By Steve Elliott
Michelle DiGiacomo of Chicago won’t be allowed to use medical marijuana under the new law in Illinois — because she used medical marijuana before the law passed.
When police stormed DiGiacomo’s North Side Chicago apartment last year, she had known the day could come, since marijuana was still illegal in Illinois even for medical reasons. But she was still unprepared.
“I was about to experience the worst 28 hours of my life,” said DiGiacomo, 53, who runs Direct Effect Charities, which serves needy Chicago Public Schools kids, reports Maudlyne Ihejirika at the Chicago Sun-Times. “We had discussed this possibility in the past; one I had hoped would never come to be.”
The widowed mother had used marijuana for the past five years to control the pain of fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, spinal stenosis and rotator cuff disease. Pharmaceuticals had resulted in adverse reactions, or had failed to provide relief.
After he September 13, 2012 arrest, she pleaded guilty on March 5 to Class 4 felony possession of marijuana, just five months before Gov. Pat Quinn signed the state’s medical marijuana bill into law.
Now she’s not allowed to take part in the program, because under the Illinois Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Program Act, a felony conviction disqualifies her from accessing medical marijuana. Advocates say the story highlights the new law’s shortcomings.
DiGiacomo has “several chronically painful conditions,” according to Dr. Andrew Ruthberg, a Rush University Medical Center rheumatologist who has treated her for years. These include “rhematoid arthritis, a cervical spine disorder — which has required surgical repair — rotator cuff disease involving both shoulders, and a more recent lower back pain disorder.”
Dr. Ruthberg added that DiGiacomo has “had difficulty tolerating many traditional medications, and I fully believe that [her] use of marijuana has been solely for the purpose of trying to moderate chronic pain.”
“Pain is a daily issue living with these conditions,” said Dr. Howard An, Rush University Medical Center’s director of spine surgery, who has treated DiGiacomo since September 2010 and performed her spinal fusion surgery. “I know that [she has] tried numerous traditional medications without any relief. I fully believe that … use of marijuana has been for the use of controlling … chronic pain.”
“I made the difficult choice to use medical marijuana even though it was illegal, and I always felt like a criminal,” she said. “I did not want to get my medication in the street, so I made the hard decision to purchase it from a medical dispensary in California and receive it in the mail. It was terrifying. It was a horrible way to live.”
Minutes after she received 670 grams of marijuana from California in the mail, on September 13, 2012, police were at the door.
“I opened up to multiple guns pointed at me,” she said. “A police officer screamed, ‘Who’s in here?’ I told him, ‘Myself and my 14-year-old daughter.’ He asked where the guns were. I told him I had no guns. He asked where the drugs were. I told him where the small amount of medical marijuana I had in the house was, as well as what had just arrived.”
“Michelle DiGiacomo is not a criminal,” said Spencer Tweedy, whose father, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and mother, Susan Miller Tweedy, are longtime supporters of her charity work for school children. Spencer Tweedy helped raise $3,000 toward DiGiacomo’s legal fees.
This is a woman who despite her numerous and severe ailments has dedicated her life to charity work,” Tweedy said. “When [the poilice] impounded her car, it was filled with school supplies headed for impoverished students. The cost of defending herself against the law has crippled her more than her diseases ever have.”
Spending the night in Cook County Jail was “the most degrading experience of my life,” DiGiacomo said.
For six months, she fought to avoid a felony conviction that could severely impact her work as the CEO of a nonprofit. But the Cook County Attorney’s Office wouldn’t negotiate, refusing to lower the charges from a felony to a misdemeanor, or to grant DiGiacomo 410 probation, which allows for expungement of first-time drug offenders.
“I was really surprised,” said her attorney, Michael Rediger. “The state’s attorney refused to even look at the fact that her doctors verified she was taking this as part of a medical treatment for pain, and that she did in fact have a California medical marijuana license; or to consider her longtime charitable work and the fact that she’d never been convicted of any other crime, not even a misdemeanor, nothing.”
Unable to afford trial, DiGiacomo pleaded guilty to Class 4 felony possession of marijuana. She got a year of probation, and went public, adding her story to the cacophony of stories used to exemplify the need for the law.
“Ms. DiGiacomo’s story … highlighted how not having a medical cannabis law hurts good, honest, hardworking people like her,” said Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
“There’s a perception that we don’t need to pass medical marijuana legislation because police wouldn’t be cruel enough to arrest a sick person just trying to ease their suffering,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), based in Washington, D.C.
“Yet here’s a mother running a charity that helps thousands of kids, who was arrested at gunpoint … and will live the rest of her life as a felon, all because she is sick and marijuana helps her, as her doctors have attested,” Riffle said. “Stories like hers and other patients who were either arrested or lived in fear of arrest gave legislators reason to finally take action.”
But now that medical marijuana is legal in Illinois, it’s still illegal for DiGiacomo, because of her felony conviction — for using medical marijuana. This is despite the fact that she personally has no fewer than four of the 33 “debilitating medical conditions” specifically listed in the Illinois law.
“It Illinois, individuals with criminal histories are banned from the program, and it really makes no sense,” said Chris Lindsey, legislative analyst for MPP. “I have already been in discussions with the bill sponsor … about fixing some of the troubling areas of the law.
August 1 was bittersweet, DiGiacomo said, as she sat with other patients who stories helped the lobbying effort, watching Gov. Pat Quinn sign the bill into law.
“It was surreal to be with other patients who had worked for a very long time to make it happen,” she said. “While relief has finally arrived for them, it still has not for me, as my conviction will prevent me from getting the medicine that helps me the most.”
(Photo of Michelle DiGiacomo with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn: Direct Effect Charities)