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Cannabis crusade: Colorado's medical marijuana moms changing U.S. drug laws

By: Steve Rabey, Religion Correspondent
March 4, 2016 Updated: March 4, 2016 at 4:38 pm
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Colorado Senator Cory Gardner introduces the Therapeutic Hemp Medical Access Act in Washington, D.C. on May 13, 2015. Left to Right Paige Figi, U.S. Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Annette Maughan, Heather Jackson, Haley Smith, Lisa Smith and Liz Gorman. Photo by Nichole Montanez, The Gazette

The first patient was Charlotte Figi, a girl who suffered hundreds of violent epileptic seizures every week. But after her mom, Paige Figi, gave her a few drops of dark oil extracted from marijuana plants four years ago, the seizures dramatically decreased.

A few months later, Heather Jackson gave a dose of the oil to her son Zaki. He hasn't had another seizure.

Soon, another 15 children experienced success with the oil - now called Charlotte's Web - that was developed by Joel Stanley, 36, the eldest of six brothers to attend Colorado Springs Christian School before joining Colorado's booming marijuana marketplace. All six remain "followers of Jesus," Stanley says.

"That's when it really sank in," Stanley said. "This is not a fluke. This is not going away. There is a purpose to everything under the sun, including the marijuana plant."

CNN's Sanjay Gupta reported the results in his August 2014 program "Weed." That's when the migration started.

Over the next year and a half, more than 500 families relocated to Colorado. Figi, Jackson and the Stanleys founded a nonprofit called Realm of Caring to help these "medical refugees," who strained family bonds and budgets to give their kids Charlotte's Web, which remains illegal under federal law. The Stanleys fund most of the organization's $600,000-plus annual budget with profits from their business, CW Botanicals.

"We saw there was a really massive, underserved population, and helping them was our way of making sense of everything that had happened to us," said Jackson, Realm of Caring's CEO.

Returning the refugees

Serving medical refugees wasn't enough. Jackson and Figi decided to help parents change laws in their home states so everyone could return home.

In only 18 months, these pioneering marijuana moms had helped change laws in 19 states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Idaho's governor vetoed the bill.

Their initial victory came in Utah, home to some of the nation's more restrictive alcohol laws. Jackson quickly won over the legislature's conservative caucus, and the two moms worked with parents of epileptic children and pro-medical marijuana supporters to pressure politicians. Charlee's Law, named after a Utah child with epilepsy, was signed into law in March 2014, a century after the state outlawed marijuana.

"This was our first indication that we can actually do this," said Jackson, a church-going Christian who will speak next month at Q, a national conference in Denver designed to help Christian leaders address contemporary culture.

In 2015, Figi founded the Coalition for Access Now to lobby nationwide.

"I'm not an activist," said Figi, who had no lobbying experience. "I'm very introverted. I don't like the spotlight. I'm just the mother of a sick kid who is looking for the best treatment with the least side effects.

"But I was seeing Charlotte's story over and over. Kids were walking out of wheelchairs. Doctors were astounded. After witnessing all this with my own eyes, I realized I couldn't stand idly by and do nothing."

Figi, who was raised Catholic, has made friends in statehouses across the country.

"She's the godmother of this movement, and I'm privileged to be working alongside her," said Allen Peake, the pro-life, pro-family, conservative Georgia state representative who championed Haleigh's Hope Act, which was signed into law last April.

"I'm a Christian guy, so to even get into this space has been a significant paradigm shift for me," said Peake, a Southern Baptist. "But this is a compassion issue for me. Christ commands us to care for the sick."

Peake has visited Colorado to meet with Georgia families who relocated for Charlotte's Web, and he admits to having illegally transported bottles of the oil back to Georgia to help families who can't get it there. He also founded a charity called Journey of Hope that provides Georgia families with financial assistance so they can relocate to Colorado.

"I'm willing to do whatever it takes to give them access," said Peake, who condemns the "lunacy" of federal drug laws that "make criminals out of parents and citizens who only want medicine to improve the quality of their lives."

Medicine, morality and the American way

Federal laws dating to the Nixon administration group marijuana with Schedule I drugs such as heroin and LSD that have "a high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use."

Charlotte's Web doesn't make patients "high." It's low in THC, the psychoactive ingredient that gives pot its buzz, but high in CBD, which has healing properties. The CBD can be extracted from hemp, marijuana's non-druggy industrial cousin, so Peake has introduced legislation to allow Georgia to grow hemp.

Many Protestant groups, including mainline Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians, support some form of medical marijuana, but most evangelicals remain pot prohibitionists.

Peake's hemp cultivation bill is opposed by the Georgia Baptist Convention, which views hemp legalization as an "incremental step" toward liberalized drug laws. The GBC's spokesman called medical marijuana an oxymoron similar to "jumbo shrimp," and the GBC's "Resolution On the Dangers of Marijuana" describes pot as a gateway to further drug abuse, addiction, health problems, psychosis and crime.

Jackson, who describes her Christian faith as "the pie, not a piece of pie," said she talked to her minister as she wrestled with the morality of marijuana.

"I'm a byproduct of the 1980s and 'Just say no,' so I grew up thinking this was evil," she said.

Stacey Mobley, minister of the church of Christ of Colorado Springs, an independent, Bible-based congregation, said members support Jackson's work.

"God made the plant, and said in Genesis 1:31 that everything he made was very good," said Mobley, who opposes recreational marijuana. "We are firsthand witnesses of its benefits in the providential healing of Zaki, and I believe Heather is driven by obligation because she is a Christian to do good to all."

Colorado's medical marijuana moms now aim to change federal law. In May, Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado introduced the Coalition for Access Now's Therapeutic Hemp Medical Access Act of 2015. Senate Bill 1333 has attracted dozens of co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle.

"We're not promoting recreational marijuana," Figi said. "We're trying to fix a mistake in our laws. This is how the American system of government works."

Meanwhile, medical refugees keep arriving. Danette Bussey and daughter Alexa recently visited Realm of Caring from New Jersey, where medical marijuana is available but not CBD oil.

"Our doctor told us our best hope is to go to Colorado," she said.

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