By Terrance Turner
The past six months have seen a surprisingly strong advancement of the movement for legalization of marijuana. Changes have occurred on every level of government: California, Massachusetts, and Nevada all voted to legalize recreational use in the November 2016 elections. (It was already legal in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Alaska, according to the Business Insider.) Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota passed ballot initiatives for medicinal use. That brings the total number of states who have legalized medical marijuana to 29.
Locally, a diversion program proposed by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg took effect March 1st. If caught with under four ounces of marijuana, offenders could take a four-hour, $150 “cognitive decision-making class” and avoid jail time. (The policy does not affect those caught with the drug within school zones or to those with intent to sell, however. Nor does it apply to those on bond or probation.) There is also statewide movement on the subject: six cannabis-related bills are now in various stages through the Texas Legislature. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is seeking both public and congressional support for the bills’ passage.
Accordingly, NORML held the Global Marijuana March on Saturday, May 6. The Houston branch of the group held its version at City Hall. The event featured live performances, massage chairs, and vendor booths with products ranging from air freshener sprays to lotions to T-shirts. But it also featured some memorable speeches.
Activist and community organizer Tarah Taylor emphasized the incremental victories that have been won over the past few months: “I ran one of the biggest field campaigns to reform the criminal justice system here in Harris County. We were able to elect a new sheriff that won’t arrest people for small amounts of marijuana. We were able to elect a new DA who won’t be charging and convicting people [for possessing] small amounts of marijuana.” She reminded the crowd of the importance of the fight: “Medical marijuana is on its way in Texas. We’re going to save lives. There are people here right now today who are really sick, and we have got to fight to make sure that they get the care and the medication that they need to live their full lives.”
Taylor also outlined the goals that are left to achieve. Once medicinal use was legalized, she said, it was time to work toward full legalization. Taylor also advocated that tax dollars from marijuana sales be used to fund schools. “We need to make sure that minorities can open dispensaries,” she continued, adding that those with prior possession offenses should be allowed to do that as well. Legalization would win back Texans who had moved to states like Colorado, she proclaimed — “bring those Texans home!”
Amanda Berard, who works with NORML in Austin and is a pediatric nurse in San Antonio, emphasized the science supporting legalization. “As an Army veteran and a medical professional with an extensive background in cannabis research, it is an overwhelming privilege to be standing here,” she began. “I share an overarching commonality with every single one of you here: I want legal access to cannabis.” She had a compelling reason for that access: “Like so many other veterans, I live with PTSD.”
She spent a year traveling through Colorado and Texas talking to other veterans and “medical marijuana refugees” about their experiences with cannabis — and its ability to help with PTSD symptoms. “I failed to find a single person who did not find relief with cannabis,” she said. The results didn’t surprise her: a study published in the medical journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience found that cannabis did indeed relieve symptoms by working on endocannabinoid receptors in the brain.
The speaker then shared her personal experience: “I’m overprescribed pharmaceuticals by the VA. I take 11 prescriptions every single day, and they do not help. The side effects of these drugs affect my quality of life. But cannabis enhances my quality of life.” She added that it was important to transcend differences and unite: “We may be labeled as a vulnerable population; we may be stereotyped by our afflictions or our presentation. But make no mistake: we are a strong force in Texas because we stand together.”
Next was the Veteran Outreach Director in Montgomery County NORML. She began by asking people to raise their hands if they had ever taken one of the following drugs: Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Seroquel (?), Xanax, Ambien, oxycodone, hydrocodone, Percocet, and Vicodin. “I’ve taken all these,” she said, “and cannabis has replaced every one for me.”
On her shoulder was the number 22+, a reminder of an unsettling statistic. “22 represents a rough number of veterans who commit suicide every day,” she said. The plus sign indicates that the actual number is almost certainly higher (she says 54). The figure does not involve accidental deaths or overdoses, and only 21 states reported data for that statistic. Texas was not among them. The speaker used that stat as a prelude to a surprising story.
“This medication has changed my life,” she told the crowd. “My World War II uncle did an intervention after he watched me drink six punch cups of Jack Daniels, like shots. And when he asked me why, he didn’t have a security clearance high enough for me to tell him why. But he told me this story: the day he survived D-Day, French soldiers smoked cannabis with him, and told him it would make the day easier to bear, although it would not go away.” If he found himself reliant on painkillers and alcohol, they told him, he should use marijuana instead. Years later, he imparted that advice to his niece, and she reluctantly agreed.
Later, the former veteran revealed painful secrets that she says she hid for 35 years. “I am a survivor of military sexual trauma. On my first week on my first base, I was beaten and raped by an Iranian pilot, so badly I could not have children. I was given a direct order to tell no one — including my own mother — why I could not have children.” The aftermath of the assault was so painful, she said, that she attempted suicide with painkillers. She survived: “God obviously had a plan for me.”
She was sent to Houston in March 2011 to have treatment at the Wiser Center in Houston. However, she chose to be treated at a veteran center, which she says helped her: “They don’t give us pills. They give us good, honest therapy.” She urged veterans: “Get yourself to a vet center.” She chose the center at the behest of her therapist, an improbably named woman who changed everything. “My therapist’s name is Crystal Justice, and she has saved my life. When they told me I couldn’t work and I said, ‘What am I gonna do?’ she said, ‘Become a cannabis activist here in Texas. Use the government’s money against them to change the law.’ And by God, that’s what I’ve done.” She went to Austin to testify in favor of marijuana-related laws, and she has participated in three legislative sessions so far. She implored the crowd to be just as active.
Hunter White, the communications director for Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), also spoke at the event. RAMP is a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing reform of marijuana laws, he explained. White announced that the current federal budget has extended federal protections for medical marijuana. The Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration will not be able to prosecute growers, sellers, or users of medical cannabis. This applies to the two dozen states (plus D.C.) that have legalized it. White also praised HB 81, a Texas House bill that makes possession of one ounce or less of pot a civil penalty with a fine no more than $250. He called the bill “good, fiscally conservative state policy designed to save $740 million a year.”
Arguably, the most powerful moment of the day occurred after the 30-minute march. NORML member LaTonya Whittington gave a moving testimonial about her battle with trigeminal neuralgia. (It’s a rare and incurable chronic pain condition affecting the trigeminal nerve inside the head. The disease causes extreme, sporadic, sudden, and burning facial pain that can last up to two minutes. The pain can be triggered by eating, drinking, or speaking.)
The pain was so severe, Whittington said onstage, that she considered suicide. After a year and a half, she had surgery in late 2016 to treat the pain. But the operation left her with noticeable scarring and cysts that caused nausea and vomiting. Doctors said that removing the cysts would give her meningitis (an inflammation of protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord).
Desperate for relief, Whittington turned to smoking, edibles and CBD oil. “I use cannabis to heal myself,” she said, adding that she didn’t care who knew it. (Police officers were nearby eating lunch, which made Whittington’s candor all the more remarkable.) She shone a light on racial disparities in marijuana prosecution and appealed specifically to the African-American community. “A lot of us are scared because of the Jim Crow law,” she said, evoking the discriminatory laws against black Americans that predated the civil rights movement. “But we need to come out, and that’s why I’m a part of NORML — for the black face.”
Whittington urged members of the black community to join NORML: “We have a voice too!” She called for an end to racial profiling: “We’re tired of getting pulled over just because we’re black in a car [and they’re] looking for weed.” (An ACLU study from 2010 found that blacks are nearly three times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than whites, despite similar rates of usage.) “I want it to stop. I’ve been to Austin three times to lobby. I’ve testified twice, and these people will continue to see me every time. They will see my black face there. And sometimes I’m the only black person there, and I’m going to continue to do it. I’m not going to stop.” She concluded with a call for racial unity: “I want to ask everybody — white, Hispanic, Italian — everybody. Let’s get this done. If we all get together and fight together, we can do this. Anything can be done if we fight together.”