by Loretta Nall
A few months ago a gentleman named Don emailed me to inquire about medical marijuana in Alabama. He told me he is a cancer patient with Stage 4 Hodgkins Lymphoma, diabetes and neuorpathy and that since his insurance stopped covering marinol he had been forced to resort to aquiring his own medicine. That led to his being arrested and he is now facing prison time. Tuesday was his first court appearance and I wanted to be there to make sure he was treated with dignity and for moral support. So I took a little road trip to Butler, AL.
Butler, AL is the county seat of Choctaw County which lies on the border of Mississippi in the Southwestern part of the state. It is literally on the back 40 of absolutely nowhere. To get there you travel down I-459 to I-20/59 and then just I-59 until you are about 60 miles south of Tuscaloosa. Then you take HWY 17 (a two lane blacktop) south for about 40 miles and eventually you arrive in Butler.
I was amazed by the lack of absolutely anything on HWY 17. There was one small town called York at the very beginning. About ten miles further on there was a gas station. I needed to get a notebook so I decided I would stop and grab one and also get some cash to have on hand....just in case. However, this store had neither notebooks nor an ATM machine so I went on my way. Was a good thing I had plenty of gas in the car because it was 28 miles to the next store.
In that 28 miles I saw some of the saddest and most dismal living conditions I have ever witnessed outside of a third world country. For miles and miles there's nothing but red dirt banks, kudzu and pine trees broken only occasionally by tiny, 1960's circa trailers and shotgun shacks that look as if one good puff of wind might knock them down as easily as if they were made of cards.
This would have been almost unbearably sad but for the indominable human spirit that occasinally manifested itself in the form of shotgun shacks painted in wild bright shades like pink with red trim or purple with yellow trim. Sitting there all flashy, bright and in complete defiance of the gloom around them they seem to say;
"Yeah, maybe all I am is a shotgun shack but, by God, I will not be a gloomy one. I will be colorful and I will bring cheer in spite of my surroundings."
The color of those houses makes me wonder about the occupants and whether or not there is some special meaning behind it all. I found that seeing the splashes of outlandish color gave me an odd sense of gaity and is still making me smile as I write this. I guess the moral of this part of the story is "Even if all you got is a little paint you can still make the world a tad brighter."
After what seemed like a journey of forever through nowhere I begin to see the tell tale signs of life in a small, rural Alabama town. A tiny, brick Church of Christ that looked as if it would be uncomfortable to sit in for any length of time. I'd bet ten to one their pews are of the unpadded variety and their air conditioning consists of the old tyme fan on a wooden stick tucked in the backs of pews along with the hymnals, usually courtesy of the local insurance man or the funeral home. The houses started to look a bit more sturdy, street signs began to pop up and soon I passed a sign welcoming me to Butler, Alabama.
I see a store up ahead and decide to make a pit stop. It looks more promising for both a notebook and cash and it also has a restroom. As I close the restroom door and take a seat I am confronted with this.
And I won't lie to you....it made me wonder about the inhabitants of the town of Butler. I left the restroom and began searching the asiles for a notebook. Would you belive that this store did not have one either? I figured they must not be real big on writin' in the town of Butler but pretty big on wife beatin' and cancer patient harassin'. Looking around more revealed that there was also no ATM. Everyone in the store was giving me the "You ain't from roun' here are ye?" look and I, a proud native of Alabama, began to get a little uncomfortable. I have never been to any town in Alabama where I felt like I did not belong or fit in. Oh, the outrage!!
I left and decided to try my luck across the street at Fred's Dollar Store and Pharmacy. As soon as I walk in and, to my utmost delight, there is a whole row of 70 sheet, single subject, notebooks bound with the kind of wire that likes to catch on everything, lined up just as pretty as you please. I gather a few more things and make my way to the check out where they are able to give me cash back on my debit card, thereby knocking out two birds with one stone.
Once I am settled back in the car I call Don, the man I have come to see. We decide to meet at the courthouse and chat a little over coffee. The courthouse is in the middle of the town square and reminded me of the town I grew up in Ashland, AL. The town of Butler also had a a Bill's Dollar Store just like the town where I grew up.
Bill's Dollar Store
It also has a very old water tower adorned with the ever clever Smiley Face.
The only visible industry is Bulter, AL is pulpwood.
Don is a 56 year-old former specialty carpenter by trade. Divorced father of two. Lives alone. Don is a cancer sufferer with Stage 4 Hodgkins Lymphoma, diabetes and neuropathy. Every day Don injects himself with insulin in the morning and evening. He takes two diabetes pills in the morning and evening, 10 mg of Oxycontin twice a day, 7.5 mg Loratab four times a day and 40 mg of Prozac once a day. His chemo treatments are currently every three months.
He is a small fellow who appears at the courthouse looking pale, weak and walking with a cane. I am immdeiately angry that our government would dare to pick on someone so sick and helpless and defensless. What BASTARDS!!
I get out of my car and call over to him. After we shake hands we go across the street for lunch and he tells me more about his case and how it came to be that someone as sick as he is suddenly found himself facing a very long time in prison for felony possession of marijuana in the first degree. I won't discuss details of that conversation here.
We finish lunch and make our way back the courthouse, which is blessed with a nice air conditioning system. While we are waiting on the proceedings to begin I ask him what kind of symptoms he has with Hodgkins Lymphoma. Don raises his right arm and reveals to me a lymph node the size of a tennis ball. I held it in my hand. It was a monster.
"I'm just really tired all the time and these lymph nodes swell up under my arms, my groin and on the side of my neck. When I first started to get sick back in the 90's it was just fatigue. I kept going to the doctor and he kept telling me fatigue was the most common complaint he heard. He kept giving me antibiotics and sending me home. My wife didn't believe I was sick and after a few years she left me and sued for child support. I had no choice but to go back to work and pay it or go to jail. One day in 2000 I woke up and the lymph nodes all over my body were huge and I was in a lot of pain. I took the morning off work and went to the doctor. He drew blood for the first time in all those years and told me he would call me Friday with the results. I went back to work. On Friday his nurse called and said "You have cancer and you need to check into the oncology clinic right away."
"I started chemo soon after and at first I took it every month. Oh, but it makes you so sick. The doctor prescribed Marinol which worked well for my nausea and I was on it for a while. Then my insurance decided they wouldn't cover it no more. It costs over $700 a month and I can't afford it. I was left without anything to help ease the pain and sickness from the cancer and the chemo. Then somebody told me about people using marijuana for this kind of stuff and I was desperate so I tried it. And it worked, not only for the nausea from the chemo but the pain from the cancer and neuropathy and for the depression that comes with terminal illness. It was a miracle....until the cops came."
Two women come into the courtroom and sit down at one of the tables in the front. They began calling the accused two at a time. Don was called third and I walked up with him. He had no attorney and this hearing was to determine if he qualified for a court appointed one or if he would have to hire his own.
Clerk: "State your name."
"Don ... ..."
Clerk: Will you be hiring an attorney or do you need one appointed?"
Clerk: "Are you employed?"
"No. I am on disability."
Clerk: "How much money do you draw a month?"
"$$$" (tiny insignificant amount that it would be hard for a nun to live on)
Clerk: "Do you receive food stamps or Medicaid?"
Clerk: "Do you have any money in the bank?"
Clerk: "Do you own your home?"
Clerk: "Do you own any land?"
"I'm buying what I live on but was hopin' to leave it to my kids so they'll have somethin' when I'm gone."
I don't really have any words to describe what it felt like to watch this poor, sick, little man have to answer questions about his property for the purpose of asset forfiture, I'm sure. Do police in my state actually arrest cancer patients who are near death and send them through the court system in hopes of seizing their land?
Yes, apparently they do. I know the purpose of the questions is to determine if Don qualifies for an attorney and not asset forfiture....but if he had owned his land and had to sell it then it would have all come to the same in the end, no?
The clerk scribbles something on paper and tells us to have a seat and wait for the Judge. Half an hour later the judge finally shows up. He begins to explain that this is a rights hearing. He asks if everyone has been informed of the charges against them? He then tells them that they have the right to remain silent, the right to a preliminary hearing and the right to an attorney. He says that their court appointed attorney is listed on some of the paperwork they have been given and that it might take a few days for the documents informing the attorneys of their appointment to reach said attorneys. Then he said everyone was free to go home.
As we make our way outside to a shady spot we pass an inmate doing edging work along the sidewalk. Don looks at me and says "I wish it was me doing that work. I always loved to garden and do yard work but now I can't be in the sun."
"I am so sick. I often pray to just go ahead and die. It ain't right for the law to make me a criminal. It ain't right that on top of dyin' I have to be drug through the court system and battle the cops. What's wrong with people that they let this kind of stuff go on? What kind of country do we live in?"
You're right Don. It ain't right. To lose your wife and children due to your cancer. To be so sick with an incurable disease that you can no longer do any of the little things in life that you once found pleasure in. And for trying to ease what must be near unbearable suffering you are humiliated and stripped of any remaining bit of dignity in front of strangers in the courtroom who want to know every thing but your drawer size. To know that you likely have only months to live and that you must spend those precious remaining months battling asshole cops and judges in order to spend what little time you have a free human being just BEGS the questions of what kind of people are we that we allow this shit to go on? We certainly aren't civilized nor compassionate nor humane nor fair nor just. Since dogs wouldn't treat each other this way it stands to reason that those making and enforcing these kinds of laws in our society are lower than dogs.
Part of me firmly believes that this is allowed to go on because people don't really know about it. They see in the paper "Man busted growing marijuana" and they think it's good that he is caught. What the paper doesn't report is that the man is dying of cancer and that the marijuana he may have been growing was to help ease him out of this miserable world. The paper shows pictures of big, beefy, healthy cops all smiling and acting like fucking heros...but they leave out the ones of a sick, yellow, emaciated, cancer patient, where the largest things on his body, save his head, are the damn tumors which are killing him. So, I have to think people don't know or I will go crazy.
But what about the ones that do know yet do nothing to stop this madness? What about the cops who knew this man had cancer and targeted him anyway? What does it say about them? I know what they will say when asked why they did it.."We was just following orders." Please keep in mind that is the same thing Nazi soldiers said when they were brought up on war crimes charges. A cop who enforces a bad law is a bad cop. An American who does not purposely break a bad law or publicly advocate against a bad law is not really a true American.
I know that I do everything within my power every single day to end this kind of maddening cruelty.
Back in June of 2006 I met a man named Don from Butler, AL who is a cancer patient spending the remianing days of his life fighting to stay out of prison for using marijuana as medicine. It's been eight months since I last saw Don in person and today, I did not recognize him. Here are photos of Don. The first one is from June of last year and the second one is from today.