Story by Erin Hildebrandt
ANNAPOLIS, MD—It’s a unique and humbling experience to stand with the leaders and policy makers of Maryland, to witness the birth of new ideals and new hope for the patients of our state. On May 22, with my baby daughter in my arms, we watched Governor Robert Ehrlich sign the Darrell Putman Compassionate Use Act, reducing the penalty for possession of medical marijuana to a $100 fine, into law. All I could think as I approached his desk was, “Please God, don’t let me throw up on the governor!”
Having experienced the miracle of using medical marijuana to treat my Crohn’s disease, migraines, and hyperemesis gravidarum, a dangerous complication of pregnancy which frequently leads to malnutrition, I was a firm believer in the necessity of making it legally available. I had also enjoyed many college experiences with this fine herb, saw the enormous difference between its effects and the effects of alcohol, and believed in full legalization, even though I had very few facts to back up my beliefs.
My personal experiences have greatly shaped my views. My days used to be spent between bed, toilet, and doctors’ offices, with occasional trips to emergency and operating rooms for variety. Most of the time I was completely disabled by illness, unable to care for myself, let alone my family.
Cannabis changed all of this for me. After I’d exhausted what conventional medicine could offer and had been unable to eat for days, barely able to keep down water and nibbles of saltines, a friend suggested that marijuana could help. She offered me a few doses of the first medicine to provide me relief without devastating side effects. It just may have saved my life.
I became involved in marijuana-law reform just last year. After reading online about a demonstration in Washington, my husband, Bill, and I packed up the minivan and our five kids, and hit the road—but, completely unfamiliar with the DC area, we couldn’t find the protest.
I wrote to Hilary McQuie at Americans for Safe Access, who put me in touch with Kevin Zeese at Common Sense for Drug Policy, who warmly welcomed me into this wild world of activism. When he invited us to attend future demonstrations, I began to learn about Bryan Epis and the 10-year federal prison sentence he’s now serving for his humanitarian efforts to provide himself and other suffering patients with a safe source for their medicine. Late at night, Bill and I would discuss how this could be our family, and how we had to do more to stop this kind of injustice. The more we read about good people who were losing their livelihoods, possessions, and even their lives in our nation’s ridiculous pursuit of selective sobriety, the more our outrage increased.
Finally, Bill agreed to sacrifice a small part of his own freedom in order to make a statement about the obscenity of Epis’ sentencing. On Oct. 7, 2002, along with Chuck Thomas of Unitarian Universalists for Drug Policy Reform, Dave Guard of the Drug Reform Coordination Network, and Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project, Bill was arrested in front of the White House for refusing to obey the police and leave when he was told to do so. They had hoped to garner some press attention, but CNN appeared to be more committed to covering a hot-dog eating contest that day.
While the 2002 elections and this lack of concern in the press for medical-marijuana issues were terribly disappointing, we went on undaunted. I started a small Website, parentsendingprohibition.org. Though initially not very well organized, it was very helpful to me in learning about the issues surrounding cannabis prohibition, and how to more effectively communicate my ideas.
In January, I began hearing that there would be a bill introduced in our state that could legalize medical marijuana. Intrigued with the possibility I could help somehow, right here at home, I contacted Bruce Mirken at MPP and asked what I could do. Soon after, his colleague Larry Sandell asked if I would consider testifying before the Maryland Senate about my experiences. I was excited, but terrified.
For weeks, they worked with me, answering my many questions and giving me pep talks when I would panic. They were indispensable resources in an area that was terribly foreign to me. After all, I was just an ordinary “soccer mom.” It’s not too often that housewives find themselves standing before the state Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, in front of numerous people in police uniforms, explaining how they broke the law and that they’re very glad they did!
I arrived in Annapolis on February 26, prepared to speak to the committee. It was eye-opening to watch people like Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and State Senator Paula Hollinger present the bill to the committee and field their questions. One question posed involved the absurd tale of a woman whose baby had been “harmed” by “pot smoke drifting through an open window” from an apartment above. The senator demanded to know what provisions would be made to keep these newly legal medical users from being able to “poison” other people’s kids.
It was very difficult to keep from standing up and stating my disgust. I had traveled there to talk about the need in Maryland to stop arresting sick people for taking medicine, and this man was so afraid of marijuana that he couldn’t even recognize the absurdity of his question, nor could he comprehend the inhumanity of putting people like me in jail. His sole focus was his own reefer madness.
Nonplussed, Sterling took a deep breath and fired off statistics and studies showing that marijuana, in the example given, could not possibly harm a child. He went on to add that the bill before them would not make it legal to use marijuana in any public places nor in the presence of children; therefore, the point was moot. He then went back to discussing the real issues.
Considering that right now, an individual can legally chain-smoke cigarettes in a closed room with a child, the idea that we would prioritize a purely theoretical “danger” over basic human rights and dignities is pathetic. For every child who could be spared this sort of “risk,” there are millions of patients who suffer real harms and real dangers created entirely by marijuana prohibition.
One glaring example of the desire of some of the committee members to remain blind to the real issues came while I was waiting for my turn to be heard. I noticed two of the senators ignoring the people speaking in favor of perusing a copy of HIGH TIMES. This could have been a positive adjunct to their research into this issue. However, they missed vital testimony during their adolescent titillation with the magazine, and ultimately, both voted against the bill. This was a shameful display of childish arrogance and willful ignorance from two leaders from whom I would have expected better.
When it came time for me to speak, I was completely overwhelmed and intimidated. The last time I had spoken in front of a group of people was a decade before, at my wedding. Shaking, I approached the podium.
I decided all I had was the truth, and I’d emphasize both how disabling my diseases had been and the stark, cold terror I’d been forced to live with just to feel better. I can’t remember much of what actually came out of my mouth, but I pleaded with them to pass this bill, so people like me and my family wouldn’t be forced into this awful situation anymore.
Reporters started questioning me after I testified, and I realized I was supposed to come up with brief ways of saying why I was there. I hadn’t really thought much about these quotes that seemed routine for everyone else. I had all of these personal epiphanies running through my mind, and opinions about every aspect of this odd war on some drugs. It was very difficult to try to put my outrage into a two-sentence soundbite.
With editorial assistance from Mirken, I began writing letters to editors, and even had an op-ed article printed in the Baltimore Sun. My ordinary life has been turned upside down, with a little unexpected fame and a success with writing that’s opened up new worlds to me.
However, the finest moment of all was watching Shaleen Murphy, Darrell Putman’s widow, before the lights and cameras after the bill-signing, proclaiming victory in seeing the bill that bore her husband’s name finally signed into law. Putman was a cancer patient who used medical marijuana and lost his battle with the disease in 1999. His dear friend, former Delegate Donald Murphy, introduced a version of this bill in 2000 in his honor. Shay Murphy and everyone else supporting it agonized for three years, trying to make the elected officials understand how despicable it is to lock up people like Darrell Putman, before finding a legislature compassionate and educated enough to pass this bill.
Now, the patients in Maryland who benefit from the use of cannabis will no longer have to face state prison sentences for doing so. This is far from an ideal situation, but it’s an improvement. I’m very grateful to Governor Ehrlich for having the courage to do the right thing, in spite of pressure from the highest offices in the Bush administration to demand that he veto this bill. He stood by his campaign promises to protect the patients in his state, which gives me great hope he will do so again when we bring him a bill to end the arrests of patients next year.
I still have to live with the fear of having armed men raid my home, and all the dangers that entails, should I need my medicine again. With seven people and a cat, what are the chances no one would make a sudden move while their guns were drawn? Still, I firmly believe our best chance to see an end to these unjust laws is by simply living honestly and being unabashedly open about our medicine. In order to change hearts, our collective outrage must exceed our collective trepidation.
There is nothing inherently shameful about using marijuana. Cannabis is far safer than the dozens of drugs peddled to me by MDs, and one of the few medicines without any side effects that I mind experiencing. It quelled my nausea, reduced my pain, and made me want to eat and laugh again.
While they could arrest me, no judge or police officer can change the fact that locking me up, or others like me, doesn’t mean we did anything wrong. It’s time for our government to recognize that they’re filling our prisons with people just like themselves and their loved ones. Just like you and me.