Fighting the Good Fight in Wisconsin

As Legislators Push Anti-Reform Policy, Advocates Soldier On

By Mary Lou Smart

After years on pain pills, Belinda Balk found cannabis. A 54-year-old mother of two with six grandchildren, she is a newcomer to mar- ijuana. She had tried smoking marijuana in her teens and did not like it.

Over time, however, her medical issues were getting the best of her. A violent rape years ago had left her with recur- rent painful memories and anxiety, which her doctors diag- nosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Possibly as a result of the PTSD, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in the mid-1990s. Characterized by chronic and wide- spread muscle and connective tissue pain, fibromyalgia is often accompanied by sleeping disorders and fatigue. Sufferers of PTSD and fibromyalgia are also prone to depression.

To fight the pain and calm her fears, doctors prescribed a wide range of pills from Xanax to Demerol, hydrocodone and oxy- codone. They came with worrisome side effects. More than once she forgot what she had taken and over-medicated.

“I would forget and then my mind was just out of sorts,” she said. “People are in the hospital constantly for acci- dental overdoses. Now I find out that  cannabis  works and I didn’t even have to take those drugs?”

Despite her setbacks, Balk was a hard-worker, a good provider and resourceful. Friendly and personable, she was a realtor for 17 years and before that a cosmetolo- gist. She has managed a day care center and been a foster parent. To be able to function normally, hold down a job and care for her family, Balk tried to use medication spar- ingly.

A year ago, she was driving across town with her son when something triggered a panic attack. Shaking and perspiring, she pulled off the road. Rifling through her purse, she saw that she had no Xanax, a realization that caused her anxiety levels to spike. Her son reached his hand out and gave her a joint. “You  need this more than    I do,” he said. Not long after trying the natural  remedy, she felt better. Her breathing slowed. She became calm.

Everything following this incident, her first experience with medical cannabis, has been part of a profound awakening. As far as the cannabis goes, she was amazed at the number of issues the plant resolved, including her reliance on pharma- ceuticals. With a small amount of cannabis smoked in slight increments, she weaned herself off of all prescription medica- tions. Imagine the relief that comes from titrating, measuring, doses easily, and feeling benefit within 20 seconds. No more worries of overdosing or toxic side effects!

For ongoing benefit, she does need ongoing therapy. Without medicating with cannabis for three days, the fear, anxiety and pain return.

“For me this is not using cannabis to feel good as in party time,” she said. “When I medicate with cannabis it lessens the pain and it helps me tremendously with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Narcotics do not take away pain; you don’t care about anything but you are still  in pain. Cannabis does take away pain and the relief is imme- diate. Relief from the anxiety and fear felt with post-trau- matic stress disorder is immediate.”

Her own personal experience has opened her eyes to the insanity of a prohibition against a natural therapy and she

wants to help others. Through advocacy, she is fighting a new type of anxiety, the fear of arrest. Compassionate to a fault, Balk now defends the poor, the elderly, the sick and the disadvantaged who face arrest for using a simple plant that provides natural therapy.

For Balk, the refusal of one legislator, the Republican state majority leader, to listen to constituents who depend on cannabis for medical reasons is what drove her to open a local chapter of Americans for Safe Access (ASA).

“After I met with my own senator, Senator Scott Fitzgerald, and he treated me like I was nothing, I went online to find organizations that are proactive and that is how I found ASA,” she said. “My parents who are in their 80s are proud of me for doing this. My sister who is an attorney is proud of me and so is my brother. My family  has been very, very supportive.”

In January, ASA awarded Balk a scholarship to attend its National Medical Cannabis Unity Conference in Washington D.C. in February. Once there, she was impressed by what she saw.

“I was expecting a bunch of hippies sitting around,” she said. “Instead, we heard from doctors, nurses, attorneys and other business people from around the country and scientists from different countries. It was amazing to be there.”

After returning to Wisconsin, she was empowered and determined. In April, she opened up an ASA chapter in her hometown of Columbus. Within three months member- ship grew to more than 250.

There is work to be done. With approval  for  cannabis high — even 10 years ago a poll registered support for the plant in excess of 80 percent — and two state statutes rec- ognizing medical cannabis use by the sick, legislators seem to be marching to the beat of a different drummer.

Recent legislation that will negatively impact many who rely on cannabis as medicine is a prime example.

A public hearing held in June by the Senate  Committee  on Economic Development and Local Government to discuss its version of the legislation, Senate Bill 150, was for show only. Legislators were unresponsive to construc- tive criticism. The bill’s clear intent is to prosecute cannabis users.

In reference to marijuana offenders, one of the bill’s spon- sors, freshman Republican Senator Rick Gudex explained “they should get a greater punishment the second time around.”

Following passage of the anti-cannabis legislation, in any municipality that decides it makes sense to go after a per- son whose case has been dismissed by a local district attorney, a person previously convicted of misdemeanor possession of a joint, when caught a second time with even a seed, might be faced with being charged twice for the same offense. This time around, if the state district attorney dismisses the second offense, the new legislation allows it to be brought back to the local court to be pros- ecuted yet again.

Marijuana laws in Wisconsin are stringent. First-time

offenses for a small amount carry misdemeanor charges with up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Second- time convictions are felonies with large penalties. District attorneys often throw out second offenses for small amounts, possibly because convictions result in felonies and huge costs not only to the individual charged but to families and communities. The perceived lack of follow through by district attorneys who rarely pursue small cannabis possession cases inspired the freshman senators to craft SB150, but in a state with strong support for cannabis reform many are scratching their heads and talking about double jeopardy and the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protection against trying a  person twice for the same crime.

With penalties of 3 ½ years in jail and a $10,000 fine, a felony conviction on a second offense for even a small amount of marijuana is severe. Another freshman senator and sponsor, Republican Jeremy Theisfeldt said that the bill is a common sense idea, a fantastic way for municipal- ities to recoup the cost of local arrests. When asked by Senator Lena Taylor, a Democrat, if the two had tried instead to explore alternatives to criminalizing non-violent offenses, Theisfeldt appeared to not understand the conse- quences of his legislation. He said that SB150 was a rev- enue generator that would not lead to incarceration. In fact, not paying fines often leads to jail time. He said that the need for harsh penalties for small offenses was neces- sary as a way to penalize repeat offenders. Gudex joined in, asking, “If they cannot pay fines, where are they get- ting money to buy marijuana?”

When it comes to alcohol offenses, nobody is asking drunk drivers where they find the money to buy beer. Known for its breweries, the state has some of the most lenient drunk driving laws in the United States. In 2012, Wisconsin’s Department of Transportation reported that out of 28,213 OWI (Operating While Intoxicated) con- victions the previous year, approximately 39 percent of those were repeat offenders. In the Badger State, a first- time drunk driving offense results in a traffic citation, not a criminal charge. Beer is big business in Wisconsin and the industry supports its legislators.

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