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By Zac Anderson for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Her confidence and persistence are big reasons patients can now smoke cannabis.
Cathy Jordan had just finished dinner and was sitting in her Parrish home one evening last week when her attorney called.
“He said: ‘Well, Cathy, the governor signed the bill. We won,’” Jordan said as she recounted how she learned that smoking medical marijuana was legal in Florida.
After 22 years as one of the leading advocates for medical marijuana in Florida, Jordan finally could claim victory. She never doubted the day would come.
“I always knew we were going to win,” she said.
Jordan’s confidence in the righteousness of her cause, and her persistence, are big reasons why Floridians across the state are now able to smoke medical marijuana. She has long been the face of sick Floridians seeking to use marijuana as a medical treatment.
Sitting in a wheelchair at her kitchen table recently, Jordan relived her long fight, recounting old battles and relishing the final triumph that legalized her daily smoking ritual. Medical marijuana has become her life’s work. It all stemmed from what seemed like a death sentence.
Diagnosed in her 30s with a disease that typically kills people within a few years, Jordan is now 69 and has been smoking marijuana for decades to alleviate the symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. She believes the drug has helped keep her alive, and that consuming it in a smokable form also is beneficial.
So after Florida voters legalized medical marijuana in 2016 and GOP lawmakers subsequently outlawed smoking the drug, Jordan went to court to overturn the smoking ban and won. The state appealed. The appeal was pending when Ron DeSantis became governor.
DeSantis agreed with Jordan and other prominent medical marijuana backers, such as Orlando trial attorney John Morgan, that voters intended to legalize medical marijuana in a smokable form. He threatened to drop the state’s appeal unless lawmakers acted.
The GOP-led Legislature responded by passing a bill this month that makes it legal for adults and terminally ill children who have a doctor’s approval to smoke medical marijuana. DeSantis signed the bill last week and dropped the state’s appeal of Jordan’s lawsuit.
The victory came 22 years after Jordan spoke at a Hemp Fest event organized by the Florida Cannabis Action Network in Tampa.
Jordan already had been smoking marijuana for years when she appeared at the FCAN event in 1997. She contemplated suicide after her ALS diagnosis but marijuana helped her feel better, especially the “Myakka Gold” strain that Manatee County once was famous for.
Jordan and her husband, Bob, eventually moved from Delaware to Florida, purchasing their current home in Parrish in 1993. Jordan began to worry that her husband and son would get in trouble for illegally procuring marijuana for her. She set about to change the law.
After appearing at the FCAN event, Jordan became a fervent supporter of the group and eventually took over as president. She spent years seeking to legalize medical marijuana in Florida, either through the Legislature or a ballot initiative.
A 1998 article in the Bradenton Herald pictured Jordan with her husband, son and daughter-in-law on the Palma Sola Causeway in Bradenton, sitting in a wheelchair next to a sign emblazoned with a pot leaf, as they worked to gather signatures for a medical marijuana ballot initiative.
Jordan began traveling to the state capital with FCAN to lobby lawmakers on medical marijuana. The FCAN activists used to stand outside the capital and shout into bullhorns. Lawmakers largely ignored them.
“They wouldn’t even talk to us,” Bob Jordan told the Herald-Tribune in 2013.
But attitudes began to change.
By 2013 a medical marijuana bill had been introduced in the Legislature for four years in a row. The 2013 bill was named the Cathy Jordan Medical Cannabis Act.
Jordan appeared at a news conference in the capital to tout the legislation. She wore a marijuana leaf pin on her lapel and had two tins for medical marijuana on her lap.
“Just open your minds a little bit,” Jordan said then.
Most lawmakers still refused to listen, and the bill went nowhere.
But that same year, medical marijuana activists began ramping up efforts to put a constitutional amendment on the Florida ballot.
The Jordans had spent decades gathering signatures for various medical marijuana ballot initiative. None were successful until John Morgan began putting his millions behind the effort.
A 2014 ballot measure failed, but Morgan redoubled his efforts in 2016 and the initiative won approval from 71.3 percent of voters.
Morgan cited Cathy Jordan in 2017 when he announced that he’d be suing to overturn the ban imposed by the Legislature on selling whole flower smokable medical marijuana.
“Cathy Jordan got me involved in all this,” Morgan said.
“Cathy Jordan needs smoked (marijuana) to get her best results,” Morgan added. “Why did I come here to do this? Because there’s Cathy Jordans out there.”
‘Patron saint of Florida cannabis’
Jordan has been an inspiration to many others.
Greg Gerdeman calls her “the patron saint of Florida cannabis.” Gerdeman is a former Eckerd College biology professor who has studied the medical benefits of cannabis is now in the medical marijuana business. He appeared on a panel with the Jordans to debate the 2016 medical marijuana initiative and has been friends with them ever since.
“I have been proud to support her as someone who is so brave and someone who has defied all normal prognosis for her disease by using cannabis as medicine,” he said.
Gerdeman now works as chief scientific officer for 3 Boys Farm in Ruskin, which hopes to market a strain of whole flower cannabis developed by the Jordans. It will be called “Cathy’s Choice.”
Long before medical marijuana was legal, Cathy Jordan’s husband was growing it in the backyard of their Parrish home. He developed a strain that works well for Jordan’s condition.
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office raided the Jordans’ property in 2013 and confiscated about two dozen plants. But prosecutors declined to file charges, agreeing that Cathy Jordan had a medical necessity.
Jordan still smokes marijuana every day and has many options for obtaining the drug, which is now legal in a number of states. Florida was slow to join the movement, but Jordan never stopped fighting and soon her family will be able to buy her medicine close to home.
Lawmakers eventually had to succumb to public opinion, Jordan said.
“Florida is a large state, ever changing, and there were just a few sticks in the mud who don’t want change,” she said.
With ALS, patients lose the ability to control their muscle movement and most eventually become fully incapacitated. Jordan can’t walk and has long used a wheelchair. The muscles in her throat have atrophied and her speech can be difficult to understand, but anyone who listens closely can still make out what she’s saying.
Jordan’s facial expressions also say a lot. She smiles as she recounts the old battles and talks about new ones to come.
“I’m so glad the legislators are waking up,” she said.
Jordan’s home is a shrine to the family’s medical marijuana advocacy, which both her son and husband also are immersed in.
A large sculpture of a marijuana leaf is attached to the wall above her couch. Jordan’s refrigerator is adorned with small fabric art pieces made by a woman with multiple sclerosis. They include an image of a marijuana leaf. One says “Cathy’s Miracle.”
A poster on Jordan’s wall lists the medicinal benefits of marijuana. A glass case has family memorabilia, including the award Jordan received from the marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.
Jordan received the group’s 2012 “courage award.” She also has been featured on the cover of the Medical Cannabis Journal. She is proud of this work, but also ready to slow down.
Recently Jordan traveled to Tallahassee to testify in the appeals court case on smokable medical marijuana. She used to make the trip regularly, but now says “I can’t stand the thought of traveling up there.”
John Jordan, Cathy’s son, also is ready to move on from constant advocacy.
“I’m just glad it’s over with,” he said. “We don’t have to go up there and mess with those crooked-ass people anymore.”
Age and illness may have slowed Cathy Jordan down somewhat, but she may have a few more fights left in her. She talks about wanting to end the federal prohibition on medical marijuana. She wants the drug to be available to U.S. service members.
But she hopes her advocacy can be “right here from my house.”
Half of a marijuana joint sits in an ashtray on her kitchen table, leftover from her morning ritual. For a long time Jordan was just fighting to make sure she could wake up every morning and have access to a drug that she believes helps her and many others.
Jordan defied the odds and lived long enough to see victory. More struggles remain though.
“Who knows,” she says. “The next 20 years might be the end of the drug war.”