Mom takes her stand: Austin activist advocates legalizing medicinal marijuana

Published 10:43 am Thursday, June 13, 2013

Deanna Jean discusses medical marijuana at the Austin Daily Herald office last week. Matt Peterson/

Deanna Jean discusses medical marijuana at the Austin Daily Herald office last week. Matt Peterson/

Deanna Jean makes a habit out of fighting tough battles. She underwent brain surgery in 2009 to combat a mysterious disease she thinks was brought on by the stress of working on an appeals case for her brother, who was convicted of rape in 2006 and is serving life in prison. Yet since her surgery, Jean has become a passionate advocate for another tough fight: legalizing medicinal marijuana in Minnesota and beyond.

“It’s a huge part of why I’m involved in medical marijuana activism,” Jean said of her surgery. “We are a medical-leading state, and we are looking for a cure for cancer here.”

The 38-year-old’s controversial stance started shortly after she began feeling unwell in January 2009, when she still lived in Colorado. She would constantly feel ill, see double and not hear things correctly, which worried her husband and four children. At times, she couldn’t even stand up straight, as she experienced a lot of vertigo and nausea.

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A visit to the doctor and a scan turned up an inexplicable shadow around her brain, which meant Jean needed emergency brain surgery on March 9, 2009, for doctors to figure out what caused her symptoms.

“They never could figure out what was wrong,” she said.

Jean began a long, slow healing process, relearning almost everything from basic motor skills like walking to remembering important dates, and her training as a massage therapist from Heritage College.

“I had to relearn how to read,” she said. “A lot of speech therapy.”

That process didn’t come without a lot of medication, however. Doctors prescribed various steroids, chemicals and other pills for Jean to manage her symptoms. At one point, Jean estimated taking about 1,000 pills a month as part of her recovery.

“I was brain damaged,” she said. “I couldn’t help my parents with the [appeals] case, I couldn’t do anything.”

Yet recover Jean did. She is something of a medical miracle, as doctors didn’t expect her to heal as well as she has. Though she has yet to feel like her old self, she credits her recovery to using marijuana, about eight days after her procedure. Jean had smoked pot recreationally before her medical troubles, but her surgery caused her to look at cannabis in a new light.

“I hadn’t heard about the medical benefits of marijuana before the surgery, but I learned a lot about it afterward,” she said.

She moved to Austin permanently in April 2009, shortly after her surgery — a bit prematurely, as Jean said.

“I was still learning how to walk when I got here,” she said.

Since then, she has sought to educate the public about medicinal marijuana, which is legal — albeit tightly controlled — in 20 states. Jean has gotten more involved as the issue has gained more prominence. She joined the Minnesota chapter of Moms for Marijuana in 2011, spoke at length to local legislators about the various studies on medicinal marijuana and joined several community organizations including Vision 2020, the Austin Farmers Market and the Austin Community Alliance. Starting this summer she will have a booth at every Tuesdays on Main event to talk with people about the issue.

Nationally, medicinal marijuana supporters are gaining support, as states like Washington and Colorado decriminalize possessing weed and more medical studies show inhaling or injesting cannabis helps to manage cancer symptoms, and in some cases can kill cancer cells in a laboratory setting.

A recent report from the National Cancer Institute showed marijuana stopped breast cancer cell growth, adversely affected certain types of lung cancer and could help colon cancer patients as well. The National Cancer Institute has since said there is not enough evidence to recommend medicinal marijuana, but more studies on medicinal marijuana are scheduled by various medical groups.

Though more medical experts are publicly or privately supporting the use of medicinal marijuana, that doesn’t make the issue any less controversial given pot’s classification as an illegal substance in the U.S. Though she said she has since quit using marijuana for medicinal purposes, Jean was never given a prescription to use pot in the first place.

The issue has come before Minnesota’s legislators several times in the past, but has never garnered enough support to pass into law — the closest legislators came was in 2009, when they passed a medical marijuana bill that then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty ultimately vetoed.

“It’s not necessarily a partisan issue,” said Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin. “A wide variety of people on both sides support it.”

Poppe has supported previous efforts to legalize medical marijuana, but legislators have followed law enforcement officials’ advice in denying those bills.

Technically, state medical marijuana laws conflict with federal drug laws. States with medical marijuana laws have difficulty in properly enforcing those restrictions, according to Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi. Amazi said she has heard how medical marijuana policy complicates law enforcement efforts to stop criminals transporting and possessing pot.

“You’re always going to have people who abuse that law,” she said.

Legislators will likely review the issue once more next session, as another medical marijuana bill has been introduced in the state House of Representatives and Senate. The bill would allow patients with “debilitating” illnesses — including cancer, glaucoma, post traumatic stress and multiple sclerosis — to buy up to 2.5 ounces of pot from medical dispensaries around the state.

Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, said the issue likely won’t be solved by states without federal guidance on the issue.

“That would be better probably instead of a patchwork, state-by-state process,” he said.

Jean said her neurosurgeon team in Colorado, as well as several doctors at Mayo Clinic, have told her they would have publicly expressed support for Jean using medicinal marijuana had she ever been arrested for possessing pot.

She knows not everyone will agree with her views on medicinal marijuana and she may get backlash from her advocacy, but that won’t stop her from posting information on Facebook and talking to people about the increasing medical study of medicinal marijuana.

“The statistics that are coming out are mindblowing,” she said. “It encourages my passion to help educate people.”