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Hard Candy

After her husband developed cancer, Debra Williamson became an angel of medical marijuana —and, under Utah law, a drug dealer



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Debra Williamson went before Judge Lyman for a preliminary hearing on April 22, 2013. Lyman quickly made clear his view of her legal situation. While medicinal cannabis may be legal in other states, it is not in Utah, he told her.

During the hearing, Williamson’s attorney Miller and Beaver County attorney Christiansen argued over the street value of the marijuana in the trunk. Christiansen estimated the value of the 4.5 pounds—which included the root, the stem and the leaves—as being between $7,000 and $9,000. But arresting officer deputy Maycock testified that the value of the 1.1 pound of actual “bud,” or marijuana that could be used whether for smoking or to make the candy, was $1,600.

On May 20, 2013, Christiansen and Miller told the court they had reached a plea deal where Williamson would plead guilty to a single count of possession with intent to distribute, a third-degree felony. If she completed probation, it would be reduced to a class B misdemeanor.

At the Aug. 15, 2013, sentencing, Miller still hoped that Judge Lyman would recognize that Williamson’s case was far from a typical drug case.

But as Lyman leafed through the sentencing recommendation from Adult Probation & Parole, he summarized it as “pretty standard, 60 days jail, treatment and fines, all the things you’d expect to see.”

Miller adamantly disagreed. “There is nothing about this case that is standard,” he told the court. He went through the AP&P report, highlighting concerns. Under substance-abuse history, the investigator had listed that Williamson drank wine.

“If that is the definition of substance abuse, we have a fairly high dependency problem in the state,” Miller said. He reminded the court that he had had Williamson’s blood, urine and hair tested, revealing no traces of marijuana for the past four to six months.

The report painted Williamson as a user and abuser of substances “when there was no indication she ever used in her life,” Miller says. “It paints a picture of an individual heading to Salt Lake City to distribute for money, and there’s no proof or evidence that was the case. It was simply someone trying to help a friend who was dying of cancer. And has died.”

But Christiansen insisted in court that Williamson was not only a dealer, but a user. “She asserted she never used, yet [rolling] papers were found,” he told Lyman.

In a broken voice, Williamson said she had kept the papers with her for three years because they were in her husband’s wallet. “Like everything else he had on him when he passed away, it’s been in my purse for the last three years. [The papers] aren’t mine. I never used drugs, I never planned to, and I am deeply sorry for what I have done.”

Judge Lyman was unimpressed. He sentenced Williamson to zero to five years in state prison, reduced to 60 days in Beaver County Jail with three years of probation and a $1,500 fine.

Since 1937, marijuana has been banned; in 1970, it was made a Schedule 1 drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act, meaning that it is illegal to possess or use it and that it has no recognized medical benefits. Prior to 1937, a marijuana-extract tonic had been a staple on drug-store shelves, advertised as helping people deal with sleep, pain or anxiety issues. The Controlled Substances Act ruled out not only any medical role for the plant, but also research into its medical potential.

But Miller notes that that didn’t stop the U.S. government in recent decades from taking out seven patents on the medical use of marijuana to treat a wide range of diseases and pain issues.

In the 1980s, in San Francisco, a woman in her 60s named Mary Jane Rathbun made international headlines after being arrested several times for baking and distributing cannabis-laced brownies to AIDS and cancer patients. “Brownie Mary” was later credited with helping drive the successful 1991 passage of Proposition P in San Francisco, which led to California in 1996 being the first state to legalize the medical use of marijuana. Currently, 19 other states have similar laws on their books, and Washington and Colorado have legalized it completely. In August 2013, the Department of Justice announced that as long as states were ensuring minors did not have access to marijuana, it was not used on federal property and cartels were not profiting from its sale, then it would not sue.

Amanda Reiman is the California policy manager for the national advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance. Chemicals in cannabis called endocannabinoids, she says, mimic chemicals the body naturally produces that are responsible for maintaining the body’s regulation. Cannabis has two key chemicals, Reiman says. One is the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which provides both euphoria and pain relief; the other is cannabidiol (CBD), which, Reiman says, “targets the areas of disregulation” caused by disease.

Gradi Jordan runs Utah C.A.R.E. (Cannabis Awareness, Respect & Education), formerly Legalize Utah, which focuses on issues surrounding medical marijuana. She’s been using marijuana medicinally since she was a child, she says, to treat her bipolar disorder. “My mom started me on it when I was 10.” A former police dispatcher, she says smoking marijuana is preferable to the six weeks of electroconvulsive therapy she recently underwent. “People are entitled to equality,” she says. “If you’d rather choose to use an all-natural herb than having electricity shot through your brain, you should have a right to do so, and not face losing your house or jail.”

SAM’s Sabet says marijuana’s medicinal values certainly do exist, but the last thing someone struggling with a painful disease should do is go to a strip mall in legalized states “to buy from a dealer with felonies, marijuana that’s been grown god knows where, on god knows what mold.”

For Sabet and others on SAM’s board, the looming fear is “big tobacco morphing into big marijuana.” Proponents of marijuana are acting the same way as cigarette manufacturers “peddled cigarettes to the kids and denied the science.”

While Williamson’s court case went mostly unnoticed, media coverage of Jennifer May and her 11-year-old son, Stockton May, impacted several politicians, notably Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, who has been in office nine months, and in whose district the May family lives.

While Greene says he has never been a proponent of legalizing drugs, he argues that “prohibiting the use of certain compounds or extracts from cannabis to develop mainstream medications” makes little sense “when we fully allow the extracts from other substances from which we get even harsher drugs like cocaine or heroin.”

In the wake of a Facebook post by Greene in which he expressed support for May’s advocating for her son to have access to cannabis oil, he found himself suddenly under scrutiny by reporters and criticized by politicians who told him his position “could cost me my seat.”


Greene emphasizes his only concern was research. “Because we haven’t had widespread clinical trials required for the approval of drugs, people don’t want to give credibility to the evidence that does exist.” Because under Schedule 1, conducting cannabis research is extremely difficult, Greene says he’s open to removing “some arbitrary barriers in the way, so we can verify these kinds of claims.”

He’s not the only Utah Republican who was made to think by Jennifer May. Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, along with Rep. Greg Hughes had May on their Saturday-morning Red Meat Radio show. Stephenson says May’s story that her son’s many seizures could be reduced substantially by a few drops of cannabis oil helped him understand more facets of the issue of medical marijuana and argues that the Legislature needs to be open-minded about the potential medical benefits.

“I think we need to be honest enough to include in our discussion the reality of whatever possible benefits exist and to dispel the image that all of this has to do with people lighting up,” Stephenson says.

On July 31, Williamson was driven by a friend to the Beaver County Jail. She went to reception, waited a moment in the empty hall, then slipped through a side door, held open by a guard, to begin her sentence. She was given prison attire and escorted to a 8-foot-by-14-foot windowless cell. She had a blanket, a sheet and a flat pillow.

The first week she cried, she says, but the second, she wrote the story of the past three years of her life, using her arrival in jail as a starting point.

On the 36th day, a guard called out, “Williamson, roll it up.” When she expressed incomprehension, the guard added, “Honey, get your stuff together, you’re going home.” Her ride arrived at 9:30 p.m. She went out into the night air, smelled the pine trees and the car fumes for the first time in over a month, and wept.

Among her probation conditions were that if she couldn’t find work within three weeks post-release, then she had to perform 20 hours of community service until full-time employment was obtained. She’s uncertain where she, at age 56, might find a 9-to-5 position. Probation also requires that she be at home by 9 p.m.—“I feel like I’m 11”—and write a five-year plan. “I haven’t been able to look at the future for five years,” she says. “I live one day at a time and just hope I make it.”

Williamson’s adventures in Utah’s underground medical-marijuana world has taught her, she says, that in the Beehive State, the sick and those who seek to help them through alternative means can be treated like criminals. She knows one man who buys cannabis on the street for his teenage daughter who has multiple sclerosis. “He’s so scared of getting caught, but it’s the only thing that helps her,” she says.

Drug Policy Alliance’s Reiman says advocates like Williamson in anti-marijuana states like Utah will face a different future as ongoing usage of medical marijuana in some states generates raw data for study and the federal government’s position continues to soften. “Then women like her will have the opportunity to provide compassion and care and not have to worry about it resulting in incarceration,” she says.

Greene argues that if Williamson’s intent was “truly just about extracting the oil, if we would allow the medical-research industry to move forward with this, then she wouldn’t have to break the law ... to produce a substance that in many cases is the only thing that provides relief for some people. We don’t want to create more criminals than we need to. If this could all be done legitimately, then that woman wouldn’t be sitting in jail.”

In jail, to Williamson’s surprise, she found peace. She realized that the last years of her marriage before Gary’s death hadn’t been her journey, but rather her husband’s. “I will always love him, but he’s not going to be here anymore,” she says. “I think I’ve finally found myself again. It’s been a very long three years.”

Williamson will continue to argue for medical marijuana, but her days of skirting Utah’s laws for the sake of others are over. It hurt to stop making the candy, she says, “because I know it did a lot of good. But it also drives me to dark places in my mind and I don’t want to go there anymore. It’s just time to let go.”