Midwest compassion

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Marijuana: The green, green grass of home

Don’t want to get your pot from criminals? You have a choice: Become a criminal yourself

Phil Busse  04/28/2011 isthmus.com

It is a clear early spring evening, and Jack is walking along the perimeter of his south Madison property, pointing out where he grows marijuana. “You really have to look to see it,” says Jack, a pseudonym.

Jack is middle-aged, with trimmed, spiky gray-white hair and fluid, animated gestures; there is something slightly Steve Martin-adorable about him. A playful golden retriever nuzzles his hand, trying to get his attention. He lives in a beige, vinyl-sided house near a golf course, next door to a house that boasts a Prosser lawn sign, from the recent Supreme Court race.

“We cancel out each other’s votes,” he jokes, nodding in the direction of his neighbor’s house. Jack thinks some of his neighbors “may have a clue” that he grows pot in his backyard, but doesn’t seem too worried. He tells a story of a time when the neighbor’s new puppy was romping around his 10-by-10-foot garden plot, but no one said anything about the pot stalks mixed in with other plants.

“I trim them,” Jack explains, “It just looks like another tomato plant.”

Jack is one of an undetermined number of Madison-area residents who grow marijuana at their residence. The police aren’t willing to hazard a guess, but one active grower estimates there are at least 300 home-growers in Dane County — on a par with the number of area dentists.

Most, it is assumed, grow indoors, with environments controlled by heat lamps and simple irrigation systems. But Jack prefers growing his pot plants outdoors, primarily because he doesn’t want to explain an elaborate basement laboratory to his in-laws, who visit often.

Jack grows marijuana mostly for his own use, but he does give some to a childhood friend who suffers from a rare muscular disease. “I feel like I’m doing a community service,” he says. “It really eases his pain.”

Despite such noble impulses and the lack of any clear “victims” of his acts, Jack is engaging in illegal behavior that is commonly prosecuted as a felony offense — although prosecutors do sometimes charge low-level growers with simple possession, a misdemeanor.

Several times during our interview, Jack reiterates that he’s never sold any of the pot he’s grown. Federal forfeiture laws are such that if he is busted for selling marijuana — especially marijuana grown in his backyard — he could lose the house where he has lived for more than a quarter century.

But even short of those drastic penalties, Jack still risks hefty fines and jail time if the police were ever to sniff out his backyard hobby.

The penalties for growing marijuana in Wisconsin, a recent study found, are among the stiffest in the country. Cultivating as few as four plants can bring up to three years in prison. A more substantial operation, like Jack’s garden, could bring six years in prison and $10,000 in fines. And yes, even a single pot plant on your windowsill could land you in jail.

Wisconsin’s laws against growing pot have remained tough even as other states have relaxed their laws or decriminalized this activity over the past 15 years (see sidebar). Two years ago in Michigan, a solid 53% of voters approved removing criminal penalties from anyone growing marijuana for medical uses. And, in 2009, both houses of the Minnesota legislature approved a medical marijuana bill. But Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said to be eying a run for president, vetoed it.

Support for legalizing medical marijuana — and allowing doctor-approved patients to grow plants at home — continues to grow. An ABC/Washington Post poll reported that public support for the idea doubled from 22% in 1997 to 44% in 2009. Even Arizona, whose citizenry has backed conservative measures on immigration and gun laws, approved (by a razor-thin margin) an initiative to become the 15th state to allow medical marijuana. That initiative became law this month.

While Wisconsin’s laws remain stiff, the will to enforce them is decidedly less so — at least in Dane County. Local narcotic agents admit that busting small-scale home-growing operations is a low priority. Even though marijuana accounts for two-thirds of drug-related arrests statewide, fewer than 10% of those arrests have anything to do with growing the plant itself.

In early January, a 62-year-old resident of Madison’s Atwood neighborhood was busted for growing 166 plants in his single-story home with his 60-year-old girlfriend (“Close to Home,” 1/21/11). The couple apparently fell under suspicion for electricity bills that were tenfold normal. Police dogs didn’t even need to enter the couple’s home to sniff out the expansive growing operation and several pounds of harvested weed.

The man, Richard Braun, has been charged with three felonies. He’s claimed the marijuana was all for his personal medical use.

In April 2010, Madison police reported finding 628 marijuana plants worth $1.5 million to $3 million growing in a 1,500-square-foot basement on Madison’s southeast side. Curtis J. Faustich, 23, and Zachary A. Czerkas, 18, were arrested and charged with multiple felonies. The case was moved to federal court, where the penalties are stiffer; Faustich was sentenced to 33 months in prison, Czerkas to a year and a day.

Despite the risks, the practice of home-growing marijuana is so common that the University of Wisconsin Horticulture Society recently sponsored a seminar on it. On a chilly March evening shortly after spring break, a classroom in the botany building was packed with nearly 40 college students interested in absorbing this knowledge. Also present were two young men who recently returned from fighting in Iraq and were curious about what benefits marijuana could have for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Several pizza boxes sat empty on a front desk as the keynote speaker began his talk with a quick disclaimer.

“In no way do I personally endorse growing marijuana,” said the presenter, T.A. Sedlak, smirking slightly. Sedlak, a UW-Madison graduate and writer for marijuana-enthusiast magazines like High Times, repeated this disclaimer several times throughout his talk. He then went on to give step-by-step instructions on how to germinate seeds, strengthen stalks by gently having a fan blow over them, and reduce telltale marijuana smells with carbon air filter systems.

Then, in a final non-endorsement for home-growing pot, Sedlak said doing so “separates it from ‘blood weed,'” referring to the occasionally violent organized drug trade.

That medical marijuana — along with the freedom to grow it — isn’t legal in Wisconsin isn’t for lack of trying. Activists here have been pushing for change in this area for years.

In 1997, as California and a handful of other states began to legalize medical marijuana, Jacki Rickert trekked 210 miles from her doctor’s gravesite in central-western Wisconsin to the state Capitol — in her wheelchair. Along the way she gained media attention, and residents stood in their front lawns to cheer her along.

A 59-year-old grandmother, Rickert suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a painful disease that attacks the body’s connective tissues. About 30 years ago, after her weight dropped to a dangerously low 56 pounds, her doctor recommended marijuana. Today, she credits the drug with easing her joint and muscle pain, nearly doubling her weight and allowing her to live long enough to see her daughter give birth to twins.

Although Rickert’s trek failed to yield legislative changes at that time, she has continued to lobby officials and recruit supporters through her nonprofit organization, Is My Medicine Legal Yet? Her perseverance paid off during the last legislative session when Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) and Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Waunakee) cosponsored the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act.

“We were this close,” says local activist Ben Masel, holding his forefinger and thumb close enough to squeeze a tightly rolled joint.

“We had the votes,” adds Gary Storck, president of the state chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML). “But the bill never reached the floor for a vote.”

Masel and Storck are the Lennon and McCartney of the local marijuana movement. Storck, who has glaucoma, has tirelessly banged the drum for legalizing medical marijuana, while Masel has been the longtime point person and populist jester for Madison’s hemp festivals.

On a recent Monday evening, three round tables are pushed together in the basement at the Wil-Mar Community Center. The local chapter for NORML meets here every second and fourth Monday at 7 p.m. Masel, his kinky gray hair loosely pulled into a bulky ponytail, slumps into an old sofa; Storck sits across from him, his elbows on the table, alert and commanding the meeting.

About a dozen others are present, talking about an upcoming medical convention at Monona Terrace. They halfheartedly plan to protest the event because the Wisconsin Medical Society continues to deny the benefits of medical marijuana. The energy tonight is languid, but a year ago this was the war room, ground zero for a movement.

“We had three times as many people then,” says Storck, his eyes lighting up at the memory. Adds Masel, “People were coming from across the state.”

During the last legislative session, members from the local NORML chapter knocked on lawmakers’ office doors and cornered them in elevators, telling stories about multiple sclerosis patients finding relief with marijuana and about how pot helped smooth the rough edges of chemotherapy. Storck himself went to 80 offices, often accompanied by a friend with terminal lung cancer.

On a blustery day in December 2009, more than 100 medical marijuana supporters crowded onto the Senate floor to testify in support of the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act. Many were cancer patients or afflicted by crippling diseases themselves — and avid users of medical marijuana.

“A lot of these people could barely leave their beds, but they showed up to tell their stories,” says Storck.

It was the stuff of political underdog movies, when the little guy beats out the lobbyists in three-piece suits and when ideals triumph over jaded business-as-usual. But it didn’t turn out that way. Although its supporters believed they had enough pledged votes to pass the bill, it stalled in a public health committee. Storck blames state Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point), a member of the Senate Committee for Health.

“She closed her mind and her heart,” he concludes.

At the recent NORML meeting, the basement room goes quiet when Storck recollects the defeat. No one seems to know what more to add. For several long moments, the only sound is an air vent’s steady huffing.

Despite the bill’s failure, the activists had momentum and wide-reaching support. At Erpenbach’s urging, the activists spent last summer pursuing a voter initiative.

In November, that referendum passed with overwhelming support in Dane County and the city of River Falls, the two jurisdictions where it reached the ballot. In Dane County, where Democrat Tom Barrett drew 68% of the vote in his bid for governor, the referendum earned more than 75% voter approval.

“We only spent a few hundred dollars,” recounts Storck. “People were not voting on TV ads, but on an idea.”

After Gov. Scott Walker’s first State of the State speech in January, Storck positioned himself along the corridor he knew the governor would exit and planned to confront him about the voter referendum. A 12-second clip of the exchange, posted on YouTube, shows Walker coming from the chambers as Storck calls out, “Governor, medical marijuana in your term?”

Walker strides by without responding. In fact, no one in the governor’s entourage even looks in Storck’s direction.

The difficulty of making medical marijuana legal in Wisconsin is abundantly clear to people like Gary Storck.

“It is really hard to carry on,” admits Storck in a recent interview. He is sitting in a corner booth at Monty’s Blue Plate Diner wearing a bright blue sweatshirt that matches the blue tabletop. He sips an iced tea and orders three chocolate-chip cookies to go.

For the past 15 years, Storck has been a constant force lobbying for legalizing medical marijuana. But he’s frustrated that elected officials are not carrying forward what he believes is a clear message from constituents.

“People want it. We’ve established that,” Storck says. “But the politicians don’t get it.” His voice drops to a whisper. “We’re just stuck in place.”

The 56-year-old Storck has suffered from glaucoma from an unusually early age. He wears black-rimmed glasses, and his left eye swims toward his nose bridge. When he was 17, he discovered that marijuana eased the pain, and he’s convinced he still has his eyesight because it has become his medicine of choice.

Storck met Rickert shortly after he moved back to Wisconsin from California in the mid-’90s, and his personal beliefs about medical marijuana transformed into political advocacy. He has seen various medical treatments up close and worries about side effects from chemotherapy and other “harsh” prescription drugs.

“If someone you know is in severe pain, there isn’t anything that you would not do to help them out of it,” says Storck. “Even if it means breaking the law.”

And that’s the bottom line: For people in Wisconsin with AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma who believe marijuana helps ease their pain, there are currently two options: Either buy marijuana illegally or grow it illegally. And, ironically, it is a desire to avoid association with drug dealers that compels many people to grow their own. Says Storck, “It gets to the point where the ‘supply situation’ is so tough that people just take care of it themselves.”

Storck cites a case two years ago involving a woman with multiple sclerosis in Crawford, a small town south of La Crosse. The normal course of steroid treatment had left Christine Harrington with kidney and blood infections; as an alternative, her husband, a school janitor, started growing marijuana plants at home. A neighbor apparently tipped off police; he was busted, charged with a felony, and lost his job.

After telling this story, Storck is unusually quiet. He crosses his arms over his chest and leans back into the booth. “I’m just really mad,” he says and sighs. “I used to think that this was inevitable, but now I just don’t know.”

He then recomposes himself and leans forward.

“One day, and hopefully soon, the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act will pass,” Storck asserts. “I want to see it pass in her lifetime. My hope is it is passed in Jacki’s honor, not her memory.”

Blazing a trail to legalization

In 1977, Madison became one of the first municipalities in the nation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot. But in the 34 years since then, little has changed.

Elsewhere, medical marijuana has become readily accepted and legal.

In 1996, California voters approved the Compassionate Use Act, and the state became the first to allow marijuana for “medical necessity.” Users approved by a doctor were permitted — and continue to be allowed — to grow as many as six plants at home and to buy medical marijuana from dispensaries.

California law also lets dispensaries sell marijuana to individuals with doctor approval for a laundry list of ailments, including multiple sclerosis, AIDS, cancer, arthritis and migraines. The industry has grown so large that in Los Angeles there are as many medical marijuana dispensaries as Starbucks. Statewide, dispensaries conduct a brisk $1 billion-plus business annually and funnel a reported $100 million each year into the state’s tax rolls.

Between 1996 and 2000, during the final term of Bill “I did not inhale” Clinton’s presidency, seven states followed California’s lead. All but Hawaii passed medical marijuana laws by voter initiatives; the closest vote, in Oregon, sailed through with 55% voter approval.

In 2000, Attorney General John Ashcroft encouraged federal agents to raid dispensaries, perhaps most famously in 2003 when the Drug Enforcement Administration’s so-called Operation Pipe Dream snagged 54 distributors, including Tommy Chong, half of the stoner cinematic odd couple. Chong also sits on the advisory board for NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), the leading advocacy group for medical marijuana. He was sentenced to nine months in federal prison and fined more than $100,000.

Even so, during President George W. Bush’s tenure, Maryland, Vermont and Montana all approved medical marijuana laws.

More recently, in the past two years since the federal government has relaxed enforcement of marijuana laws, legislators in New Jersey and even the District of Columbia itself have decriminalized medical marijuana, and voters in Michigan and Arizona have passed initiatives allowing home cultivation of up to six plants.

In all, 15 states currently allow doctor-approved patients to produce or purchase medical marijuana.

On Saturday, April 30, NORML will lead a “cannabis freedom rally,” an annual march in favor of legalizing medical marijuana, from the state Capitol, down State Street and to the Mifflin Street Block Party. The event begins at noon; speakers will include Gary Storck, T.A. Sedlak and Charles Wachtel of Wisconsin Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access.

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