Two moms who need marijuana await Supreme Court ruling
August 18, 2004
Patrick Hoge, San Francisco Chronicle
Angel Raich and Diane Monson never imagined themselves as the standard-bearers for the medical marijuana movement. They just wanted to ease their pain.
But the two middle-aged Northern California mothers say they were forced to challenge federal authority over the drug's use in a case the U.S. Supreme Court will hear in the coming months.
They insist marijuana is the only thing that keeps their otherwise debilitating illnesses at bay despite government claims that it is an illegal and addictive drug that doctors have no business prescribing or even recommending.
Raich, 38, of Oakland, is a mother of two teenagers who began using pot for her ill health nearly a decade ago. She became an activist and met her attorney -- and husband-to-be -- at a medical marijuana event.
'I really feel like I have been blessed by cannabis,' said Raich, who has a 15-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son. 'Cannabis is my family's miracle. Without cannabis, I would have wasted away.''
Monson, 47, who lives quietly in a home she and her husband built on 160 acres in rural Butte County near Oroville, joined the cause two years ago after federal agents raided the property and confiscated six pot plants she used to cope with back pain.
Shortly after the raid, the two women met each other in their lawyers' office and decided to sue the federal government, seeking protection for medical use of marijuana under California's Proposition 215; approved by the state's voters in 1996, it allows doctors to recommend marijuana to their patients.
Pot helped paralysis
Raich's health problems began as a teenager in Stockton when she got curvature of the spine. In 1995, the right side of her body became partially paralyzed after an allergic reaction to birth control pills.
For nearly four years, Raich could not get out of a wheelchair unassisted. She lost her accounting job in Sacramento County as a result of her illness and moved back to Stockton to be closer to family.
Raich has since been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, uterine fibroid tumors and other disorders, said her doctor, Berkeley physician Frank Lucido.
As Raich's condition deteriorated, a nurse at a local hospital suggested she try marijuana. Raich was initially offended, but in desperation she asked a relative to find her some pot 'off the street.'
It helped, stimulating her appetite and restoring feeling to the right side of her body. About 18 months later, she got out of her wheelchair and walked again.
She threw herself into the medical marijuana movement, attending rallies, lobbying legislators, working with local police and speaking frequently to reporters.
She gave up her birth name -- which she asked be kept confidential -- adopting 'Angel'' after fellow patients started calling her that.
Raich met her 'third and last'' husband -- Robert Raich, who is her attorney and a well-known advocate for medical marijuana -- four years ago as a result of her activism. After two years of communicating with each other via telephone and e-mail, Angel said she had walked up to Raich at a medical marijuana-related event and placed her hand on his shoulder.
'Once we touched, that was it. It was really quite magical,'' she said. They were married in 2002.
They live in Oakland's Redwood Heights neighborhood, in a home with sweeping bay views. Depictions of angels are scattered around the living room.
Raich says she found a community where she felt comfortable at the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative and by talking with other patients online.
She consumes more than eight pounds of marijuana a year -- smoking it, vaporizing it, eating it and mixing it with massage oils. Two caregivers grow it for her free of charge.
'The average person doesn't really understand what it's like to be really, really ill,'' she said. 'The medical cannabis movement is more of a family than my own family.''
Raich's activism took her to a rally this summer outside the California Highway Patrol office in Oakland to protest the confiscation of thousands of cannabis plants from a warehouse that she claims was storing medical marijuana.
'This is my medicine, and they want to take it away,'' Raich yelled angrily, waving a plastic bag holding two ounces of pot.
Restored her appetite
Monson suffers from what her doctor calls 'degenerative disease of the spine,'' and she has been plagued by frequent and severe back spasms since 1989. Prescription medications made her groggy or nauseated if they worked at all, she said.
Monson started using marijuana daily after a doctor recommended it in 1999, although she readily admits that she and her late husband, Michael Pierce, 'were always light recreational' pot smokers.
Beyond easing her chronic pain, the drug restored the appetite she lost to depression when she learned in March that her husband was terminally ill. He died in June.
Monson, an accountant who previously owned a landscaping company with her husband, typically smokes her first bowl of pot about midday -- sometimes earlier if she's not feeling well.
'You know, wake and bake,'' she said with a laugh.
The laughter fades as she recalls how she was standing in her bathrobe in the kitchen making granola when she saw trucks and a helicopter racing down her driveway one morning in August 2002.
Sheriff's deputies and Drug Enforcement Administration agents jumped from their vehicles, some with guns drawn. They had come to investigate the six marijuana plants they'd spotted in her backyard while flying over her house earlier.
Deputies concluded that Monson's plants were allowed under state law and were preparing to leave when DEA agents said Monson's plants had to be destroyed.
'That's when the phone calls started,'' Monson said.
For three hours, the deputies conferred with Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who told them to protect Monson's plants -- at gunpoint if necessary. Ramsey, who felt bound by the voters' will, phoned the U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento, which called Washington. The verdict: Overrule the district attorney.
The deputies backed off, and one of the federal agents chopped down the plants as a tearful Monson read aloud the text of Prop. 215. Monson was not arrested or charged with a crime.
About two months later, she received a call from San Francisco attorney David Michael, who told her he had a lawsuit ready for the perfect plaintiff - - her. She came to the Bay Area to meet the attorneys and Angel Raich, and they decided to pursue litigation.
Monson has been content to leave the case in the hands of lawyers, and she rarely attends demonstrations or public events or socializes with Raich. Her extra time goes to teaching literacy at the local library and volunteering at a nursing home.
'I have more notoriety than I'd care to have,'' said Monson.
High court to hear case
In December, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction finding that the women's case appeared convincing and ordered federal authorities not to arrest or prosecute them for using locally grown pot obtained free of charge for medical purposes.
The Justice Department appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed late last month to hear the case.
Monson and Raich are not sure what they will do if they lose the case.
'I'm either going to have to find another way to get that medication, or I'm going to have to do without it,' Monson said. 'That is a very scary concept, because I've had no luck with other therapies.''
Raich says she won't be a lawbreaker and would most likely leave the United States.
'They'll run me out of my own country,' Raich said. 'I really don't feel that's fair, because I feel like I've been a good citizen.''