Serra Frank Feels Your Pain

By Kenneth Garger 07/19/11

The drive to legalize pot has spawned hundreds of off-beat organizations. But few have been as controversial as Moms for Marijuana, founded by a pain-crippled woman in Idaho. Pot has helped relieve some of her endless agonies. But how will it effect her two kids?

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Serra Frank Feels Your Pain.

Starting an international movement to promote the benefits of cannabis was never Serra Frank’s intention when, in 2005, she created a simple MySpace page.

The Boise, Idaho, native had been suffering from interstitial cystitis since 2002, although it took seven years to get a correct diagnosis. Interstitial cystitis is not a pretty medical condition. A chronic inflammation that prevents the walls of the bladder from expanding properly, which in turn causes them to crack and bleed, it can hurt like hell. When Frank’s symptoms first surfaced in 2002, she was pregnant with her second child. Her doctor prescribed Percocet, an acetaminophen/oxycodone combination, but it failed to quell her pain.

Month after month Frank went from doctor to doctor in search of a diagnosis, and was prescribed a dozen pain medications, to no avail. “I have gone through the Oxycodones and Hydrocodones. I tried Naproxen—all of the many anti-inflammatories,” she recalls. “It got to where I was only taking sleeping pills because I didn’t want to take prescription narcotics any longer. They started telling me that I was a pill addict, that I was making up my pain.”

By 2004, with her condition still undiagnosed, Frank was nearing desperation. She was frantically trying to keep up with her responsibilities as a wife and mother of two young sons, even as the pain and the pills increasingly disabled her. “The drugs made me feel so out of it. I barely remember the first couple of years of my younger son’s life because I was on them for so long,” she says.

Yet she never entirely lost hope. In late 2004, she stumbled upon an effective treatment. While she was confiding in a close friend about her problems, he suggested that they smoke some pot—just to try to chill her out a little. The experience proved to be a revelation. “After trying it, I realized that it was as if I had taken a pain pill—the pain was gone, yet the intoxication was not as extreme as was the case with prescription painkillers the doctors were giving me. I was mobile and almost alert,” she says. Like other pain victims before her, Frank had discovered the health benefits of medical marijuana.

This wasn’t her first time getting stoned. Like about one third of America’s teens, she had experimented with pot—mainly as a result of peer pressure, she says—in high school in the early ‘90s. “When I used cannabis as a teenager, I felt rebellious and excited because it was illegal. But it made me sleepy and I didn’t enjoy the high,” she says.

But two decades later, federal laws prohibiting the use of marijuana are a source of great concern to her. “As an adult and as a medical user, I have no other choice, no matter the legality of the drug,” she says. “I don’t want to go to jail or lose my student funding or have to deal with anyone even questioning whether I am a competent parent because of my use. But I have to use cannabis if I want to live my life and take care of my family.”

The first question many people have when they first hear of Moms for Marijuana is, Are you advocating for your kids to get stoned? “From a mother’s point of view, we don’t want our children getting high all the time,” Frank says. “We don’t want them using any kind of drugs—including alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. But right now, because it is not regulated, it’s as easy for our 16-year-olds to get black-market marijuana as it is for them to acquire tobacco or alcohol.” Turning what is known as the gateway argument on its head, Frank continues, “While they’re out there they meet drug dealers who also have access to ecstasy, heroin and methamphetamine. We need to close that gate that is allowing our children to have access to all of these drugs.”

Frank’s two sons, now 10 and eight, are aware that their mother uses marijuana. They accept it because they know without it she would revert back to her old bed-ridden self. Frank says, “I am completely open with them. They know about Moms for Marijuana and how I am trying to educate people. I educate them as well.”

The development of Moms from a single MySpace page to a globe-spanning movement exemplifies the dynamism of viral activism. “It all started from the MySpace page and putting up information, friending people, social networking and sharing experiences and opinions,” Frank recalls.

“How can something so effective in controlling my pain be labeled as an illegal drug?” This is the inevitable question pondered by thousands of patients who depend on medical marijuana for their quality of life. “It helps with so many medical conditions,” Frank says. “We get people with cancer, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease. Some have psychological disorders like bipolar and schizophrenia. There are so many different people who benefit from it.”

By the end of her first day on MySpace, Frank had a dozen followers on her page. Fast-forward to today: Moms has grown into a grassroots network with thousands of members worldwide—and no one is more surprised than Frank. The group has attracted members from all over the demographic map. What most share is the fact that they—or a family member—depends on medical marijuana to treat pain, nausea, and other chronic debilitating symptoms. “You don’t even have to be a mom,” Frank says. “We have a lot of men. We work with Dads for Marijuana based out of Canada. Some members don’t have kids—they have animals as their kids. All you have to do is be concerned with the future of our world.”

Frank founded the first chapter in Boise. Other chapters have sprung up in many states across the U.S. and in Canada, Australia and Israel. The group has a busy Facebook page that covers the daily news about medical marijuana and a website with tons of facts and figures, such as the annual number of marijuana arrests in the U.S.—close to 900,000, twice as high as 20 years ago.

The development of Moms from a single MySpace page to a globe-spanning movement exemplifies the dynamism of viral activism. “It all started from the MySpace page and putting up information, friending people, social networking and sharing experiences and opinions,” Frank recalls. The group’s arresting name was not the result of extensive brainstorming. “A mom pays attention to things that say ‘mom’ in them. I was hopeful that it might attract the attention of those who were like me—moms who wanted to learn more about the truth of cannabis," she recalls.

The group did not go public until a national meeting in early 2006, partly to help get the annual Global Marijuana March off the ground in Idaho. The march is the banner day for the global movement to decriminalize weed; it was started by the New York–based group called Cures Not Wars and has spread to 250 cities worldwide. As so often happens in grassroots activism, the energy unleashed by that first meeting of Moms for Marijuana led to a second one, and the organization has been meeting on a monthly basis ever since.

Moms has formed a tight alliance with two local pro-cannabis groups, Compassionate Idaho, which is focused on getting a citizen initiative called the Idaho Medical Choice Act (IDMA) on the Idaho ballot for 2012, and Idaho NORML, a chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), the granddaddy of the marijuana movement, dating back to 1970. While Moms opposes federal laws against pot, it’s at the state level that the legal prohibitions have been most successfully reformed—and almost exclusively concerning medical marijuana. Starting with California in 1996, 16 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana, mainly through ballot initiatives. Polls in recent years have found that about 80% of Americans favor legalizing pot for pain, while almost half back its legalization and regulation. “Each state is on a bit of a different level depending on the laws already in place,” Frank says.

When asked how marijuana can in fact improve the world, Frank shoots back with a set-piece that can only be called wishful: “Cannabis is a renewable, sustainable and versatile resource. It can be used for paper, plastic, fiber, food, fuel, construction, medicine, recreation and more. It can provide our world with a new crop, new biodegradable products and renewable sources of energy. It could create jobs, increase revenue, and provide new taxes that could be used for our communities and schools. It can create thousands of medicines that could help ease the suffering of millions of people and potentially holds the cure for cancer and other elusive diseases. It can help people to become productive members of our society by allowing them to become independent from our welfare systems.”

Frank did not acquire these starry eyes overnight. When her MySpace was first up and running, Moms for Marijuana was focused only on medical marijuana. But after being exposed to the ideas of the larger marijuana-legalization advocacy movement, the group—eagerly and with little dissent, according to Frank—jumped on the more radical bandwagon.

Yet the movement to legalize marijuana faces daunting obstacles given the current anti-drug mindset in U.S. political life. Even as an overwhelming number of Americans support medical marijuana, the feds continue to boldly reinforce its illegality.

Medical marijuana has been in the headlines recently—but not for reasons that pleased advocates. The Obama administration scored three hits against the issue, shredding hopes for progress on the pot-legalization front. The White House released its National Drug Control Strategy with a notable mention of the fact that marijuana use is at an eight-year high and harsh opposition to legalization, claiming that marijuana is addictive and unsafe. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has cracked down on medical marijuana. The feds announced last month that while they won’t target sick people (!), they were eyeing big medical-marijuana shops, even in states where dispensing pot for pain is legal.

That Moms for Marijuana has been a small but vital part of the pro=cannabis global movement, while its founder remains unable to take advantage of her state’s legal medical marijuana availability, is a poignant testimony to how much progress remains to be made.

Most notably, DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart released the agency’s official response to a years-old petition filed by advocates to reclassify marijuana, which is currently a Schedule 1 substance—as heavily restricted as heroin or fentanyl. The response was, unsurprisingly, a resounding no. The DEA justified nixing loosening the weed regs with two claims that left activists scratching their heads: that pot "has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S...and lacks accepted safety for use under medical supervision."

Leonard’s statement that marijuana has no medical application flies in the face of two decades of scientific studies. It also conflicts with recent findings by the National Cancer Institute, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services—the same department that was asked by the DEA (in 2004) to review the science presented by the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis (in 2002); the NCI said on its website that marijuana may help with insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea and pain.

Dr. Igor Grant, director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego, told the Los Angeles Times, “It's always a danger if the government acts on certain kinds of persuasions or beliefs rather than evidence...State-supported clinical trials show that marijuana helps with neuropathic pain and muscle spasticity."

The DEA’s decision has one silver lining for advocates—it frees the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis to appeal to the federal courts. While Moms for Marijuana is not involved in the case, the group’s Facebook page was crackling with dismay at the Obama administration’s decision. Frank herself minced not a word. “The law keeping marijuana a Schedule I illicit drug is based upon lies brought forward by a continuous political agenda,” she told The Fix. “The people of this country are becoming aware of that. They want cannabis and are going to have it with or without their government’s approval."

Frank says that one of the main reasons marijuana remains illegal is because of the negative stigma attached to it. To counter all the moralizing against weed, Moms for Marijuana works to raise awareness of the many scientific studies showing the health benefits of medical marijuana and portraying marijuana as an essentially harmless plant. How to change longstanding anti-pot prejudice is a central subject of group discussions. “It’s a nontoxic plant—that’s the biggest thing,” Frank says. “All of the laws are based on the fiction that it’s dangerous and has no medical benefits.”

Still, progress has been made, however slowly. A handful of states, including California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Nebraska and Massachusetts, have 2012 ballot initiatives for the legalization of marijuana. “Last year Prop 19 in California failed by only a few points,” Frank says. “Either way it was a win, it’s a huge step forward—there was monumental support behind it.”

Today, Frank lives with her family in progressive Portland, Oregon, having left Idaho in favor of a state where prescription pot for pain is legal. “Life needed me to move here and pursue a better means of access to the medicine,” she says. Yet ironically, Frank is still obtaining cannabis from an unlicensed dealer—which is illegal—as she waits for the state to process her application for a medical card. “Honestly, I don’t have mine yet,” she says. “It can take many months. It’s so difficult to get the required money together, especially if you’re low income, as I am. You are required to have a doctor’s visit within the past year. But many people who use marijuana haven’t seen their doctor in a long time because they’re not happy with the medical profession.” To make matters worse, Oregon is weighing whether or not to raise fees for the program, doubling the cost. “I thought it would be a lot easier, I guess,” she says with a sigh.

Worldwide, the European Union is of course way ahead of the U.S. in terms of removing obstacles to pot-for-pain treatment. But at a time when abuse of prescription pain medications like OxyContin and Vicodin is reaching epidemic proportions, quickly outstripping illicit drugs in rates of addiction and attendant health care and human costs, the DEA’s decision to stigmatize the non-addictive, nontoxic marijuana plant as a Schedule I drug as dangerous as heroin gives all the signs of a last-gasp effort by the antiquated War on Drug mentality.

Yet advocates like Frank are acutely aware that the winds of public opinion are shifting in their direction, particularly pot use for medical purposes. That Moms for Marijuana has been a small but vital part of this global movement, while its founder remains unable to take advantage of her state’s legal medical marijuana availability, is a poignant testimony to how much progress remains to be made.

“Where do I get the passion to do this?” the accidental activist says. “It’s because I feel that cannabis gives me life. It’s as simple as that.”

Kenneth Garger is an intern at The Fix. He also reports for the New York Post.

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Ken Garger is a reporter for the New York Post. You can follow him on Twitter.

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