytime you have something important to share, people will take it much more seriously if you bring a picture of a dead person. After the press conference was over, we split up and began visiting our Representatives in hopes of educating and changing minds.
Maria Greenfield did not get to speak, which is unfortunate because her story haunted me for days after the trip. She is the caregiver to her 22 year old autistic son. Unlike so many patients who are using but fear prosecution, while Maria knows that cannabis would help her son, she cannot risk it, if she was arrested, he would not have a caregiver and if he was arrested, it is unlikely he would survive incarceration as that the symptoms of his disease would be mistaken as acting out.
There were many other patients who could not make the trip for one reason or another. Being sick is expensive and as a cancer survivor with Keith’s leukemia thrown on top, the one thing that I can assure you is if someone in your family incurs a major illness, you will go broke. Aside from money, some patients couldn’t take the long drive to Tallahassee or would not be able to keep up with the hectic pace of the day.
There are others who must stay in the shadows for fear of reprisal. I met a young man who is a veteran and while the VA has approved the use of therapeutic cannabis in states where it is legal, to come out as a user in a state where it remains illegal could have enormous consequences both financially and in terms of medical care. So for each patient that made the trip to Tallahassee, there were 100s more across Florida at home because they were too sick to travel, could not afford to make the trip or could not afford the potential consequences of being found out.
Sadly, Florida, like so many states has been taken over by a bred of politician who I do not quite understand. In Florida, if the democratic house members left, there would still be a quorum. Small government seems to be an issue, yet it appears that the legislators want small government for business and to micromanage the affairs of its citizens.
In fact, one Representative suggested that perhaps if his wife incorporated her “uterus”, the legislature would stay out of its affairs. That said, therapeutic cannabis is a bipartisan issue which is why it is really important for me to bite my tongue and continue to educate myself, the elected officials and the voters of Florida.
Therapeutic cannabis is personal and I learned quick that I had to personalize the message. For some, it is a source of taxation and a way to cut down on the cost of a trial and incarceration. Glen Beck, Pat Robertson, Ron Paul and a host of other conservatives and libertarians have spoken of the value of legalizing cannabis, sadly, their conservative counterparts down here in Florida do not seem to agree, or more specifically, are not sure that their voters agree.
It is all about jobs to these folks. Very few elected officials here in Florida have taken a stand for or against. I tell them, please just take a stand, even if you are against it, because if we know why you are against it and if you are a smart person, we will be able to educate you so that you will change your mind.
I am living proof, I have changed my mind on a few issues since I got all caught up in this legislative session.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is now formally allowing patients treated at its hospitals and clinics to use medical marijuana in states where it is legal. Veterans of the Vietnam War were the first group to use marijuana widely for medical purposes, the population of veterans using it now spans generations and is used to treat not only pain, but the effects of PTSD. This is a very compelling statement to make to anyone with involvement with the armed services.
Talk about this being a learning experience, boy did I learn a lot. I went into this with a major resentment against those fighting for full legalization. I felt that they were hiding behind sick people and view them as the cause of the failures in states like California.
That said, I have come to realize that until the plant prohibition is repealed, that it will be impossible for people to recognize its full therapeutic value, nor will we be able to take advantage of hemp and its widespread possibilities.
For example, if you look at many states, therapeutic cannabis is somewhat of a “hospice drug”, prescribed only for serious pain, cancer and other life threatening illnesses. However research has shown that it can be used for far more purposes than those limited circumstances and is even a preventative medicine.
So what have I done to support Therapeutic Cannabis in Florida? Here is a list:
- Became active on social media reaching out to like minded individuals for information and support.
- Joined PUFMM, NORML and Florida Cannabis Action Network
- Took part in a two day activist boot camp to learn about this history and future of the movement and to network with others around the state
- Made countless phone calls and wrote letters to legislatures encouraging them to support HJR 1407
- Share the stories of the patients I have met with others
- Reach out to civil organizations in an attempt to educate them and ask them to take a stand on the issue
- Create a database of Florida legislatures and their stance on the issue
It is shameful that Florida does not allow its citizens to have autonomy over their medical treatment. Sadly, cannabis went from being a plant to a dangerous drug. Even a man I rarely agree with, President George W. Bush, said the following in his State of the Union Address in January 23, 2007:
“We must remember that the best health care decisions are not made by government and insurance companies, but by patients and their doctors.”