Rhonda ODonnell was the woman in the wheelchair, one of the more visible faces of the medical marijuana movement. But it was actually her son and his college friends who got the program off the ground.
While his mother, a Warwick nurse suffering from multiple sclerosis, captured the media attention in 2005, Tom Angell and his buddies worked the periphery, funded by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), a national organization that in recent years has spent some $530,000 pushing for recreational legalization across New England.
Angell, then a junior at the University of Rhode Island, and Brown University students Nathaniel Lepp and Jesse Stout – all enterprising activists for drug policy reform – wrote a grant request to the MPP.
So we decided, lets really get serious about changing the law in Rhode Island. Lets convince MPP that this should be one of their major targets, said Angell, who went on to found the nonprofit Marijuana Majority, which highlights celebrities and politicians who support legalization.
The Marijuana Policy Project provided an initial grant – roughly $13,000 – to jump start the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, which organized sick people to testify. One of those sick patients was ODonnell, Angells mother.
And MPP hired The Bradford Group as lobbyists to push the idea on Smith Hill. Today those same lobbyists – Wallace Gernt and Christopher Reilly – each get $3,333 a month from MPP to lobby for recreational legalization, state records show.
The college students deliberately avoided the spotlight, Angell said, noting that MPP wanted the potential patients doing the talking.
When one local reporter discovered there were students behind the movement and reached out for an interview, MPP advised Angell against it.
"It wasn’t part of a nefarious plan to secretly legalize marijuana one day. It is a key reform that is very important in and of itself because of people like my mom, he said.
Rhonda O’Donnell, who lives now in a Coventry nursing home, doesn’t use medical marijuana and hasn’t in several years. She said she no longer has pain in her legs, and she never liked the feeling of being high. But she’s proud of her work.
Personally, at the time, I wasnt going through a whole lot of pain. But people with AIDS, people going through chemotherapy, those people were really needing it, ODonnell said during a recent interview. It felt good, honestly, to have a purpose.
Angell, now 34, says legalization has been on his mind for more than 15 years. He was arrested for marijuana possession the second night of his freshman year at URI, and the ordeal galvanized his reform efforts.
In 2013, Rhode Island decriminalized possession of less than an ounce of pot. However, the buying and selling of marijuana – in any quantity – remains illegal.
"Opponents will say medical marijuana is a Trojan horse for legalization, Angell says. But if you believe that no one should be arrested for marijuana – and we unabashedly have always made that clear – then it makes sense to take the dying off the battlefield first if that’s what’s most achievable."
Who are the patients?
Two-thirds of the 15,470 patients are male.
Almost a quarter (23 percent) are between 50 and 59. Patients in their 50s comprise the single largest age group in the program, followed by patients in their 30s (21 percent).
The largest number of patients – 1,738 – live in Providence. Another 1,572 live in Warwick; 1,285 live in Cranston; 918 live in Pawtucket.
Chronic pain is by far the most common qualifying condition, cited by 13,198 patients. Its followed by severe nausea cited by 2,094; muscle spasms cited by 1,670 and cancer cited by 1,171. Patients can list more than one qualifying condition.
Who are the caregivers/growers?
Nearly three quarters (73 percent) of the 2,827 people who are registered to grow marijuana are male.
Almost one-third of all caregivers (31 percent) are in their 30s.
The largest number of caregivers is in Warwick, where there are 283. Another 279 are in Providence; 232 are in Cranston and 149 are in Coventry.