Southeast Missouri Parent Advocates For Medicinal Marijuana
Brandy Johnson has done everything she can to take care of her son, Tre. The Bernie, Mo. mother didn’t expect Tre to live through the night when he was born with a rare medical condition called diprosopus, or cranial duplication. Ten years later, Tre is still with her but the condition causes severe epilepsy.
“He’s died in my arms twice so it’s really scary whenever he does have hard seizures cause I never know when he’s going to stop breathing,” Johnson said. “We have to resuscitate him quite often.”
At one point, Tre would have more than 300 seizures daily.
Tre’s seizures have improved with the use of very risky medications and treatments, like being surgically implanted with a vagus nerve stimulator, similar to a pacemaker, which shocks Tre every 20 seconds for 7 seconds at a time. This is used to lessen the severity of his seizures, but the device is turned up as far as Tre’s body can handle and he still experiences around 120 to 200 seizures daily.
“Every single seizure medication that he’s been on, the side effects could result in death,” Johnson said. “This is something I wouldn’t have to worry about with medical marijuana.”
Some drugs that Tre has taken, like Topamax, have had severe side effects. On Topamax, Tre couldn’t be in direct sunlight for too long because it could cause a stroke and it also kept Tre dehydrated.
Johnson also said every medication he’s tried, expect for one, caused him to sleep for a few days on end. But unfortunately none of these forms of treatment have lasted longer than a few weeks. Johnson said they have tried everything else known to treat epilepsy.
Now, Johnson is fighting for medical marijuana in Missouri. Otherwise, she said, she might have to move to Colorado or another state with legal marijuana in order to get treatment for her son. Johnson said in some cases of epilepsy, children have gone from hundreds of seizures a day to a few every month using medical marijuana treatments.
Missouri has taken some baby steps towards loosening its marijuana laws.The General Assembly passed a bill this session that allows the medical use of cannabis oil for children with epilepsy. In a massive bill that overhauls the state’s criminal code, legislators eliminated jail time for first time offenders caught in possession of under 10 grams of marijuana. Both bills wait Governor Jay Nixon’s signature to become law. The two measures are miles away a medical marijuana law such as the one in Illinois and 19 other states, much less full recreational legalization as seen in Colorado.
Debra Holzhauer, an associate professor of political science at Southeast Missouri State University, believes marijuana is no more of a gateway drug than cigarettes or alcohol. She said if anyone has an addictive personality they are going to get addicted to something, but there are ways to regulate marijuana.
“There is very much a stigma associated with it now and we think of it as a gateway drug,” Holzhauer said. “But at the same time, tell me alcohol can’t be a gateway drug.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 88,000 alcohol-related deaths each year. There is no recorded death in history directly from marijuana use.
Holzhauer believes part of the reason lawmakers are reluctant to legalize is the details involved with regulation and possible field sobriety testing. The other problem is that marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.
“You have a lot of banks that are very hesitant with working with this industry, these stores and whatnot because of the fact that it’s still, according to federal law, an illegal drug,” Holzhauer said. “There’s going to have to be some type of change at the federal level in reclassifying the drug.”
Holzhauer said with current the legislature she does not foresee legalization on a federal level any time in the near future. While Holzhauer has never used marijuana recreationally or otherwise, as a personal opinion she believes it should be legalized for Missouri. She said Missouri’s government could benefit from legalization through taxes and generate revenue in other ways.
“I know that Colorado right now is doing quite well with regards to revenues that are being generated through legalization of marijuana,” Holzhauer said. “There’s revenues that you can make. There’s also the benefit of the fact that you’re not going to be arresting and incarcerating people on minor drug charges. There’s a lot of people that were arrested on the basis of just possession of a minute amounts of marijuana. It’s expensive to incarcerate prisoners.”
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the average annual cost of one inmate per year in Missouri is $22,350. Holzhauer said imprisonment over marijuana charges only exacerbates the prison-overcrowding issue.
Kevin Glaser, an officer with the Southeast Missouri Drug Task Force and an instructor at the Southeast Law Enforcement Academy, does not see things the same way. Glaser said this will have a negative impact on youth.
“You look at what’s happening in Colorado and just the other day there were some fourth graders that were arrested for selling marijuana in school,” Glaser said. “That’s the message Colorado is sending their kids. Do we want to send the same message here in Missouri?”
Glaser feels the repercussions of legalization, like serious marijuana-related accidents, would be more costly than any profit from tax revenue.
“You can relate it to tobacco also,” Glaser said. “Although it’s an excessively, highly taxed product, the revenue from that tax doesn’t offset the cost. So their argument that marijuana will generate a lot of revenue for the state, it really doesn’t hold water when you look at it and compare it to alcohol and tobacco.”
Glaser suggests Missouri sit back and watch what happens in Colorado before making any decisions.
Members of Show-Me Cannabis, a group that is advocating for marijuana legalization, will gather signatures to get marijuana legalization on the ballot in 2016. In the mean time, Brandy Johnson and other parents like her in Missouri hope for medical changes for their kids soon.