Going to pot

Around six o’clock in the morning, Renee Emry Wolfe, a 39-year-old mother in Ann Arbor, gets out of bed. She walks into the living room and, like she’s done every morning for the past 15 years, smokes a joint.

No, she’s not an obsessed druggie, although she is a regular pot smoker. Wolfe’s says her marijuana use is strictly medicinal.

"If I didn’t have my medicine I couldn’t take care of my children," Wolfe says. Her four boys range between 13 months and 14 years old.

Wolfe was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) 21 years ago. She tried various medicines to help the associated insomnia and lack of appetite, but says she still had a hard time getting through each day. She would sometimes lie in bed for up to three days in a row, and could hardly walk a few steps.

Since 1985, she’s smoked pot three to four times a day (never in front of her kids, she’s quick to point out), and says it helps her feel a lot better. Proponents of medical marijuana say it also helps AIDS sufferers keep eating, relieves nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, eases the spasticity of multiple sclerosis and lowers the eye pressure of glaucoma patients.

"Medical marijuana increases my overall potential," says Wolfe, adding that her family is very supportive. Her oldest son once wrote an essay about his mother’s medicine and, according to Wolfe, has no interest in using her drugs, because he knows that "another person’s medication will get you sick." Her husband, a cook, accepts that his wife has to smoke pot or she’ll feel a lot sicker.

But Wolfe’s "medicine" is prohibited in Michigan. She won’t reveal where she gets it or how much she pays for it, because buying, selling and using marijuana is illegal.

In 1979, the state Legislature passed Public Act 125, allowing the medicinal use of marijuana, but the act’s provisions expired in 1987, making its use illegal again.

By then, Wolfe had discovered its benefits. Besides being a full-time mother, she became a political activist. Now, she educates people by phone through her Coalition Advocating Legal Medical Marijuana (CALMM). "I think that the best way to get it legal is the word of mouth, and I have a big mouth," she says.

But her activism also draws the attention of the authorities. She says she’s received police warnings for growing marijuana plants. And in 1998, she was arrested after lighting up in a congressman’s Capitol Hill office. She was sentenced to 50 hours of community service and $50 in fines.

Now, Wolfe feels her work is getting somewhere. Hawaii’s Legislature passed a bill in mid-June permitting marijuana use by people with specific illnesses; they must first receive their doctor’s permission. California votors passed an advisory initiative supporting medical marijuana in 1996; voters in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington approved advisory referenda in 1998. Still, medical marijuana remains illegal in 49 states.

But not everyone agrees with Wolfe. Mary Ann Solberg is executive director of the Troy Community Coalition, an organization which works toward drug- and alcohol-free communities.

Solberg says she doesn’t have a problem with legalizing marijuana, as long as it is proven safe and pure.

"It needs to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration before it is in fact a medicine. I haven’t seen any study yet that proves marijuana is a positive drug," says Solberg.

"I just believe that it is a smoke screen. It is all about recreational abuse. I speak for myself when I say that I think people are actually fighting for legalizing drugs."

Solberg is right about there not being enough studies.

The government has been unwilling to fund or approve such research; there’s also an obvious difficulty in conducting tests that require many people to use an illegal drug for a long time.

And when an important discovery is made elsewhere, we seldom hear about it. Spanish researchers announced in February that they had destroyed brain tumors in rats by injecting them with THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. The story was not found in most of the major U.S. newspapers.

But since 1996 the Clinton administration has opened more doors for research, including a project completed in March 1999 by Washington’s Institute of Medicine (IOM) and funded by the Office of the National Drug Control Policy.

That study didn’t conduct new tests, but looked at previous studies, concluding there was not enough data to support legalization.

"Marijuana has potential as medicine, but it is undermined by the fact that patients must inhale harmful smoke," says Stanley Watson Jr., who was one of the IOM researchers and is co-director and research scientist at the Mental Health Research Institute of the University of Michigan.

"Until researchers develop a safe and effective delivery system, caregivers must consider the health problems that can result from smoking when deciding whether to recommend marijuana to patients."

Currently, the only cannabinoid-based drug available is Marinol, which is THC in pill form. It is approved for nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, as well as for weight loss associated with AIDS and anorexia.

But because the pills must be absorbed through the digestive system, they are slower to take effect, comments Wolfe. They’re definitely too slow when she has a spasmodic attack.

"The government should just keep their nose out of my business," says Wolfe. "It works for me and I am just saying leave me alone."

Contact CALMM at 734-677-6178.

Nicole Bosch is a Dutch freelance writer now living in Detroit. Send comments to [email protected].
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