In North Carolina this week, a 53 year-old woman was beaten and robbed as she attempted to buy the marijuana that she uses to ease her pain. In the car with her was her 13 year-old grandson. This fact was not lost on police, who have brought charges against the woman for child abuse.
Tinkey Mae Sullivan suffers from severe Rheumatoid Arthritis and a degenerative bone disease that has already resulted in back surgery and a broken leg. She claims that her prescription painkillers, which cost $200 for a fifteen-day supply, don't seem to help and leave her groggy and nauseous. An ounce of cannabis, however, which costs her $90 and lasts for nearly two months, allows her to be up and around.
"Without it, I can't even get up out of my chair without help" she said. "But if I smoke a little, I can even do my housework."
But cannabis, for medicinal use or otherwise, is illegal in Ms. Sullivan's home state of North Carolina, where she lives in a double-wide trailer with her husband, a tug boat captain, and their grandson. And so, when Ms. Sullivan runs out of her medicine of choice, she is forced to drive from her home in Winnabow to the nearby city of Wilmington to buy it on the street.
"They all know me over there. They call me Grandma."
But dealing with the black market is a dangerous and unpredictable undertaking, particularly for the elderly and the infirm, who make inviting targets. On Thursday (4/1) Mrs. Sullivan found out the hard way that the unavailability of cannabis through legitimate channels can have a devastating impact on the health and well-being of those who need it. Mrs. Sullivan, with her grandson in the car, was beaten and robbed of her credit cards and more than $140.
"I called the police on my cell phone," Mrs. Sullivan told The Week Online. "I told them why I was there and showed them which way the robbers ran. But all they did was tell me to move away from the steering wheel. They treated me like I was the criminal."
In the eyes of Wilmington law enforcement, Mrs. Sullivan IS a criminal. Prosecutors have charged her with misdemeanor child abuse for having her grandson with her when she tried to buy her medicine.
"He was home from school, and I took him along while I was running errands, and I was out of medicine. He didn't know why we were there, and I never smoke it in front of him. But I'm not ashamed of using it. It helps me. I'm not a criminal, I'm a woman who is in a lot of pain, and it's the only thing that helps. If President Clinton was in my home right now, I'd smoke it in front of him. How can I be a criminal for using something that helps my pain?"
Detective Ocie Horton of the Wilmington police is handling the case. "I'm a juvenile officer, though I've taken on the whole case at this point," he told The Week Online. "My first concern, which is still my primary concern here, is the welfare of the child. He was put in danger, into a situation where he could be robbed, and could have been seriously injured." Detective Horton, who was not present at the scene of the arrest, said that as of this time, no charges have been filed against Mrs. Sullivan for her attempt to buy the marijuana.
"With regard to the child, we've done what the law requires," Detective Horton said. In North Carolina, the law requires police to notify child welfare authorities whenever child abuse charges are filed.
The incident highlights concerns that have led patients throughout the nation to open up cooperatives and other distribution networks to get marijuana to patients who would otherwise have to go to the street.
Jeff Jones, Executive Director of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, told The Week Online, "If there were a legal, regulated supplier for the people who are using cannabis for legitimate medical purposes, incidents like this one would simply not occur."
As to whether Mrs. Sullivan's medical need is legitimate, her husband, who has been a tug boat captain for thirty-two years, said there is simply no question.
"I've seen my wife in pain for a long time," he said. I know that she suffers despite anything that the doctors have prescribed. I don't use drugs of any kind myself, I can't even tolerate aspirin, but there's no doubt that a little marijuana makes all the difference in the world to my wife. I wouldn't even allow the stuff in my house otherwise."
Mrs. Sullivan herself has spoken to her doctors about the issue. "I've told every doctor that I've had that I use marijuana and that it helps me. Not a single one of them has ever told me to stop."
As to the propriety of having her 13 year-old grandson along with her when she tried to make her purchase, Jones said the law sets up an untenable situation.
"If Mrs. Sullivan were able to go to a pharmacy to get this, there would be no question, not an eyebrow raised over whether her grandson accompanied her," he said. "And no one would be put at risk."
Detective Horton, however, said that the police don't have the luxury of playing 'what-if.' "The fact is that this woman put her grandson in harm's way, and that's what she's been charged with," he said. "Neither Mrs. Sullivan nor her grandson could describe their attackers, who were apparently wearing ski masks over their faces. That doesn't mean that we're not doing what we can to find and prosecute her attackers. That investigation is ongoing. In the meantime, our concern is with the child and his welfare."
Mrs. Sullivan now says that she wishes that her grandson hadn't been with her that day. "I've gone over there so many times with no problems. He was off from school and I was taking care of him and I needed to go." But as to her use of the plant itself, for her, the issue is one of both principle and survival.
"I need (marijuana) to live my life. It's my health and it's important to me. Now I don't have any, and I was beaten up and robbed," she said, choking back tears. Asked if she would go back to try to buy marijuana again, Mrs. Sullivan was resolute. "As soon as I can."