After six weeks in the hospital, Jane Weirick returned to her home in Hayward in mid-February. She is recovering from a rare, extremely debilitating illness that may have resulted from chemical exposure, according to her Kaiser doctors. Jane is convinced the chemical assault came from Avid, a pesticide that a few growers of “medical” marijuana reportedly spray on their plants to control spider mites.
Jane has been on the cutting edge of the medical marijuana movement -literally- since 1996, when she was responsible for packaging at Dennis Peron’s SF Cannabis Buyers Club. After Prop 215 passed, she began trimming and packaged cannabis for growers and for new Bay Area dispensaries.
When the state forced the SFCBC to close in April ’98, leaving thousands of patients without their drug of choice, Jane and Wayne Justmann, Randi Webster and Gary Farnsworth found a building for rent at 350 Divisadero and transformed the drab, vacant space into the San Francisco Patients Resource Center. In 2003 Jane opened her own club in the East Bay while continuing to run her trimming-and-processing service.
As 2004 was winding down, Jane decided to sell the dispensary. Maybe her body sensed trouble coming and her mind got the message. The trouble arrived, as she tells it, on Thanksgiving. “I thought I had the flu. I was tired, I had a headache, I felt sick. I went to the doctor. They gave me painkillers hydrocodone. They told me ‘Take two of these every four hours.’ I did that. After two weeks it occurred to me that I was hooked on the painkillers and decided to kick them, which took me three days. But then I couldn’t walk.
“I kept going downhill through Christmas. New Year’s Eve they moved me by ambulance to Kaiser Hayward. Nine neurologists looked at me. They checked for viral meningitis, brain tumors, you name it. It took them 29 days to come up with a diagnosis. Then they moved me to Kaiser Vallejo. When I got there my entire right side was paralyzed. I couldn’t talk, couldn’t move. I was in total pain, getting dilaudid intravenously every four hours. I couldn’t lift my head up.
“The second day I was there Big Mike came and brought me a joint. Went out in the back and smoked it. I started holding my head up. Next day he brought me another and I held my head up all day. Three days later I could hold my back up. A week later, starting to walk.
“We don’t know if cannabis helped bring me back, but Kaiser Vallejo gave me a place to go smoke. Security would wave. Everyone knew what I was doing. I would have brought a Volcano in but I couldn’t use my hands. I signed my name today (2/23), that was a first. I’m learning how to type again, starting to catch up on my emails.”
Jane says that when she began packaging extensively for the San Francisco CBC, all the cannabis passing through her hands had been grown outdoors. Now, she estimates, 75 to 80 percent of the cannabis sold in Bay Area dispensaries is grown indoors. The outdoor percentage “goes up somewhat around harvest” for a few months. (Cannabis grown indoors is much more susceptible to spider mites.)
Avid, manufactured by Syngenta (formerly by Novartis), is a so-called “natural” pesticide, extracted from a soil bacterium. It is applied to plants in the flowering stage. It is classified by the industry as “slightly” toxic, but by entomologists as “highly” toxic.
Jane says that only “five or six” of the vendors for whom she used to trim admit they used Avid, “and only two used it a lot. But we have no idea how much exposure it takes to cause this, so we don’t know how many other people might be affected.”
Jane regrets working for one vendor who now admits using Avid heavily. “Over the years I trimmed for him, I packaged for him, I quality-controlled for him. I also found out that my next door neighbor was using it and I could have picked it up from the property I was living on. There’s been a lot of exposure.”
Jane says the onset of her illness was preceded by about seven months by a severe allergic attack. At that time, she says, “I had to stop trimming and packaging because it made me sneeze so bad.”
Jane’s advice to those who package or trim cannabis: “Wear masks, wear long sleeves, wear gloves, ventilate the area, and don’t do it as much as I did.”
Jane was off cannabis for about a week and a half when she first went to the hospital. The initial diagnosis was a brain tumor and she received three days of chemotherapy, during which she says she was “Miserable and nauseous, not eating and throwing up. On the second day they didn’t give me any painkillers and when I screamed, they shut the door. The third day I ate a bunch of cannabis caramels and slept all night. Woke up, ate breakfast and didn’t throw up. The nurses are in there going ‘What happened?’ And I told them. The doctor came in and I told him what I was doing and he said ‘Fine.’ So I ate caramels and when I got to Vallejo, Mike came up and we smoked. And when I could use my hands, I went out there myself.”
Jane says she was “off cigarettes a lot longer because nobody would bring me those.” She’s now using her Volcano vaporizer but her fingers are still not nimble enough to load it.
Tod Mikuriya, MD, thinks “presumptive delayed allergic hypersensitivity” is a reasonable diagnosis and advised Weirick to undergo to confirm it. Mikuriya has been been urging since the mid-1990s that cannabis dispensed for medical purposes be screened for pesticide residue. “Patients with HIV and other illnesses that compromise the immune system are at even greater risk [than Weirick],” he observes.
Dr. Russell Jaffe, apprised of Weirick’s history, sees “a good chance that a hormone disrupter chemical is at work, perhaps along with its metabolite (epoxide, usually).”
Dr. X comments: “Avid works as a GABA agonist. So if Jane was given any GABA-agonist medications she would have gotten worse (valium or other muscle relaxants, alcohol). If you go to Pubmed, you’ll find lots of research that suggests THC decreases GABA in parts of the brain, so Jane’s treatment makes sense!”
A serious organic agronomist consulted by C Notes comments, “Abamectin [the active ingredient in Avid] is called by some a “soft” pesticide because it’s made by a bacterium, it’s ‘natural.’ But just because a toxin is made by a bacterium doesn’t mean it’s safe for human ingestion. Occasionally people have called to ask what pesticide to use and I say, ‘Absolutely no, out of the question.’ There need to be cultural practices initiated up front that prevent the need for controlled materials.
“Prevention is the key, period. There are truly ‘soft’ materials: Soaps, oils, water pressure. There are tools to contol pests, there’s no excuse to use these pesticides -it’s greed, it’s dumb, it’s just not right.”
Jane is in a wheelchair as we go to press, but steadily improving. She says she wants to show herself in her current state “to scare people.” An irony of her situation is that just prior to falling ill, Jane had been trying to revive the Medical Cannabis Association, a trade group she helped organize in 1998, to promote production and safety standards. Now she’s even more committed to the idea.
The editors of AARP The Magazine have notified Eric Bailey that they will pay him a a”kill fee” and waive their rights to an article on medical marijuana that they had commissioned a year ago. AARP’S honchos apparently started getting cold feet soon after they accepted the piece for publication in August ’04. It was slated to run before the election, but held for reasons that were never explained to Bailey. In late December Accuracy in Media viciously attacked AARP the Magazine’s features editor, who had worked at High Times in the 1970s. Last week Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance emailed reformers to email AARP’s CEO to run the Bailey piece. Some 2,000 sent emails, but the tactic only served to expedite Bailey’s release.
Dennis Peron didn’t go to England to check out the hotel he’s been invited to manage, a representative of the owner came to San Francisco with a slide-show presentation. Dennis says the town of Dartmouth is “so beautiful!,” but ye olde Agincourt House, built in the 13th century and renovated in the16th, looks like the International House of Pancakes. “We’re going to have to serve pancakes,” says the prospective manager.
The deranged gunman in rural Alberta who killed four Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers, Jim Roszko, has been described worldwide -and on the front page of the New York Times- as a marijuana grower defending his crop. In fact he was a mechanic, and if he was defending anything, it was his chop shop. According to a neighbor named Dianne Romeo, “He was a loner. He was in jail for a few years. This didn’t happen because of this marijuana bust, he always gave the RCMPa hard time.”
FRED GARDNER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org