The Cheryl Miller Memorial Project hit Washington, DC, this week, with more than 20 patients, along with friends and supporters, holding press conferences, demonstrations and doing lobbying in memory of longtime Multiple Sclerosis patient and medical marijuana activist Miller, who died of complications from MS in June.
Highlights included a Capitol Hill press conference addressed by Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Sam Farr (D-CA), respective sponsors of the States Rights' to Medical Marijuana Act (H.R. 2233) and the Truth in Trials Act (H.R. 1717), along with patients and medical experts. Moderated by Jim Miller, husband of Cheryl, the press conference was emotional and powerful.
"This was one of the most moving press conferences I have ever attended," reported Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (http://www.cjpf.org). "While I have heard several of the patients speak before, many of those who spoke I had never met or heard. Their straightforward presentations of their struggles and the value of cannabis in relieving their conditions were extremely moving."
"How many more people must suffer and die before Congress does the right thing?" asked Wisconsin patient Gary Storck, referring to the lack of movement on the Frank and Farr bills. Storck traveled to DC from Wisconsin, along with Jackie Rickert, founder of Is My Medicine Legal Yet (http://www.immly.org), her caretaker and another patient.
"I would not be here today were it not for medical cannabis," Rickert, uses marijuana medicinally to treat debilitating symptoms of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, told the full-house audience in the House office building. She had once been able to obtain medical marijuana through a federal government program, she said, but that program had been shut down. Now she buys it on the black market. Other patients, including Jeanelle Bluhm of Oregon, Jay Howell of Washington, Joan Legospi of Washington, Beckie Nikkel of California, Darrell Paulson of Minnesota, John Precup of Ohio, and Lisa Rasmussen of California, told similar tales.
But the Cheryl Miller Memorial Project had more on its mind than a press conference. Participants also took advantage of their time in Washington to visit congressional offices and lobby the National MS Society, Miller told DRCNet. "We started out visiting Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ). It turned out to be an acrimonious visit," Miller laughed. "We took up the medical marijuana issue with Pallone back in 1991, and his office promised they would not vote against good bills but just adopt a neutral position. But then he voted against the Hinchey amendment [to bar the DEA from raiding medical marijuana providers] instead of abstaining. I picketed outside his house last Sunday, so I can understand they're not too happy with me, but he could stop all this by having a 20 minute discussion with us on the record. That was the goal, to get an appointment, but so far they're saying that won't be possible."
Pallone wasn't the only congressman who heard from patient lobbyists that day, said Miller. "One of the patients and I went to my congressman, Jim Saxton (R-NJ), and we had a better time with him. We didn't get him to cosponsor, but he was patient, and we've got the door open." Other patients visited their representatives and even came back with some promises of cosponsorship, particularly from congressmen who had sponsored one bill but not the other. "That was empowering for the patients. They come to DC for the first time, and are able to get a response," Miller said.
And then there was the National MS Society, which much to Miller's frustration has shied away from embracing or even seriously researching the efficacy of marijuana in addressing the symptoms of MS. "That was the best part of the whole trip for me," said Miller, "we really made a lot of progress there." The visit was not confrontational, Miller explained, but part of an effort to educate the groups' local chapters. "Seven or eight MS patients came and met with Washington office head Jeanne Angulo, and she was absolutely stunned by what she heard," he said. "She looked absolutely befuddled that she didn't know this already."
Miller and the patients are asking the National MS Society to engage in a dialogue with patients over medical marijuana and MS -- "they've never even asked us what we know" -- to address the incidence of "treatment failure" with cannabis, and to turn its attention to work done on cannabis and MS in England, where patients will soon be able to purchase a sublingual cannabis spray. The "treatment failure" request, Miller admitted, is a ploy to get the society to finally notice all the cases where cannabis actually helps relieve symptoms for MS patients.
Miller's hope is that Angulo, and other local society heads who are about to be visited by energized patients, will begin bothering the society about the issue. "We'd like to see this end up with a visit with National MS Society director Dr. Steven Rheingold," said Miller. "We need to make this personal with him."
Miller praised the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org) for both its financial backing and its organizational assistance in Washington, and held out special kudos for Wisconsin patient Storck. "Gary was the hub of this," said Miller, "it couldn't have happened without him." The Project was also assisted by the Drug Policy Alliance's press office and a grant from the Tides Fund for Drug Policy Reform.
As for concrete results, Miller pointed to exposing a new group of powerful activists to the inner workings of the Capitol. "This was very empowering, they will be back, perhaps in smaller groups, but they will be back," he said. "And let's see if this resulted in any changes of mind or new sponsorships. We opened a lot of doors, but we need to see action. You don't know how well you did for awhile."
Visit http://www.cheryldcmemorial.org to learn more about the Cheryl Miller Memorial Project. View pictures from the two days at http://www.cheryldcmemorial.org/92203_ms_pts_ms_soc.htm and http://www.cheryldcmemorial.org/92303_press_conf.htm and http://stopthedrugwar.org/medicalmarijuana/cheryl-mssociety.html and see http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/303/cheryldc.shtml for DRCNet's preview report on the event last week.