Emotional stories fuel intensity of medical marijuana fight

By John Lantigua

For many Floridians, including Palm Beach County residents, the debate over medical marijuana is intensely personal.

Amendment 2, which would expand the use of medical marijuana in the state, is on the Nov. 4 ballot. John Morgan, the Orlando lawyer who has pumped $4.7 million into supporting the measure, has told journalists of seeing his own cancer-stricken father twisted into the fetal position, hallucinating from pain and prescription drugs. A family member suggested marijuana.

His father didn’t want to use it, “but he did,” Morgan told ABC News, Tampa. “He had his appetite back. His nausea was gone. His anxiety disappeared and his pain was reduced. So we saw it.” He said his father eventually succumbed to the illness but was able to die with dignity.

On the opposing side is Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has donated $2.5 million to the Drug Free Florida Committee, which is bankrolling the “Vote No on 2” campaign. Adelson’s adopted son, Mitchell, died of a drug overdose in 2005 and his wife works in drug interdiction.

‘He picked up dead soldiers’

Statewide director for the Vote No on 2 cause is Jessica Spencer, an Orlando area drug intervention specialist who spoke last week in Delray Beach. She tells the harrowing story of her father, Jeffrey, a Vietnam veteran who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“He flew helicopters over there,” says Spencer, 39. Among other assignments “he picked up dead soldiers. At home he smoked marijuana every day to deal with the PTSD from that experience, but in his case, it didn’t work.

“I was the one who walked into the backyard and found him with the gun in his mouth,” she says. “He was dead.” That was 1982.

Spencer believes passage of Amendment 2 will lead more people to seek relief in marijuana when what they really need are other forms of treatment.

In Palm Beach County, people on both sides of the issue also have their personal stories.

Michael Swannick, 53, of Boca Raton, was a police officer with the Triborough Bridge Authority in New York City at the time of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. He worked in the area of Ground Zero for days afterward and was later diagnosed with thyroid and kidney cancers and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from toxic refuse in the air. Over the years, he also developed degenerative spinal disease, which caused serious pain. He retired in 2010 and moved to Boca Raton in 2012.

60 percent of pain gone

He says he was unable to sleep because of the spinal pain. Taking more prescription opiate drugs upset his stomach and kept him from eating. Then he spoke to another ill police veteran who smoked pot to tame his symptoms.

“I was surprised to learn that a person like him would use marijuana,” Swannick says. “At first I said, ‘No.’ I didn’t want to do it. But then I had three or four bad nights in a row and I decided to perform my own trial. I took one hit of the marijuana and a couple of minutes later 60 percent of the pain was gone.”

Swannick could sleep and now smokes marijuana before going to bed almost every night. He supports Amendment 2.

“This will help people,” he says. “You should be able to go to your physician, talk about this and not worry about prosecution.”

For Gail, 53, of Lantana, an accountant and mother, the chronic problem is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in her digestive tract and makes her skin overly sensitive to pollen and dust so that she itches constantly.

“It got to the point that I couldn’t sleep,” says Gail, who asked that her last name not be used. “It affected my ability to work. I developed anxiety over it and I went down to 97 pounds. My daughter graduated from college a couple of years ago and I barely made it out of state to attend her graduation. People would say to me, ‘Have a drink and calm down,’ but alcohol only makes it worse.”

Gail takes a prescription medication, eats an anti-inflammatory diet and does meditation to calm her body.

“But when things get really bad, when I have a flare-up, I smoke some pot or eat an edible,” she says, referring to edible marijuana. “It reduces the intensity of the attack. It’s my last resort.”

Gail has gained 13 pounds and is back working part time. She says the day a legal, non-euphoric marijuana extract exists to treat her condition, she will buy it. But for now, she supports Amendment 2.

For David Elowitz, 57, of Boca Raton, who works in retail, it was prostate and bladder cancer, and later two hernia surgeries, that led him to marijuana to reduce pain. He says the opiate-based drugs he was prescribed were leaving him lethargic and without an appetite.

“Friends recommended marijuana,” he says. “I was anti-drug, but I decided to try it. Right away the pain was gone and my weight started to come back.” He used it while he needed it, but says he no longer does. “If I ever confront something like that again, I’ll go back to it.”

But there was an aspect of the experience that bothered him.

“The way I had to buy it wasn’t good,” he said. “I had to go into a park and buy from someone I didn’t know. I had no idea what might happen. That’s why I support Amendment 2, so that people can buy it legally and not have to go through that.”

Opponents of Amendment 2 also have their personal reasons.

‘We have to help the kids’

Marilyn, 80, of Palm Beach — who asks that her last name not be used — donated $1,000 to stop Amendment 2. She says she did so after receiving a phone call from an old friend.

“Her son at one point had a bad time due to drugs,” she says. “I remember when it happened. Now he’s better. He’s grown, married and has children. But back then, he had bad problems. My friend she called me and said, ‘We have to stop this amendment to help kids.’ ” So she and her husband wrote the check.

“There is nothing political about this,” she said. “For me, this is personal.”

For Malcolm Beyer, 75, of Jupiter Inlet, owner of a software firm, his $5,000 donation to oppose Amendment 2 was also provoked by personal experience. Beyer refuses to go into detail, but will say only that his story concerns “someone who was badly affected” by use of marijuana, someone close to him.

“I am involved in this because I have felt what marijuana is doing to our kids,” he says.

In addition to his donation to the Florida campaign, Beyer also contributed money so that researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of Iowa could collaborate on studies that measured the effects of marijuana on young, developing brains. Other such studies have shown that frequent use of marijuana by teenagers and young adults can reduce intelligence quotients.

Beyer also belongs to an organization called the National Student Drug Testing Advisory Council, which promotes drug testing for junior high school and high school kids. Supporters of Amendment 2 say its passage won’t lead to increased use by minors because only people certified by physicians will be able to purchase it, but Beyer doesn’t believe it.

“Do you really think the pushers selling it now will turn into monks?” he asks He believes marijuana will be easier to acquire, that current sellers will continue to sell to minors and also start pedaling stronger drugs, if they don’t already.

Beyer, given his own experience, believes the vote in November is a key moment for Florida and the fight against marijuana use.

“The lion is at the door,” he says.


© 2014 Cox Media Group

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