Nixon’s war on drugs had been underway for more than a decade when I was born. By the time I was starting kindergarten, Reagan upped the ante by signing the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and initiating the “Just Say No” campaign in schools. From that came several spinoff campaigns, such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) and Substance Abuse and Narcotics Education (SANE) primary prevention programs. Each of these aimed to use knowledge to generate deterrence, and each taught of the dangers of such things as cocaine, heroin and marijuana. For roughly one hour every four weeks or so, local police officers would visit classes in elementary schools and familiarize us with these drugs during lectures and activities.
That was just the government’s involvement though; pop culture had a dog in the fight too. Media battalions of radio spots and TV commercials were on the frontlines of the war on drugs, reassuring kids that drugs were dangerous and – even worse – not at all fun or cool. Heartthrobs like Corey Feldman, and heroes like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, labored to convince us of this, so it had to be true (or such was the logic). Iconic lines like “This is your brain on drugs” from public service announcements, along with spot-on parodies like Mr. Garrison’s “Drugs are bad, mmk” shtick on “South Park,” have preserved the zeitgeist of my anti-drug-obsessed upbringing.
Between the campaigns in my classes, TV shows and ultraconservative household, I received daily reinforcements of anti-drug – and, by extension, anti-cannabis – messaging. So from as early as age 5, I was trained by every kind of authority figure in my life to see cannabis as 100% harm, 0% help. Throughout my childhood and early teens I was sternly instructed to avoid cannabis in every instance – to just say “no” and to “pass on grass” (among other pseudo-hip tropes used by adults to “relate” to us). As I understood it, there was no way whatsoever that cannabis could ever be a benign, let alone good, substance. It was evil in plant form, and that was settled science.
With that background, I approached the idea of using marijuana in a helpful way with impenetrable skepticism and cynicism. In line with the demagogues who were opposing movements for such things as medicinal marijuana, I regarded the very idea as a pretext for getting away with doing drugs. I wasn’t the least bit open to the possibility that cannabis really could be used for something positive. After all, I had spent a lifetime being told that was impossible.
Then, something happened that ultimately realigned my perception. At age 22, I had a grand mal seizure out of nowhere and was diagnosed with epilepsy after undergoing multiple EEGs (brainwave exams). From that point forward, I had to follow seizure-prevention lifestyle rules (e.g., avoiding flashing lights) and take anticonvulsants daily. It took several attempts to find the right pharmaceutical, but I finally leveled out on one of them and had normal EEG results. But then I had to deal with the side effects of that drug. To make them manageable, my neurologist prescribed an additional medication. I didn’t know that a natural alternative to the synthetic combo existed, so I settled for the chemical cocktail.
Ironically, it was during my period of cannabis-hostile indoctrination as a youth that California (my home state) voted to legalize medicinal marijuana in the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. And with even greater irony, it was only three months after I could’ve used cannabis to treat my sudden-onset epilepsy in 2005 that the Supreme Court effectively overruled California’s act. As a result, the state suspended the medicinal marijuana ID card program, removing it as an option for me. Truthfully though, I wasn’t the least bit inclined to pursue a natural anticonvulsant in lieu of a synthetic one anyhow – not if it meant using “bad” drugs. That is to say, I was fine with using drugs, as long as they came from burnt-orange bottles and not twist-tied baggies.
It wasn’t until my early 30s that I became open to the potential of medicinal marijuana – not for me, but for my mom. She was being ravaged by chemotherapy and radiation in what was then Stage 2 cancer. She and my dad were staunchly conservative, and she was an elementary school teacher, too. So, her grip on the stigma of marijuana was infinitely tighter than mine had ever been. And because of that, she chose to suffer through sustained nausea and other side effects instead of giving cannabis a try in relieving them.
She also chose to die in a more grievous than necessary way. If she hadn’t been too ashamed to do so, my mom could’ve used medicinal marijuana well into Stage 4 and been conscious until her last breath. But she had agreed only to morphine, so she was on that and semi-comatose for the final week of her life. Think about that. My devout Christian mother felt no shame in taking a dangerous opioid, but it was beneath her to munch on some edibles. That was her genuine perception. Logic that paradoxical in nature has to be instilled in us.
Now that I’ve spent a few years shedding the layers of propaganda that I had been wrapped in for decades, I’m more curious than ever about medicinal marijuana. I’ve been researching it and learning a lot about it, and I’m convinced that the case is there. And I’m open to seeing whether I can swap my synthetic pharmaceuticals for a plant compound – which says a lot because I’m extremely fearful of coming off of anticonvulsants. It just would be nice not to have to chase one pill with another to balance out the damage, and to always have the vulnerability of an insufficient blend. So, I’m glad that the mere possibility of transitioning to cannabis appears scientifically sound.
Even with the scientific advances in medicinal marijuana, however, conflicting state and federal laws keep certain people who need cannabis from getting it. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana in some form, but the federal government itself has not. As a result, those beholden to federal law over state law, such as people who work for the U.S. government, are prohibited from using cannabis – regardless of where they live. So, short of breaking the law to try medicinal marijuana, these people are confined to pharmaceuticals.
It’s strange. The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug, along with heroin, LSD, ecstasy and other drugs that have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” However, alcohol, which has the same attributes, is neither a scheduled drug nor something banned by the federal government. And we’ve long been taught to disregard such legal incongruities, and to revere the status quo. But now that two-thirds of the country’s states – as well as the nation’s capital – have turned the status quo upside down, America is being reeducated. And I look forward to the day when no one is denied the opportunity and individual liberty to see whether medicinal marijuana is right for them. One thing’s for sure: that day is coming.
Kathleen Hearons is an editor, writer, voice over actor and avid cinephile. She lives and works in the greater Los Angeles area.