Like every other mother on this list, Dr. Marsha Schuchard, PhD, never set out to become a cannabis activist, never mind one capable of changing the game. Her call to action came in the form of a birthday party that she and her husband hosted at their suburban Atlanta home in 1976. The guest of honor was their thirteen-year-old daughter, who’d lately been “moody” and “indifferent” towards her parents—both liberal-leaning English professors.
Concerned by these recent behavioral changes and the raucous nature of the celebration, Marsha decided to monitor her daughter’s backyard birthday party from an upstairs bedroom window and noticed what looked like little fireflies occasionally flickering at the outskirts of the festivities. So when the last guest left, she went out on the lawn with a flashlight, where she quickly found empty beer cans, wine bottles, and a few stubbed out joints.
Dr. Schuchard didn’t worry too much about the underage drinking, because despite its obvious dangers, alcohol felt culturally familiar. But she most definitely freaked out about the pot-smoking. At the time, cannabis was going mainstream for the first time in America, certain states were starting to decriminalize, and many people believed it was about to be legal nationwide.
So Schuchard decided to spearhead a backlash.
She co-founded Families in Action, widely recognized as the country’s first “anti-drug” parents’ group. Before finally sending a fateful letter to Robert DuPont, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), who at the time supported cannabis decriminalization and wanted to focus the majority of his resources on tackling heroin addiction.
Dupont read the letter skeptically, but agreed to meet in person with Families in Action, who in turn told him their horror stories of upper-middle-class white suburban adolescents experimenting with marijuana and back-talking their parents.
DuPont would soon after drop his support of decriminalization, in favor of serving as a field general and a profiteer in the war on cannabis. He also convinced Dr. Schuchard to write Parents, Peers, and Pot, an eighty-page booklet published by NIDA that was printed more than a million times. It portrayed cannabis as a deadly scourge pushed on the nation’s youth by an immoral drug culture hell bent on destroying society.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the presidency, and immediately enlisted parents’ groups across the nation as frontline soldiers in an all out assault on cannabis. “But what about the children?!” became such a constant rallying cry among these forces that it was a meme before the internet. And the tactic worked. After rising rapidly in the late 1970s, support for cannabis legalization in America stagnated throughout the 1980s.
So how did we ever turn the tide against these parents’ groups and their well-meaning but misguided efforts? Other parents stepped forward, at great personal risk, to tell a different story about cannabis and children, one about profound healing.
Here are the stories of five incredible mothers whose advocacy for their children’s right to access cannabis changed the game—for the better!
Marie Myung-Ok Lee
Marie Myung-Ok Lee is an adjunct professor at Columbia University and a successful novelist. She’s also the mother of a severely autistic son, who underwent two major spinal-cord tumor surgeries as a toddler, plus countless other pharmaceutical, nutritional, and behavioral treatments.
Despite all this, he still suffered as many as 300 violent rages per day, as his mother explained in a 2009 essay titled “Why I Give My Nine-Year-Old Pot”
“He would bang his head, scream for hours and literally eat his shirts. At dinnertime, he threw his plates so forcefully that there was food stuck on the ceiling. He would punch and scratch himself and others, such that people would look at the red streaks on our bodies and ask us, gingerly, if we had cats.”
When doctors suggested moving on to a prescription drug commonly known as a “chemical lobotomy,” Lee decided to take matters into her own hands instead. First, she signed up her son as the youngest ever medical cannabis patient in the state of Rhode Island, then she “got busy figuring out which type of marijuana would best work for him and how to get him to ingest it.”
After some trial and era, she found that properly dosed cannabis cookies worked like a “miracle.” So she put her writing talents to work on an essay that made waves and inspired many other parents to follow her example.
When CNN aired its documentary Weed in 2013, the conversation around children and medical cannabis changed overnight. That’s because the global news network’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta not only admitted that he’d been all wrong about cannabis, he also introduced the world to Paige Figi and her daughter Charlotte.
To be clear, the Figi’s were not the first family to go public about the potential benefits of cannabis in treating serious pediatric ailments. They themselves actually heard about high-CBD cannabis as an option on a reality TV show called Weed Wars.
At the time Charlotte, though just six years old, had been through endless cycles of dangerous, potentially deadly pharmaceutical drugs and had suffered through a series of incredibly painful procedures. She was left unable to walk, talk, or eat.
Trying high-CBD cannabis oil changed Charlotte’s life (taking her down from 300 seizures per week to just two or three in a month). And her mother’s decision to go public in turn changed the world.
In 2010, Shona Banda’s Crohn’s disease symptoms were so intense she needed a cane to walk. But then she tried cannabis, and like magic, so much of the pain and discomfort just melted away.
Five years later, her fifth-grade son, who’d witnessed her transformation firsthand, spoke up in school, telling a “drug education” presenter that he was all wrong about marijuana because that’s what helps his mom not hurt all the time.
From that point on, she fought them tooth and nail, including pleading not guilty to all charges and filing a lawsuit against the school district, the police department, the state of Kansas, the governor, and the Kansas Department for Children and Families. As the story of her arrest spread, Banda’s public campaign to overturn this gross injustice became a rallying cry for parents nationwide who use cannabis medicinally but have no law to protect them.
Ultimately, Banda pled no-contest to one minor charge as part of a sentencing deal that included a year of “mail in” probation, allowing her to move to Washington state, where cannabis is legal.
Ann Lee is a lifelong conservative and Texan, who has been a leader and activist in the Republican Party since 1970. In 1990, her 28-year-old son Richard Lee was injured in a workplace accident that left him a wheelchair-bound paraplegic. At the time, Anne Lee adamantly opposed cannabis, believing it to be a dangerous “gateway” drug, but when her son reported that it worked wonders in treating his severe nerve pain she began to do her own research, and “came to the conclusion that the plant was good medicine and ought to be legal.”
Richard Lee would go on to become one of the world’s leading medical cannabis activists and entrepreneurs, founding several businesses in Oakland including Oaksterdam University, and serving as the primary backer of a 2010 ballot initiative that aimed to legalize cannabis in California. Ann Lee has supported him fully, including by forming Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition in 2012, which has since grown into a leading conservative legalization advocacy group.
Ever since 2013, when CNN’s Weed documentary began airing internationally, parents of children with severe seizure disorders from all over the world have been seeking access to medicinal cannabis. Many have had to break the law to do so.
In Peru, Ana Alvarez’s son Anthony had been suffering with epilepsy since he was three years old. By age sixteen, she says he was in a “psychiatric crisis.” He’d tried a litany of pharmaceuticals, some of which had worked for a little while, all of which came with serious side effects. By 2015 her son was taking sixteen different prescription drugs to treat his epilepsy, and another six to treat psychiatric problems.
She wondered if his painful life was worth living.
But after watching the CNN special, she scored some cannabis on the underground market and made a maté. When she gave it to her son, the results were profound, as she explained to High Times:
“Anthony’s eyes turned red and he slept and slept—almost 72 hours. His pulse and breathing became relaxed. He went two days without a fit for the first time in years. And I began investigating.”
After joining forces with other families facing the same circumstances, Álvarez organized a series of public marches and a vigil outside the Ministry of Health. She told the press her heartbreaking story. And then she co-founded a collective to cultivate cannabis for her son and other pediatric seizure patients in Peru.
The police raided while the collective’s first harvest was still drying. Álvarez found herself charged with crimes that could land her fifteen years in prison, but still didn’t back down. In time, the public outcry about her unjust punishment led to a successful push to pass a medical cannabis law in Peru. Álvarez was an honored guest for the signing ceremony at the presidential palace, even though she still faced charges.
Five months later, in April 2018, charges against Álvarez and her two co-defendants were formally dropped.