Da herb. Bette Hulser couldn't stand it, wouldn't tolerate it and was estranged from her son because he smoked it.

Things began to change in 1991. That was when her son, Mike Mallonee, fell again, this time into a scalding vat of beans at Giorgio's in Topeka, where he worked as a chef.

He was treated at the hospital for severe burns-when his socks came off, his skin came too, Hulser says-and shortly afterward was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Hulser was struck by her son's agony when he came to live with her a few years later.

"He was in such pain one night that he was screaming," she says.

"Lesions were forming in the brain-it was like he had epilepsy. I mean, he was just convulsing. And he was just screaming. About 3 o'clock in the morning one of his friends came over."

She adds as an aside, "And I had been a very law-abiding citizen. My father was an attorney in Lawrence and also in the (state) House of Representatives."

Hulser told her son's friend, "He really can't have company. I'm thinking about taking him by ambulance to the hospital."

"Well, can I go in there?" he replied.

"I let him go in there," she says, "and pretty soon I smelled this smell. And I go, 'What in the world?' Mike's screaming stopped and then I heard Mike laughing. I went in there and said, 'What in God's name did you do?' and he said, 'I gave him a joint to smoke.' I said, 'What? In my house? Oh my God, no!'

"But I saw then that it worked. I was ready to buy it for him after that. I mean, when you see someone you love suffering so bad, you're willing to do anything. And he was suffering, I mean, it was ungodly."

Audio clips

Bette Hulser

Soon, however, Mallonee fell into legal trouble. It started when he called for an ambulance and authorities found a bag of weed in his house. Over the next couple of years he was busted multiple times.

His problems were eased in 1995 when Judge Thomas Conklin of Shawnee County District Court ordered that his parole officer not test him for drugs.

Meanwhile, Hulser became a major advocate for medical marijuana, and in 1995 she lobbied for a medical marijuana bill that passed the state House, 89-32, and died in the Senate before coming to a vote.

But with the debate heating back up in Kansas, Hulser is hoping for better luck this time around.

'Why should they suffer?'

Medicinal marijuana advocates hoped to raise their credibility in the eyes of the silent majority last month when former Attorney General Bob Stephan, the Republican who led state law enforcement from 1979 to 1995-the anti-Chong, one could say-held a press conference announcing his support.

The cause is nothing new for Stephan. He says he's been publicly advocating for medicinal marijuana since 1983, when he pushed a resolution in favor of the drug through the National Association of Attorneys General.

This time around, he's lending his support to the Kansas Compassionate Care Coalition, a group recently formed by Laura Green of Lawrence (who also serves as director of the Drug Policy Forum of Kansas).

A cancer survivor, Stephan says the drug should be available as a last resort for people for whom no other medicine works.

"It just makes no sense to me why you can have codeine and methamphetamine and cocaine and those can be prescribed," he says, "but marijuana is a no-no."

While he agrees with the objection that some people would abuse the drug, and some who don't need it would try to get prescriptions, he asks: How is this different than any legal drug?

Audio clips

Former Kansas Attorney General Bob Stephan

"It's unbelievable to me that folks will say, 'Oh, well, they'll abuse marijuana,' " he says.

"Well, people abuse every drug on the market. It doesn't make any difference what it is. We're not talking about those that violate the law and those that abuse drugs. We're talking about people that are suffering.

"You know, I just talked to a lady who has been diagnosed with uterine cancer. She's tried everything and just tried Marinol, which is derived as a legal drug from the marijuana plant-has the THC in it but doesn't have the other elements that are in marijuana itself-and even that didn't work. The last I talked to her, she was gonna try acupuncture. Now, if nothing works, why should she continue to suffer?"

In the 12 states that have legalized medical marijuana-most recently New Mexico in April-more than 115,000 people have obtained prescriptions, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

The federal government's stance is that leaf marijuana has no medical value. (There is the exception of seven people, reportedly, who receive marijuana from the government because they were grandfathered into the Compassionate Investigational New Drug program, which was active from 1978 to 1991.)

Rep. Joe Humerickhouse, R-Osage City, says he thinks a medical marijuana bill-which he says would likely be supported by democrats and moderate republicans if introduced-would have a good chance of passing next legislative session, which begins in January.

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A medical marijuana user displays a joint in September 2007. Lawrence health professionals are split on the benefits and risks of medical marijuana, which remains illegal in Kansas but has been legalized in 20 states.

"I get a feeling that it's becoming more and more acceptable in legislators' minds," he says. ":I think that there's just more awareness of the benefits."

'We need this crap'

Here in his big easy chair, with a dragon bong resting conspicuously on the table across the room, sits Mike Berwert, an ornery 64-year-old man with white hair and a matching mustache who obstinately claims that he needs his weed.

Unlike Hulser and her son, Berwert doesn't come across as especially needy. To look at him, you wouldn't notice anything wrong with his physical condition unless he's using his canes. He doesn't hide the fact that when he started smoking pot 48 years ago, he did it to get high.

But the fact, he says, is that he can hardly get by without marijuana, which he says is the only pain medication he uses. As an infant he contracted polio and as a result, he says, his left leg is two inches longer than his right, his back is crooked and the bones in his hands, shoulders and throughout his body are "destroyed."

"I live with continuous pain, every day," he says. "If I don't have my marijuana, I spasm out so bad that I'd literally fall out of bed."

Audio clips

Mike Berwert

Berwert grew marijuana in the basement of his Topeka home for himself and friends of his, all of whom he says had serious medical conditions, including AIDS, terminal cancer and acute arthritis.

"We're not high school kids trying to pull wool over the cops' eyes," he says. "We're senior citizens who really need this medication. They try to tell us that 'No, there's no value to medical marijuana.' I hate to beg to differ, but there is."

In January 2006 police knocked on his door after receiving an anonymous tip. Now he is awaiting trial on state charges connected to growing and distributing marijuana. He says he's directed his friends to other medical marijuana growers.

"A couple of my lady friends have gone back on their regular medications now, and one I can't even hardly stand to be around," he says. "She's a total lunatic doing them goddamn Loritabs every day. I don't even know what they call them-hydrocodone or something like that?

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Mike Berwert, 64, from Topeka, has been using marijuana for many, many years to relieve pain caused by polio, which crippled him as a child.

"It's time for me to stand up. I don't care if you use my name. I don't care if you give my address or my phone number. I don't care. Let 'em know that there are people out there who need this damn crap. We're not some damn teenagers who want to get high. Yeah, I used to do it to get high, until I discovered the medical value of it. Now I don't even do an aspirin anymore. And then I'm gonna have to quit when they put me on paper on probation.

"That's gonna be rough on me. Really, really rough on me. 'Cause I'm not gonna be silly enough to go ahead and smoke marijuana and have that damn P.O. (parole officer) give me a dirty and put my ass back in jail. I'm not gonna give him that satisfaction. I'll tough it out."

'Absolutely unnecessary'

Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, is in the advantageous position of being able to speak from experience. And she doesn't buy any of these arguments.

"I think it's clear that the people who are pushing this are people who use marijuana for recreation," she says.

Wagle is in remission from stage four non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which she was diagnosed with about a decade ago. And her teenage son, Paul, survived leukemia after a risky 2004 stem cell transplant.

Audio clips

State Senator Susan Wagle

She says that there are plenty of effective, inexpensive drugs out there-and the supposed need for marijuana is a fabrication.

"I just think it's unnecessary with the advancements we've had in science," she says. "If Bob (Stephan) were to go through chemotherapy today for lymphoma, which is what he had, he would find it a whole different world."

Wagle doesn't have a problem with components of marijuana being used in legal drugs, such as Marinol, which she says her son was prescribed. While marijuana advocates say Marinol isn't as effective as the natural drug, Wagle says it's an example of taking the medicinal elements from a drug and distributing it in a regulated, FDA-approved manner.

"My experience is (marijuana) is just absolutely unnecessary," she says. "And you're gonna find a lot of physicians I think oppose this because of the tools they have in today's medical environment."

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Mike Mallonee smoked marijuana until his multiple sclerosis became so severe, he physically couldn't. His mother, Bette Hulser, says it made him happy by relieving his pain.

'Pills or a dime bag?'

Here in Bette Hulser's apartment, in a bedroom filled with medicine and religious icons, Mike Mallonee, 42, lives in his medical bed, accompanied by the constant sounds of machines beeping and wheezing. Closed off from the outside world, he's hooked up to a feeding tube and ventilator and receives constant nursing.

Hulser looks at him and smiles, calling him her "joy."

She points to a thick briefcase literally overflowing with pills. With aid from Medicare, Mallonee takes about 50 pills a day, she says, many of them to control depression, anxiety, psychosis and pain. He's been physically unable to smoke marijuana for the better part of a decade-otherwise, she says, he would.

"If he had pot, he would need maybe five of those," she says, waving her hand toward the briefcase. "As a taxpayer I ask you, do you want to pay for that? Or do you want to pay for a dime bag?"

Comments

Aufbrezeln Eschaton 14 years, 11 months ago

When I was on chemotherapy, my mom would come wake me up every day at noon with a bowl of chicken-noodle soup and a big fat sticky joint.

I'd asked my doctor about Marinol, and she told me it was useless, and her advice was to score a couple of ounces of good pot before I went home to my parents to do my chemo. Besides combatting the nausea, it killed the excruciating pain in my bones, and made me feel a little less miserable about the fact that the next nine months of my life were going to be utter hell.

Now I have early-onset arthritis, and marijuana does more to help the pain than the oxycodone I've been prescribed for years. Also, it doesn't make me a freaking zombie, doesn't give me diverticulitis, and is a hell of a lot easier to get. It's humiliating to call your doctor every month and beg for pain pills while the nurses treat you like a junkie. My dealer gives me hugs, instead. I don't understand why it's better to give a 28-year-old mother synthetic heroin instead another substance that's much less harmful, has nowhere near the recreational value of opiates, and is not addictive.

Go ahead, come arrest my ass. It'll be even easier to score in prison.

And to the lady whose husband is physically unable to smoke but can still swallow--cook the ganja down in butter and make cookies with it.

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