Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Refugees
Trinidad, CO — On a cool autumn morning in this idyllic town of roughly eight thousand, residents walk along the charming main street with lattés in hand. The bell tower of the Holy Trinity Church rings out as leaves fall, perfecting the picturesque scene.
Trinidad is experiencing a revival after years of decay. It wasn’t until both medical and recreational marijuana use became fully legal in Colorado in 2014 that tax dollars came flooding in, leading to the city’s renewal.
City Manager Gabe Engeland told CNN earlier this year that Trinidad made $800,000 in marijuana sales from November 2014 to November 2015—which accounted for 10 percent of total tax revenue. It was a surprise: they expected $200,000 for that period.
Along with the tax dollars came out-of-staters, including medical refugees who saw Colorado as an emerald sanctuary where cannabinoids could ease their pain, or the pain of their loved ones.
“Nobody is talking about it,” Glen Mayes, a medical marijuana refugee from Texas, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “It’s really frustrating.”
Mayes was speaking specifically about the 2016 presidential candidates. This year’s race for the highest office in the land has focused heavily on refugees, with Republican nominee Donald Trump causing controversy by proposing a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., with special emphasis placed on refugees coming from Iraq and Syria.
But in Mayes’ view, Trump is the only candidate who has reached out to his refugee demographic at all: “Donald has come out and said some things for people with alternative health views, and medical marijuana.”
Trump said on the O’Reilly factor in February that marijuana legalization is “good” in “some ways.”
He continued: “I know people that have serious problems… and… it really, really does help them.”
Clinton has been more reserved, not speaking directly on the subject. Her campaign released a statement from Maya Harris, one of Clinton’s senior policy advisors, saying the Democratic candidate would place marijuana in the same schedule as cocaine and methamphetamine while removing restrictions on research. Harris referred to Colorado as a “laboratory of democracy.”
Mayes is a recent arrival to Colorado. He moved his family from Austin to Littleton, outside of Denver, on Fourth of July weekend. His son, Orion, was diagnosed at 10 weeks old with polymicrogyria, an incredibly rare developmental disorder that affects the brain.
Polymicrogyria causes many problems. One of them is gran mal seizures, which feature loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions. Orion, who is now four years old, suffered his first seizure as a toddler on Christmas Day.
Doctors began prescribing valium for the seizures and other symptoms of Orion’s disease. But Mayes was a guard at a juvenile detention center who was certified to hand out medication. He explained that he had to take many courses to attain the certification, and he knew exactly what the 7.5 grams of valium was doing to his infant son’s body. “It was killing me to give my child valium. I knew he would have mobility issues, I knew his organs were shutting down.”
So he began researching cannabis oil, which has shown great potential in controlling seizures.
It worked. With the cannabis oil, Orion’s seizures have dramatically reduced. Previously, the young boy was unable to keep food down or remain hydrated, but Mayes said that has also improved.
“My son is doing a lot better. He’s getting a lot more hydration. He’s growing and talking and he’s so much more conscientious,” he joyfully told The Daily Beast.
Texas has medical marijuana legislation on the books. The “Compassionate Use Act,” signed in 2015, theoretically opened the door to the substance.
But the cannabis oil which was made legal is only applicable for patients suffering from intractable epilepsy who have documentation that two other medications were found to be ineffective.
Another roadblock, according to the Texas Political Director for Marijuana Policy Project Heather Fazio, is that doctors are required to prescribe the medicine, as opposed to other states where they are allowed to “recommend” the cannabis treatment. Recommendations are protected as free speech, while prescriptions can lead to criminal sanctions.
Dean Bortell, a father of an 11-year-old girl named Alexis who has the intractable epilepsy the Texas law is supposed to treat, told The Daily Beast that people like his daughter are not “going to be get better with the law as it’s written.”
Alexis currently uses a mix of two different cannabinoids—CBD and THC, the psychoactive ingredient that produces a high—to fight the seizures. The THC, which is not legal under Texas’ medical marijuana law, is critical.
The Bortells have been in Colorado since March 2015. Before then, Alexis was using prescription medication to fight the seizures. While still in Texas, they began testing marijuana’s efficacy: “We had written down that if we hit seven days without a seizure, that would be the bar to move to Colorado. When we got 33, we decided ‘we’re coming.’”
Alexis has now gone roughly 600 days [593 during the interview] without a seizure. She has become a figurehead for the movement to change legislation in Texas to reflect the overwhelming support for marijuana reform.
When doting fathers like Bortell and Mays see improvements in their children, they are troubled by the fact that medical marijuana refugees are being left out of the national discourse.
Their exclusion is to the point that there are no official numbers for this type of refugee in the U.S.
“We don’t know if we’re in the dark or the light. We’re kind of stuck in that grey area. We wish one of the candidates would stand up for us,” Bortell concluded.
Jason Cranford, the CEO of nonprofit Flowering H.O.P.E. which educates patients and families new to medical cannabis and provides them cannabis oil at break-even prices to aid in the prevention of seizures, echoed the concerns of Bortell and Mays.
“Chelsea Clinton saying that marijuana was toxic or lethal, that kind of makes me [think] Hillary feels the same way,” Cranford explained when asked how he felt about this election’s discourse concerning marijuana laws.
Chelsea Clinton said at a town hall in late September that there is “anecdotal evidence now from Colorado, where some of the people who were taking marijuana for those purposes, the coroner believes, after they died, there was drug interactions with other things they were taking.”
Chelsea Clinton’s spokesperson later issued a statement saying she misspoke.
“I don’t like Trump. I think he’s an asshole. But he’s said he’s friendly to states’ rights issues” which would contribute to Colorado’s marijuana industry, Cranford continued. He feels the same way as many voters.
But the CEO, who recently finished harvesting 800 pounds of marijuana, said the “genie is out of the bottle” regarding alternative medicines and medical marijuana.
As a botanist, he wants public, peer-reviewed research into the medical efficacy of cannabis. “I think what we are going to see is more access to research. If the government can’t [stop the growing use of medical marijuana], what they can do is make sure it’s safe,” Cranford said.
“There are thousands and thousands of growers across the U.S. We have too much money to fight. We have too much power to stay silent,” Cranford concluded.
The Daily Beast contacted Robert Capecchi, the in-house lobbyist for advocacy group the Marijuana Policy Project. When asked if there has been an increase in lobbying efforts, Capecchi said that it has been steady for years, and that growers such as Cranford have yet to form their own specific lobbying groups.
Capecchi explained that the future of marijuana policy hinges more on Congress’ makeup than the next president.
“I can see successful initiatives going forward with both candidates,” he continued. “Secretary Clinton has expressed her desire to reschedule marijuana to schedule two and allow scientific research. It think it should be taken off the schedule completely, but it’s it a start.
“I’m more worried about a Trump presidency. Even though he has vocalized support for reform, the company he keeps gives me pause,” the lobbyist said.
Then there’s the issue of law enforcement. Mayes, the cannabis refugee from Texas, told The Daily Beast that the continued widespread arrest of those with petty amounts of the drug is absurd, and especially bad in his home state.
Texas has arrested between 70,000 and 75,000 people a year for pot-related crimes since 2009, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law.
The Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union put out a study in 2013 showing that Texas’ 74,000 marijuana arrests in 2010 put it second in the nation. The arrests also overwhelming target the African-American community.
Some local politicians have been pushing to soften punishments for marijuana-related arrests—like Attorney Len Walker, who ran for Potter County Attorney in 2016. His seat is Amarillo— one of the most conservativeparts of the U.S.
A foundation of Walker’s platform, which was staunchly Republican, was decriminalization of marijuana possession. For him, it was all about cutting tax dollars.
“Most of these people who are picked up, these are lower income people, they struggle to make a living for their family. When they are incarcerated for 2 weeks, they lose their job. Then they can’t pay their rent, they can’t pay car payments. They became wards of the state,” Walker said in an interview. “Then they’re going to need to apply for housing benefits and welfare.”
While this sounds like something that would resound with Republican voters, it didn’t. Walker lost the election.
Being anti-marijuana decriminalization is “the traditional law enforcement position,” he explained. “Politicians believe they are drumming up support whether or not they think these people should be in jail.”
Walker said he’s not an expert who follows medical marijuana research, but he knows its shown benefits. “It’s disheartening that some fellow Texans are having to flee the state and go to Colorado and other places. It seems Draconian to me,” he said. “I’m sure someone living in Colorado looks down at Texas and asks ‘What the hell is going on?’”