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Menace or medicine?

Menace or medicine?


Those who use it talk about medical marijuana

Sentinel staff writer
November 3, 2002

It’s a warm and buttery autumn afternoon, and Jyoti Robinson stands
grinning with her arms spread wide on the broad sidewalks of Pacific
Avenue. “When you see me walking down the street, what do you
Uh, gee ... a petite 40-ish woman, no different than most people?
“Exactly,” she says, like a school teacher who’s just gotten the
answer she wants from a reluctant student.
The point is, Robinson known around town as Jyoti Prather before
her October wedding is not like normal folk.
“I am missing more body parts than you can even imagine,” she says.
“I mean, I have the bare minimum you need to stay alive.”
Robinson, 46, is a cancer survivor, and she does mean “survivor.”
She was never supposed to live to see George Bush become president
that’s the first George Bush.
On an October day in 1987, she was told she had six months to live.
Since then, she’s had seven major surgeries, some lasting up to 16
Because of the ravages of a rare form of abdominal cancer, many of
her organs were removed. Others have been taken out in surgery,
scrubbed off, the tumors on them cauterized, and the organs
Where most of us have a digestive tract that’s a long meandering
mountain road, Jyoti’s is a thin, straight, short road.
At the time of her diagnosis, she was a vegetarian. She didn’t drink.
She didn’t take drugs. She didn’t smoke tobacco or marijuana.
Now, all but the last still hold true.
Jyoti Robinson is one of a legion of Americans who use marijuana to
offset the suffering of severe disease or injury.
There’s no ambivalence on Robinson’s part about the potency of
marijuana as medicine.
It helps her with nausea and appetite (two of its most cited
properties). But Robinson and her doctor also believe it helps with her
body’s motility that is, it slows down her too-brief digestive
process and allows her body more time to draw nutrients from the
food she eats.
This is a season of reckoning for the divisive issue of medical
marijuana use.
The Sept. 5 federal raid on the home and garden of Michael and
Valerie Corral, directors of the Santa Cruz-based Wo/Men’s Alliance
for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), has brought Santa Cruz and the
Corrals into the center on the national debate on pot and its
medicinal benefits.
A federal court ruling earlier this week prohibits the government from
revoking the license of doctors who prescribe marijuana. That
decision has turned up the heat on an issue that’s also become an
explosive theme in the fall campaign. Nevada and Arizona will vote on
measures to decriminalize the medical and recreational use of
California is one of eight states with active medical marijuana laws
that directly contradict the federal government’s stance on pot.
The White House, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Office of
National Drug Control Policy (the dominion of the “drug czar”) all
consider marijuana an illegal and dangerous drug with no medicinal
You can get an opinion on marijuana pro and con, mild and strong
from millions of healthy Americans. But the people with the most
immediate insights on the issue are the ones who live it every day:
the patients.
Their perspective is more personal and experiential than the
politicians, the law enforcement officials, even the doctors arguing
one or another side of the issue.
Consider the story of Suzanne Pheil, who has provided the
pro-marijuana side with its most potent symbolic image yet.
Pheil, 44, suffers from post-polio syndrome and has limited use of her
She was napping at the Corrals’ home when the Sept. 5 raid
occurred. She says she awoke that morning with five DEA agents
pointing loaded weapons at her, demanding she get out of bed.
“Surrealistic is the best way I can describe it,” said Pheil of the
incident that got national attention when it was reported in Time
magazine earlier this week.
“I was told to stand up, and I had to tell them, ‘I can’t. Can you see
my crutches over there on the floor.’
“They had me handcuffed to the bed, sitting there for an hour. I had
to ask for sips of water.”
Pheil had polio as an infant. About 15 years ago, while she was living
in Hawaii, she was struck “like a ton of bricks” with the degenerative
effects of post-polio syndrome, which is poorly understood today and
nearly unheard of then.
She was told that she might have multiple sclerosis or ALS (Lou
Gehrig’s Disease).
The pain was severe and constant. Pain-killing drugs were leaving
her impaired and debilitated. One day, driving home from a therapy
session, the mother of three pulled over to the side of the road and
faced a horrifying decision.
“I was saying to myself: I can’t live in pain like this. I’m going to have
to end it. Nothing’s worked.
“With all these drugs, I’m just going to decline and live in pain. I just
can’t do that.
“I was actually planning how to do it. I didn’t want it to be too
Finally, her obligations to her children squelched the idea of suicide.
She continued to live in pain. “It’s so overwhelmingly severe, you
can’t think of anything but getting out of pain. It obsesses you.”
Then she began smoking pot.
“It was a dramatic improvement,” she said. “I really changed my
attitude about pain. Yeah, I’m in pain. But you know, it’s not the
worst thing in the world. I’m going to go outside and smell the flowers
and look at the sunset.”
Jyoti Robinson had a similar a-ha moment.
One day, at the height of her illness, surrounded by friends and
family, she was dry heaving, so sick she could barely lift her head.
Someone suggested they go to emergency room. But Jyoti didn’t
want to go to the hospital.
“Then Valerie (Corral) showed up,” Robinson recalled. “She rolled this
joint and said, ‘Smoke this.’
“I said, ‘No, I can’t smoke anything.’”
But she did smoke it.
Within a few minutes, the immediate crisis passed and Robinson began
feeling better. Her appetite returned.
“For anyone who’s been around me and seen me so sick, and seen
the positive effects of medical marijuana my mother included
seeing is believing,” she said.
Harold Margolin of Santa Cruz went in for cervical fusion surgery six
years ago, and the surgeon nicked his spinal chord. For six months,
he couldn’t walk. Now he gets around on a cane.
Margolin still suffers from the neurological pain of the incident, mostly
in his feet. He’s been given painkillers that do some good, but not
without serious side effects.
For three years, life was “pretty horrible,” he said, until his
accountant, who was suffering from AIDS, suggested he try
Dubious but desperate, Margolin did just that.
“And a funny thing happened,” he said. “Pot is not a painkiller, per se.
But what it does, it allows you to take a step back from your pain and
be more objective about it. It allows life to come back into you. You
lose the obsession with pain.”
Before that experience, Margolin spent his time like the stereotypical
pothead might spend his time: laying around the house and watching
a lot of TV because the pain wouldn’t allow him to do much more.
Now that he uses pot to manage his pain four puffs at a time, he
says, between 16 and 22 puffs a day he is able to participate on
task forces and boards of directors and be a volunteer for WAMM, as
well as work out three days a week.
Most people who use marijuana for medical purposes can easily be
led into political discussions on the topic. They’ll point to everything
from Christian fundamentalist influence in the government to the
power of pharmaceutical companies as reasons for pot’s continuing
They are reluctant to talk about marijuana’s intoxicating properties,
however, insisting that using pot as medicine isn’t about getting
In many cases, that’s true, the idea being that people in pain are so
“low” that even the strongest pot can only bring them back up to sea
But there’s also an awareness that any acknowledgment of pot’s
psychoactive power will give ammunition to the prohibitionists.
Robert Anton Wilson has no such worries.
Wilson, who lives in Capitola, is the celebrated author of novels,
screenplays and philosophical tomes, including “The Illuminatus
Trilogy,” “Prometheus Rising” and the “Cosmic Trigger” series all of
which question the basic premises of reality.
A protégé of Timothy Leary and a leading connoisseur of conspiracy
theories, Wilson (RAW to his fans) is a genuine American freethinker.
If the counterculture issued membership cards, Wilson would carry
Wilson, 70, also suffers from post-polio illnesses and experiences
tremendous pain in his legs. His condition makes swallowing difficult
and exhausting.
Pot is invaluable in managing pain, says Wilson, but the high shouldn’t
be ignored.
“I do get high on pot, and that’s part of the cure,” he said.
“I really think one of the reasons marijuana has proved so effective
with so many different conditions is that feeling good is good for your
“If you feel happy you get the giggles, you have all the symptoms
of being high that’s boosting your immune system and helping you.”
Two years ago, the increasing pain in his legs led to incidents of
falling down. His doctor suggested getting in touch with Valerie Corral
who, as it turned out, Wilson already knew as a participant in his
weekly “Finnegan’s Wake” discussion group.
Even Wilson, the 1960s counterculture icon, was doubtful about
pot’s potency to stem his pain.
“My experience with pot in the past was that it magnifies sensation
and speeds up consciousness,” he said. “I certainly didn’t want this
sensation magnified. That would just make things worse.
“But there’s a paradox about it. It magnifies good sensations, but
tends to block out bad ones.”
Wilson takes his marijuana in capsule form, one of the many ways
WAMM prepares marijuana for patient use. There are also
marijuana-laced muffins and soy milk, THC-powered rubbing alcohol
for topical use, tinctures and, of course, the smokable form.
Some patients are paying close attention to the issue in Europe,
where inhalers and oral sprays are being developed.
The U.S. government has long suggested alternatives to marijuana,
most specifically Marinol, a synthetic compound of THC, the primary
active ingredient in pot.
“It’s apples and oranges,” said Joshua Schiffman, a resident at
Stanford Medical School and an activist for the use of medical
marijuana. “Marinol is a chemical compound of just one of the
ingredients, THC. With cannabis, you get the benefits of all the
organic compounds working together.”
Financial concerns are also primary in the decision to take Marinol or
A bottle of 60 Marinol capsules with 10 milligrams each of active
ingredient (the strongest prescription available) can run from $800 to
Marijuana is a weed that can be grown at little cost in the backyard.
“My medicine cabinet contains a huge array of different things,” said
Suzanne Pheil, who finds that marijuana is also helpful in reducing
painful spasms in her legs. “I go with the philosophy of the least
harmful things first, and then you build up.
“I’m only 44. I have a lifetime ahead of me, and these heavy
painkillers and muscle relaxants and anti-depressants and
anti-inflammatories, they all have huge side effects, and they’re all
really hard on the liver, the kidneys and the stomach in the long run.”
Pheil, like other patients I spoke to, loves the idea of self-sufficiency
that cannabis provides, the idea that just like vegetables, flowers and
herbs, you can grow your own medicine.
But still there’s a stigma when it comes to use of marijuana. Santa
Cruz has proven to be a tolerant, even encouraging community when
it comes to medicinal marijuana. That’s not necessarily the case
Because she is such an unusually long survivor of an aggressive
cancer, Jyoti Robinson is often called on by others to provide comfort
or inspiration. A family member called her looking for advice. Her
husband was on a heavy regime of chemotherapy and was not taking
it well.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Try medical marijuana,’” said Robinson.
“Man, you would have thought that I just said, ‘Get a gun and tell him
to blow his brains out.’ There was dead silence.
“‘You got to be kidding,’ she said. He was in all this pain. She kept
saying, ‘He’s in agony. I just can’t watch him.’ But they just wouldn’t
go there.”
“Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the government should
appoint a czar to supervise medical practices and prosecute doctors
and patients who don’t follow his orders,” said Robert Anton Wilson,
who favors a California secessionist movement and, when he dies,
wants his ashes blown into the face of the Drug Czar.
“Here I am, an old man without a wife, all alone,” he said. “And to feel
good and find myself chuckling over some weird thing is a wonderful
Patients dealing with immediate issues of debilitating pain and
mortality now feel they must also fear legal sanctions, despite the
passage of California Proposition 215 in 1996, which legalized the
medical use of marijuana.
Some fear that their homes will be seized, their children separated
from them.
But the legal struggle has also given patients a will to fight and
participate in the political battle, who otherwise would have little but
their condition on which to dwell. From that will to fight comes hope.
“Oh, I have hope,” said Robinson, who says that her home has been
raided twice by law enforcement.
“I’m alive because I have hope. What must be understood about all
this is that you cannot have a force without an equal and opposite
reaction to that force.
“For all the depths of fear and the depths of pain you experience in
this battle, the sheer joy of being here now is what you get later
when you face those fears.”
Contact Wallace Baine at wbaine (at)


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