FEATURE: High Hopes

By on August 11, 2015

How one woman is leading the battle to legalize weed in Wyoming

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Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Chris Christian does not seem like your typical advocate for the decriminalization of marijuana. The 66-year-old grandmother is a participant in what she calls “old ladies ballet class.” With glasses and short white hair, Christian’s bright smile and approachable manner might remind one of cookies baking in the oven and games of bridge played on patios. But there she is, leader of Wyoming’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law (NORML), which is a grassroots organization fighting to legalize marijuana for both medicinal and recreational use in Wyoming.

Beginning Friday, Christian, with NORML advocates in tow, will launch a statewide campaign to garner enough signatures to land the Wyoming Marijuana Legalization Initiative (WMLI) on the November 2016 ballot.  If it makes it there, Cowboy State voters will have the opportunity to make Wyoming the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana.

Christian says she has a hard time understanding what separates marijuana so dramatically from other substances. “It’s a plant,” she said. “I won’t even classify it as a drug.” In her opinion, when it really comes down to it, regulation of marijuana usage should not be up to Gov. Matt Mead or state representatives or even popular vote. Personal bias, Christian says, should never inform expert opinion, and as she sees it that is exactly what has happened.

But dismantling the ingrained ideology that has made cannabis a schedule I controlled substance (i.e. no medical use, highest potential for abuse), is a difficult task. Christian finds herself constantly running in top gear to defend her cause. The hoops she must jump through just to get the initiative on the ballot by next year are nearly insurmountable. The process has taken years so far, and it is not over yet.

More than 27,500 signatures. Those are how many autographs Christian still needs to get the initiative on the ballot.

“If they could make it more difficult, I think they would,” she says of her fight with the legal system. After all of the bureaucratic hoops she has had to jump through so far just to present the initiative to the secretary of state, 27,500 signatures still stand in her way before WMLI can even face its fate before the voters. And not just any signature will do. Those signatures must belong to registered Wyoming voters. If she reaches that goal, Christian will have recorded the legal signature of more than one out of every 10 citizens in the state.

Christian says NORML is doing everything it can to raise awareness. Like all grassroots campaigns, word of mouth is its most important tool. Christian has also created a GoFundMe page to raise enough money for her campaign, and with the nearly $7,500 the cause has generated, she has purchased bracelets, flyers, posters, ad slots with radio stations, notices in newspapers, booths at county events and the supplies for a strategic awareness campaign spreading by mail, Facebook, and word of mouth. The tactics are endless, but Christian says the energy levels are not always there to match it. It is hard work running such a consuming campaign, but for Christian it is worth it.

“I’ve believed in this for 25 years,” she said. “I’ve thought people should have access to this plant for that long.” Still, that doesn’t seem to make the waiting game any easier. First, the organization NORML had to form a committee of petitioners to present a bill to the secretary of state. That bill had to be written in the exact language and form it would appear in as law when it went to vote. Next, the liquor board needed to review the bill in order to put forth a fiscal impact statement, after which the bill was sent to the printers, where it was proofed and then sent back to the secretary of state. After he reviewed the bill, it was released back to NORML in order to gather signatures.

Christian has endured through the frustration and bureaucracy, through all of the long hours and expenses and all of the campaigning and explaining and fear of being arrested because she believes this is something that can help people. Not just people who directly suffer from crippling symptoms marijuana seems to ease, she also points to statistics concerning suicide rate, family violence and drunk driving. “In states where marijuana has been legalized, they’ve all gone down,” she said, “and in a state like Wyoming, with the highest suicide rate in the United States, I think that’s something we should look at very closely.”

According to a study published by JAMA Internal Medicine, states that have passed medicinal marijuana see a 25 percent decrease in death by overdose on prescription pain medications such as Oxycontin and Vicodin. Researchers say this could be because patients in those areas are using marijuana to treat their pain rather than more habit-forming, dangerous drugs.

The American Journal of Public Health performed research on males ages 20 to 29 and 30 to 39, studying the relationship between these age groups and the passage of medical marijuana. Findings were not considered conclusive, but in states where medical marijuana is legal there is an almost 11 percent decrease in suicides among males age 20 to 29 and a more than 9 percent decrease among males 30 to 39. Scientists having concluded that there is almost assuredly a relationship between marijuana and stress relief that might present itself in a decrease in suicide rate.

Christian is willing to concede that drug overdoses misclassified as suicides might account for some of the numbers in these reports, but decreasing the number of deaths by overdose, she says, is just as important.

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The green life

As the Director of Wyoming NORML, Christian has placed herself in a position to hear the stories of those who have benefited from medical and recreational marijuana, counting herself as one of the hundreds of people in Wyoming that say marijuana has improved her quality of life.

“I myself was addicted to painkillers,” she said. “In the 1990s I hurt my back pretty badly and the doctors had me on all of this medication, and I lost myself. I never felt awake or alert enough to do anything anymore, so in Washington State I used marijuana to break the habit. It eased my pain and helped me sleep through the night for the first time in a long time, and I’m not the only one. There are so many stories like that.”

Christian is eager to share the accounts of those she has met that would benefit from the decriminalization of marijuana, such as folks like Sheryl Hendricks, a registered nurse in Cheyenne with diabetes. Hendricks likes to point out that since her last doctor’s appointment she is now classified as “pre-diabetic.”

“I am not saying I was suicidal back then, I just didn’t want to live anymore,” Hendricks said of her life before she started taking CBD oil (a derivative of cannabis). “The doctors said I had COPD, that’s Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, but I never accepted that,” she said, pausing to retrieve her oxygen tube.

“At one point, I was completely off the assistance of oxygen, too. But I got pneumonia. I’m hoping to wean myself off of it again soon. But as I was saying, four years ago I was nearly 400 pounds with full-blown diabetes, and I just didn’t want to keep existing like that.”

Hendricks was on 10 medications at the time, but the worst she says was Cymbalta, one of several prescription medications her doctor prescribed in order to treat her chronic depression. But without health insurance she couldn’t always afford the drug.  Hendricks experienced a cycle of severe withdrawal symptoms that would send her crashing into a state of reclusive depression.

It was one of those cycles, Hendricks recalled, that left her in a state desperate enough to pray. “’Lord,’ I said, ‘I just don’t want to live like this anymore,” she said. “Please, just take me home.’” The next day she woke up with what she says was a very surprising idea.

“I just could not stop thinking about the word ‘cannabis,’ over and over in my head,” Hendricks said. So she researched the topic, reading anything she could get her hands on – most of it “extremely biased propaganda.” In the end, she settled on asking her daughter for a joint.

Though Hendricks’ daughter seemed to think the entire interaction was a little peculiar, she gave her mom the joint, and things have been different for her ever since.

In her research, Hendricks came across CBD oil, and that is what she has taken for the last four years. “It takes just a few drops,” she said. “I was sprinkling it on my food, and I lost 70 pounds in seven months. I went from being oxygen-dependent to being able to breathe on my own. I went from full-blown diabetes to not having diabetes. I haven’t been off of depression medication in my entire adult life until now,” said Hendricks as her voice changed, as though she was considering whether anyone could find her story believable.

“I’ve stopped losing the weight,” Hendricks continued, ready to reveal her failures with the herb as quickly as she shared its successes, “because I can’t take the oil anymore. I started having panic attacks, because the THC levels are too high.” That is one misconception Hendricks wants to dispel: this is not about the buzz. What she really wants, more than anything, she says, is to feel better and to be healthier. If she could get the CBD oil without any THC, that is the way she would take it.

The Stanley Brothers’ “Charlotte’s Web” cannabis is exactly what Hendricks is looking for. The Stanley Brothers have bred a strain of marijuana that is high in CBD and low in THC, providing all of the medicinal benefits without the psychoactive repercussions. The Stanley Brothers own one of Colorado’s largest dispensaries, and at first had a very difficult time finding buyers for this new strain of marijuana. However, now that it has been benefiting children across the country, they are practically giving it away.

“Have you heard some of the stories?” Hendricks asked excitedly. “Children with epilepsy from all over the country, they’re going from having 10, 20, some of them hundreds of seizures a week to none. It’s a crime. That’s what it is. It’s a crime against humanity that we’ve kept this from people for so long.”

Hendricks’ doctor is not so convinced that CBD oil is the answer. When Hendricks went in for her last appointment, under the pretense of full disclosure, she attributed her dramatic weight loss, the control of her diabetes and her unprecedented relief from depression to her self-medication. Her doctor told her that a more likely scenario was that Hendricks was eating better and practicing a more healthful lifestyle.

Hendricks scoffs at this, saying she has not changed her diet at all. In fact, by some miracle, even though she can no longer take her dose of marijuana due to its psychoactive effects, she has kept the weight off, and has been able to maintain her status as pre-diabetic. “It fixed something in me,” she said. “I feel better than I’ve felt in years.”

Christian loves these stories. In fact, she thrives on them. Without the support of women like Hendricks, her campaign would lose traction and meaning.

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When nothing else helps

Deborah Palm-Egle has battled alongside Christian for marijuana decriminalization for years. Palm-Egle is a Wyoming native who has suffered from multiple sclerosis for more than 30 years. The disease, which affects more than 400,000 people in the United States alone, and some 2.5 million around the world, has left her blind in one eye with limited mobility and more than 100 lesions on her brain.

“But I’m not getting worse,” Palm-Egle said, “In fact, I feel unstoppable.” With this new lease on life, Palm-Egle spends her free time traveling the world and championing the legalization cause, speaking out about the injustice and expense of imprisoning marijuana users and lobbying for deregulation and amnesty.

After other treatments stopped working back in the 1990s, Palm-Egle says a doctor – who could not legally prescribe it at the time – suggested she try medicinal marijuana. “I was running around on the streets, talking to drug dealers, well, maybe not ‘drug dealers,’ but I was basically getting ditch weed and using it to treat myself,” she said.

After Colorado legalized marijuana medically and recreationally, Palm-Egle was able to obtain high-quality cannabis that she now grows herself at a second home in Colorado. It was this step that she says changed her life. The street weed she was initially taking in the 90s compared to the organic marijuana she now grows has proven exponentially more beneficial to her.

“I don’t know if you know a lot about MS, but in the later stages, people start to get lesions on their brains, and those lesions start to fuse,” she said. “I have over 100 lesions on my brain and not a single one has fused. Now, I can only go back with MRIs 10 years, but since I started taking high-quality cannabis, I have not had a single additional lesion, I’ve regained my mobility, and I am generally healthier.”

There is no research to back up Palm-Egle’s assertion that her symptoms have ceased to progress from smoking weed, which she finds just as frustrating as the fact that possessing her medication classifies her as a criminal in Wyoming. If anything, she hopes that cannabis will be legalized to allow research in the future.

Palm-Egle has in a way been outed as a compassionate source of medical marijuana since her niece, who passed away from cancer in 2009, needed edibles to help her in the days following her many painful chemo treatments. Palm-Egle said it seemed to be the only thing that could help her sleep, or cause her to have any sort of an appetite. Word got around that Palm-Egle had access to marijuana, and to this day she brings edibles to people suffering from cancer to ease their suffering when nothing else seems to help.

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The sober opposition

These sorts of stories are what Jackson resident Shelley Simonton takes with a grain of salt. Simonton is the executive director of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, and currently resides as one of 20 members on Mead’s task force to explore the repercussions of marijuana decriminalization.

The task force is predominantly comprised of state department heads. The Department of Agriculture, Health, and Education, as well as parties like the Highway Patrol and Department of Revenue are all compiling reports and projections to present to the governor, attempting to predict the repercussions of marijuana legalization.

“We’re not looking for anecdotes,” Simonton said. “That seems like a lot of what people use to defend their stance on cannabis. The governor is a former attorney, and that informs the way he processes information.” Simonton said the task force was put together to present defensible, data-driven reports to help the governor and constituents make more informed decisions.

“It is such a complicated topic,” Simonton said. “Everyone wants to simplify it. They want to say medicinal marijuana is good. It helps people with cancer, but that’s not based on a holistic view of society. There are so many things that go into it. There are so many things people don’t consider, like how the department of education must adapt to regulate these things; or the highway patrol; how this is taxed.”

Simonton’s list went on, but mostly she wants to stress that decriminalization of marijuana is incredibly new. In a society now accustomed to instant gratification, she says Wyoming’s decision to glean knowledge before acting rashly might seem antiquated, but will ultimately serve the state’s best interest.

Jackson Mayor Sara Flitner had little comment, saying that with other pressing issues, she did not believe that spending a lot of time on the subject of marijuana was in Jackson’s best interest. However, Flitner acknowledged that legal alternatives, like medical marijuana, could be a tool for some, especially when other treatments aren’t working. She revealed that her own sister had lost her husband after a painful battle with pancreatic cancer. “Having legal access to anything that would have eased their agony would have been a relief,” she said.

Mead is not so convinced. While he is invested in putting aside preconceptions as his study of marijuana decriminalization continues, his spokesperson, Seth Waggener told The Planet, “Gov. Mead believes Wyoming suffers because of substance abuse and is against adding another substance that could add to that existing problem.”

Beyond the disputed medical benefits, a look at the financial fruits across the country is persuasive enough for some. Marijuana is the largest cash crop in the states of Alaska, Alabama, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. During Colorado’s first year of legal recreational marijuana, the state generated $53 million in tax revenue. Washington State had an even better year, raking in more than $70 million in tax revenue since it decriminalized marijuana. Some analysts project Washington State might generate nearly $1.9 billion in tax revenue over the first five years of marijuana’s passage. Alaska, Oregon, and Washington D.C. are looking to generate similar numbers in the future.

Although Flitner acknowledged that pot might help ease the pain of some, she applauds the governor’s efforts to garner data on the repercussions of marijuana deregulation, “Especially to the extent we could create a new revenue stream for the state,” she said. But this line of thinking brings to surface another one of the many questions Simonton has about the future of cannabis: Is this actually a viable revenue stream? With the increase in policing, new education in schools, unknown health effects, and the impact on agriculture, would this turn out to be a sustainable source of income for the state? And should that dictate to any extent marijuana’s legality?

Flitner does not seem to think so, as she allows the concerns of revenue streams and fiscal responsibility to trickle into the background. “As long as we can keep kids safe,” she said, “doctors legally prescribing pot to patients would be just like any other patient/doctor conversation: none of my business.”

This is expressly Christian’s point. As she stands, stoop-shouldered over the last of hundreds of cannabis-covered informative flyers, she hopes that NORML can effect historic change in the Cowboy State. She hopes that people who are suffering might find themselves slightly more at ease. And she hopes that maybe cannabis will find its place as an herb, a medicine, a building material and a fuel source in Wyoming.

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