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I spent the last three years working as an Executive Legislative Assistant to a ranking budget chair in the Washington State Legislature, so it should come as no surprise that a trip to the Nation’s Capitol has always been high on my bucket list. I was this close to fulfilling my dream in 2008, after scrimping and saving for over two years on a relatively low salary. Unfortunately, prohibition happened.
I became a medical cannabis patient in ‘05 while living in Oregon. At that time, I did not know that I had a rare genetic disorder; only that I had long been suffering from chronic joint and muscle pain, extreme nausea and vomiting, disabling migraines and eventual insomnia. After an honest conversation with my doctor about the handfuls of pills I was taking to mask the symptoms - at the ripe ol’ age of 25, mind you – it was suggested that cannabis might relieve what ailed me. I was honestly taken aback when it worked so well and I was able to wean myself off every single pharmaceutical.
Happy ending, right? Not really.
Like many who wind up in court for cannabis, I was pulled over by a traffic cop. It happened on a desolate stretch of Interstate 5 in Southwest Washington. In what has become a recurring nightmare for cannabis consumers nationwide, the State Patrolman asserted that he “smelled a strong odor of marijuana.” The two joints I had were sealed in a glass jar, so it was more likely the peace sticker on my car, identifying me as a beatnik, that aroused the officer’s suspicion. Regardless, I knew better than to consent to his request for a search. In an instant, I was handcuffed and in the back of a patrol car, yelling out the window “you do not have permission to search my vehicle. I do not consent to the search you are performing right now.”
Reality quickly set in. My doctor’s recommendation from Oregon was no good here, even though I was just 50 miles north of Portland. My eyes zeroed in on the bumper sticker on the plexiglass in front of me that proudly proclaimed, “It’s Not JUST Marijuana” and featured a bright red no sign over a pot leaf. I then realized my vocal protests about the search were in vain. The officer obtained probable cause the moment he allegedly smelled cannabis. It would be his word against mine and a determined drug enforcer like him was bound to find my medicine. It was only a matter of time before I found myself in the Cowlitz County Jail with bail of $5,000, payable only in cash. I was facing a felony for Violation of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, a charging decision left up to the discretion of individual officers. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I was cancelling my East Coast vacation and using the funds to bail myself out, literally and figuratively.
Since then, my priorities have shifted greatly. I have become increasingly active in the medical cannabis, legalization and criminal justice reform movements. My life trajectory was forever altered by the horrific death of Richard Flor, Montana’s first registered cannabis caregiver. 68 years old and incredibly ill, Richard died from the neglect he experienced while serving a five-year prison sentence. His widow, Sherry, remains imprisoned even after her husband’s tragic death. The once-happily-married couple of 37 years were named co-conspirators in a federal indictment. The last four months of Richard’s life, they were not only imprisoned apart from one another – separated for the first time in their marriage – but they needed special permission from each of their wardens to communicate just by mail. That permission never came. Instead, Sherry’s final words to her husband were in a call to her daughter, Kristin, who stood helpless over her father’s comatose body, as he lay shackled to a hospital bed. The U.S. Government got its pound of flesh from the Flors, but that wasn’t punishment enough.
Two of Richard’s business partners and two other employees were also indicted. A third business partner accepted a plea bargain that spared him from indictment, but required “significant cooperation” with investigators. One of the co-owners, Chris Williams, courageously took his case to trial. Watching firsthand as Chris’s nightmare unfolded in federal court, my resolve was cemented. I could not rest until the whole world knew what was happening in America’s so-called justice system.
Soon after, I left my Legislative career to work with the November Coalition. Founder Nora Callahan and her husband, Chuck Armsbury, are also casualties of the War on Drugs through separate but equally absurd tales of conspiracy, drugs and guns. Then, just this month, I met another inspiring victim of cannabis prohibition. Jacob Shepherd was four years old when he watched as law enforcement agents gunned down his father in a deadly standoff over a small backyard cannabis garden. His mother was hit by a stray bullet. As an impressionable young child, Jacob was whisked away from the scene in a police cruiser, covered in both of his parents’ blood. That was almost 20 years ago. When will the madness end?
I am incredibly appreciative of the kind-hearted sponsors who donated to the scholarship fund for ASA’s upcoming Unity Conference in Washington D.C. Thanks to their assistance, I will be able to personally tell members of Congress about Richard, Sherry, Kristin, Chris, Nora, Chuck, Jacob and countless other stories of injustice. I will get to learn from world-renowned medical experts who have studied cannabis science in depth. I will get to meet other like-minded advocates from across the country, all because of the generosity of complete strangers! I am forever grateful for this amazing opportunity and plan to make the most of every second I have in the epicenter of democracy! Thank you again to Americans for Safe Access for hosting the conference and every supporter who has made this trip possible.