After 18 Cannabis Cups here in Amsterdam, I’ve met a lot of people and heard a lot of stories -- stories of fun and triumph and tragedy -- but few have touched us as deeply as the story of Sutton Vance. Note: If you don’t have any Kleenex handy, now would be the time to go get some.

In November 2010, my wife April was riding to the expo in the Cup shuttle bus, when she overheard a woman chatting with the bus driver about why she was in Amsterdam. It seemed that her college-age son, Keegan, had two lifelong dreams: to go skydiving, and to attend the Cannabis Cup. That year, he and his older brother Zach were making that dream come true -- they’d bought their judges’ passes online and were excited to head to Amsterdam. But a few months after getting the tickets, on July 3, 2010, Keegan suddenly and inexplicably died in his sleep. Heartbroken, his mom Sutton decided that the best way to honor Keegan’s memory would be to live out his two bucket-list dreams. So she’d come to experience the Cup in his place and to scatter his ashes somewhere in Amsterdam.

Sutton was no hippie or pothead -- in fact, she’d never smoked marijuana in her life -- but she felt she owed it to Keegan to see why he’d wanted to come so badly. So, accompanied by Zach and his girlfriend Amanda, and with Keegan’s ashes in her bag, Sutton had traveled to Amsterdam. None of them had ever been to Europe before (Amanda had never even been on a plane before). So they weren’t sure what to expect. Sutton felt uneasy about the whole trip.

When April heard her tale, she brought them straight to me and we immediately took the family under our wing. She shared her tale with the rest of the HT staff, ands we were so moved by her story that we gave them all free backstage passes and gift bags. Then, on Wednesday afternoon I said a few words about Keegan onstage at the Expo and brought Sutton up to tell her story. Then, right there onstage at the Expo, Sutton smoked her very first joint with me. Afterward, she hugged and thanked me, and her son welled up with emotion as I shook his hand.

“Being here, seeing how things are at this event and meeting all of you, I understand now why he wanted to come here,” she said. “Thank you all for being so kind and welcoming.”

Sutton said that meeting us put all of her anxieties and doubts to rest. That evening, on April’s recommendation, the family brought Keegan’s ashes to the city’s famous magere brug (“skinny bridge,” the same bridge under which April and had become engaged) and sprinkled Keegan’s ashes off the side into the canal.

After the Cup, I wrote about the experience in my column and life went on. But both Zach and Sutton had been profoundly affected by their experiences in Amsterdam: Sutton had learned about the difference between sativas and indicas, seen how many people marijuana helps people, and how caring the cannabis community can be. At the Cup, Zach had seen a side of his mom he’d never seen before, and when they got home he opened up to her and the two grew closer. The following July, the two fulfilled Keegan’s other dream when they jumped out of an airplane together on the one-year anniversary of his passing. Sutton also got her first and only tattoo -- an infinity ribbon with both Keegan and Zach’s names on it. A mother, bravely coping with and honoring the loss of her son … but tragically, Sutton’s sad story doesn’t end there. Upon arriving in Amsterdam this week, I discovered another heartbreaking email from Sutton in my inbox: She was on her way back to Cup -- this time, to scatter the ashes of her other son.

When I ran into her at the cafe across from the Roest on Monday morning, I choked back tears as I expressed to her my sympathies for her loss and sat down with her to find out what had caused her to lose her other son as unexpectedly as the first.
On January 13, 2013, Zach had suffered a massive stroke in their home. While the attack was sudden, it was not entirely unexpected -- Zach, she explained, suffered from a number of serious conditions and had been sick pretty much his whole life. At eight he was diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic, and at 13 with glumero nephrisytis (kidney disease) and morphia. Later at 17, he was diagnosed with systemic lupus, which they suspect may have caused many of his other conditions. Just a year ago, he’d had a heart attack -- requiring his fifth bypass surgery. He’d also been on dialysis since 2010 and was in need of a kidney transplant. For relief from all of these conditions, Zach turned to cannabis.

Zach had been the first minor to be approved for medical in San Diego when, at the age of 14, Zach underwent chemotherapy for two and a half years, and on the recommendation from his doctor, tried medical marijuana to treat it. At first they gave him Marinol, the THC pill, but it hit him too quick, made him too high too fast and gave him headaches, so he switched to regular cannabis, which helped him not only with his appetite but to sleep, and to get his dangerously high blood pressure under control.

“Medical marijuana saved Zach,” Sutton swears. Keegan, she told me, had been using medical marijuana -- it was the only thing that helped his nausea, migraines and insomnia. When last we’d spoke, Keegan’s cause of death was still unknown -- to her knowledge, he’d simply died in his sleep without explanation. Now, she told me what had happened:

Apparently, Keegan had faced serious drug problems growing up. He’d been exposed to prescription pills at an early age by his dad, who was addicted to opiates like Oxycontin. His dad had given him pills, which eventually led him to other drugs like meth and eventually heroin. By the beginning of high school, Keegan had become a full-blown addict. He was in such bad shape that Sutton had to remand him to foster care (a rehab home for juvenile addicts) to get him help. Luckily, it seemed to work -- Keegan had gotten clean and remained so for eight months. The only “drug” he was using only medical marijuana and doing very well. But after a bad fight with his girlfriend -- a woman 10 years his senior -- he became upset and relapsed, apparently smoking a fentanyl patch and overdosing. He stopped breathing sometime during the night -- ending his life three and a half weeks before his 18th birthday.

Awaiting a kidney transplant that might never come, Zach had already begun mentally preparing for death. Nobly, his main concern was not for himself, but for his mother.

“I’m not worried about me, he said…I’m worried about you,” he told Sutton, observing how hard she’d taken Keegan’s death. He was so concerned for her that he’d recently bought her a Bengal kitty (which they’d named Wonton), to provide her with some extra love and companionship.

Ironically, Sutton’s brother had turned out to be a match for the kidney, and the family was in the process of arranging for the transplant when Zach suffered his attack. After falling down suddenly, Sutton noticed his left side had become paralyzed. She called 911, helped him up and into the ambulance and raced to the hospital.

“Doctor’s didn’t diagnose it as a stroke at first -- they thought it was just a diabetic low. I asked for a TPA but they refused, insisting it wasn’t a stroke.” They induced a coma, and finally, after several scans and tests, they concluded that the injury was inoperable and that he didn’t have long to live.

“They told me to call people here now to say their goodbyes,” she recalls. After visits from family and friends, Sutton gave the word to turn off the life support and said her own goodbye to her son.

“I whispered to him that I loved him, that Keegan was waiting for him, and that he could go -- I’d be ok.” Mere moments later, Zach stopped breathing.

By this time, I was a blubbering mess. One can’t help but sympathize with this poor mother. Sutton’s strength and devotion is truly inspiring: despite this tragic emotional burden, she does the only thing she can do -- honor their memories.

So here she is -- back in Amsterdam to scatter Zach’s ashes at the same bridge she did his brother’s. Having now laid both of her sons to rest, she has but one more task: When she returns to the US, she plans to cross off the last item on Zach’s bucket list by going whitewater rafting down the Colorado River.
Though not a smoker herself, Sutton feels deeply indebted to marijuana -- having eased her sons’ suffering while they were alive and helping to bring meaning and closure to their untimely deaths, as well as a deep thankfulness towards HIGH TIMES for telling their story.

“I believe beyond any doubt that Keegan had a hand in my meeting you and April,” she says to me. “You’ve all been so caring, and I can’t tell you how much that meant to us.”

It’s meant a lot to us too, Sutton.