Shelly Arnold and her son,
Mike, work on cannabis plants in their South Lake
Tahoe home. Husband and father John Arnold also lends
a hand in processing the plants. All three Arnolds use
marijuana in a variety of ways on a daily basis to
combat health ailments.
Shelly Arnold's home-grown answer to her son's pain tests the
acceptance of medical marijuana
By Will Evans -- Bee Staff Writer
Published: Sunday, March 28, 2004
For the first 13 years of his life, Mike Arnold's parents obsessed
over three questions: What did "Mikey" have to eat, did he
keep it down, and does he have a migraine.
The migraines hit several times a week with dagger like pain. He'd
writhe on the bathroom floor and go into dry heaves, his skin turning
white and his fingers numb. Facing medical problems since birth, his
parents say, he developed an eating disorder and never seemed to have
a full meal.
Then one day he came home from the skateboard park, scarfed down
pork chops and mashed potatoes, ate seconds and asked for dessert. His
flabbergasted parents looked into his eyes.
He was stoned.
Now just turned 18, young Arnold's routine is to take regular doses of
marijuana to stimulate his appetite and moderate his migraines. He has
a doctor's recommendation for the drug.
His mother has gone from simply Shelly Arnold to the "Green
Goddess," a South Lake Tahoe medical-marijuana caregiver.
The Arnolds nurture dozens of leafy cannabis plants in a
grow-light-bright cubbyhole of a room in their home. The processed
product turns into medication for the family's aches and pains, and
for a handful of local medical marijuana patients who depend on Shelly
Arnold for free pot.
Her caregiver role is outlined in state law, and there are
thousands like her throughout the state, according to Dale Gieringer
of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform
of Marijuana Laws. But Arnold stands out.
"If you looked at someone who was the definition of a true
caregiver, it would be Shelly Arnold," says Christopher Elliott,
task force commander of SLEDNET, the South Lake Tahoe, El Dorado
County & Douglas County Narcotic Enforcement Team, overseen by the
California Department of Justice. "She's probably the only true
caregiver we've run across."
Medical marijuana proponents such as the Arnolds have relied on
Proposition 215, which passed in 1996 and legalized its use - though
the the federal government has never recognized the state rules.
Recent legal developments, though, provide a cushion and clarity for
caregivers and patients.
On Jan. 1, a new state law, SB 420, went into effect, creating a
more-structured medical marijuana system. It defines a caregiver, sets
limits on the amount of marijuana one may grow and calls for a
voluntary identification card program.
In December, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor
of two patients, saying that because they either grew their own
marijuana or obtained it free from caregivers without interstate
commerce, the federal government was without jurisdiction to
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which is reviewing the
court decision, maintains that marijuana is a dangerous, addictive
drug and that any use or possession is illegal.
In a potent concoction of science and politics, the debate
continues over whether marijuana has medicinal value. Studies show
therapeutic effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a psychoactive
substance in the plant, but the federal government puts cannabis in a
class of drugs with no accepted medical use. Scientific organizations
urge more research.
It's not the job of local or state authorities such as Elliott to
question medical validity, but law enforcement prosecutes those who
call themselves caregivers "as a smoke screen to sell
marijuana," as Elliott says.
SLEDNET inspected Arnold's garden last April and found it in
compliance. "She fits the intent of the law," he says.
The intent is to provide for patients such as Richard, who was
infected with HIV in 1991 and diagnosed with AIDS two years later.
Living on Social Security disability payments because his illness
prevents him from working, Richard, 39, relies on free cannabis from
Richard, who did not want his last name used, suffers from wasting,
an extreme form of weight loss associated with HIV that can lead to
death, says Patricia Bucher, a family nurse practitioner at Stateline
She says AIDS medications only make it worse, causing nausea. The
large orange pills Richard takes twice a day make him so sick he needs
to sit down for up to an hour for the stomach pain to pass, he says.
Marijuana, Bucher says, helps him eat. A report by the Institute of
Medicine of the National Academies found THC to be a promising
treatment for AIDS patients.
"Without the cannabis, I wouldn't be here today. Without
Shelly and having the access, I wouldn't be here today," Richard
Several years ago, he was hospitalized with pneumonia and "was
very close to dying," Bucher says. "We didn't have a whole
bunch of hope that he was going to pull out of it."
The hospital even summoned a priest to read his last rites.
Yet Richard hung on. Released from the hospital, he contacted
Shelly Arnold after reading about her in the local newspaper.
The Arnolds were skittish because the doctor who gave them medical
marijuana recommendations, Marion "Mollie" Fry, had recently
been the subject of a raid by federal officials, who confiscated
patient files. But when Richard showed up at the Arnolds' door with a
cane, looking like "walking death," as Shelly's husband,
John Arnold, recalls, all they could do was shower him with marijuana.
"It helped him to regain his appetite and he was able to
regain his strength," Bucher says.
Now, though still thin, he smiles with a boyish face, laughing off doom saying
doctors with a nasally chuckle: "You can't just say
'Go'! I don't want to go!"
Richard doesn't let on, but Camille McSeveney, his caseworker at
Sierra Foothills AIDS Foundation, says he has "a really difficult
time." Marijuana helps him cope, she says.
Arnold took her caregiver role so seriously she became a certified
nursing assistant. She feels she's been a caregiver all her life, from
baby-sitting her younger siblings as a child to coping with her son's
Mike Arnold had problems with his airway and was fed with a tube as
an infant, his father says. That developed into an aversion to eating,
Now Mike wears a T-shirt with a pot-leaf motif and the words
"I Gained 20 lbs. Ask Me How."
For his migraines, the Arnolds had tried other pain medications,
but he'd vomit the pills.
"It just stabs you in the top of your head, it feels
like," Mike Arnold says. "I can feel my spine jabbing my
Now, he says, the cannabis shortens the duration of his migraines
and cuts the nausea.
California law lists anorexia, migraines and severe nausea - as
well as other medical problems such as cancer, arthritis, muscle
spasms and chronic pain - as illnesses where a doctor's recommendation
may be appropriate. Some scientists, however, say the evidence
supporting the use of THC in many such cases is thin.
At first wary about Mike Arnold's drug use, his parents sought to
educate themselves in the world of medical marijuana, gobbling up a
mini-library of books.
'A full-on mission'
As Shelly Arnold learned more, she became politicized, traveling
with activists to pro-marijuana festivals and protests, attending
trials of local patients and doctors who were arrested.
"It started off as a family situation that turned into a
full-on mission," she says.
She's on the board of the American Alliance for Medical Cannabis,
which holds meetings in Garden Valley that run from 2:15 to 4:20 p.m.
(in honor of Proposition 215 and SB 420). Before, after and during a
break in the meeting, many of the advocates light up joints and pipes
Arnold also participates in meetings with El Dorado County Sheriff
Jeff Neves to come up with county guidelines regarding medical
Though the DEA insists marijuana is illegal, period, "we don't
target small-scale distributors," says Richard Meyer, special
agent with the San Francisco field division.
Still, he says, the driving force of providers is profit, and
patients aren't being helped.
"In my opinion, these people not only have a very serious
illness, such as cancer and AIDS, but on top of that they're becoming
addicted or they're already addicted to marijuana. And the people in
the marijuana lobby don't think twice about using them to fulfill
their own agenda," he says.
Shelly Arnold and the DEA can probably agree that smoking anything
isn't the best activity for the body. She and her husband don't like
Mike to smoke, so they started making pot-laced rice cereal treats for
Now he also uses a vaporizer, which heats the marijuana into a
vapor to inhale.
"The trick to medicine is you have to make it taste
appealing," Shelly Arnold says.
Her husband mixes the kid cereal with melted marshmallows and a
tiny tub of almost fluorescent-green pot butter, patting the goo into
a brownie pan.
But the sugary snacks irritate some patients' stomachs - so there
are more menu options.
In her slow cooker, Shelly Arnold brews together olive oil,
oregano, basil and chunks of garlic, along with the special
ingredient. She pours a little in a dish with some balsamic vinegar,
dipping bread as if in a fine Italian restaurant.
Arnold also makes marijuana solutions with grain alcohol, which a
patient can squirt, by eyedropper, into tea.
And her husband makes "bubble hash," a concentrated form
of marijuana to smoke.
Home, where the hash is
On a recent afternoon, it's a surreal blend of Americana and
marijuana. Shelly is in the kitchen, cannabis and other ingredients
displayed on the counter like a cooking show. Husband John - jeans,
flannel, cap - is out back making hash in a bucket. Mike, in big red
dog slippers, is making Top Ramen.
Past the kitchen window, adorned with frilly curtains, fall fat
snowflakes. Everything smells like marijuana.
The Arnolds decided to home-school their son for high school, since
he was getting in trouble at school for marijuana and because they
wanted to keep their eye on him.
Now he blows glass in the garage, making pipes with swirling
colors, and wants to start his own business.
The Arnolds say they don't want their 19-year-old daughter,
Melanie, to use marijuana. She is not a patient with a doctor's
recommendation. While they'd like to see marijuana decriminalized,
neither parent supports the use or legalization of other illicit
John Arnold, 52, a Navy veteran with a slight Georgian drawl, knows
about substance abuse. He is a bartender, but since fighting his own
alcoholism he hasn't had a drink in 22 years, he says.
Mike eggs on his dad by grabbing a bottle of grain alcohol and
tilting it as if he's going to drink the dregs. "What would you
do if I did?" he goads.
"I'd be bummed 'cause I don't want you drinking alcohol,"
says his dad, grabbing it away.
Easing the pains
Now John Arnold says he uses marijuana for a bad back, shoulder and
hip; his wife says she has back problems, chronic pain, muscle spasms
and an irritating skin disorder that justify her use.
The family "medicates" throughout the day.
Their bodies are so accustomed to marijuana they say they benefit
from it, but they don't get stoned. The elder Arnolds and Richard,
taking a marijuana break after lunch, talk and act the same as they
did before lighting up.
The Arnolds keep an eye on Richard, calling if they don't hear from
him for a while, and checking in to make sure he has enough marijuana
before they go out of town.
"I know that she doesn't have to do this. I still don't know
why she does this," he says, sitting in his South Lake Tahoe
home, where he lives with a partner and a protective miniature
"If it wasn't for her ..." He starts to tear up. "A
little kindness goes a long way."
Scientific debate still rages on marijuana's therapeutic effects
The science question persists: Does marijuana have medicinal
properties, and if so, do they outweigh risks?
The federal government classifies cannabis in a group of the most
dangerous drugs, with no recognized medical use. Authorities call it
an addictive "gateway" drug, which leads to abuse of other
State law, on the other hand, designates a broad range of
conditions - from cancer to chronic pain - under which recommending
marijuana may be acceptable.
Science falls somewhere between.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in
cannabis, "is established as having properties that can relieve
certain symptoms," says Janet Joy, study director of a 1999
Institute of Medicine of the National Academies report that reviewed
research on the subject.
It doesn't actually cure anything, Joy says, except for helping
AIDS patients put on weight. The federal Food and Drug Administration
approved Marinol, synthetic THC, for chemotherapy and AIDS patients.
The federal government keeps cannabis in a category of drugs without
medicinal value partly for political reasons, Joy says.
Still, the evidence for most medical uses of marijuana is lacking.
"You're dealing with a huge body of anecdotal evidence ... and
there isn't a matching body of scientific evidence," says Heather
Bentley, project manager for the state-funded Center for Medicinal
Cannabis Research, through the University of California.
Rigorous studies are rare because of federal red tape and
restrictions, scientists say.
The American Medical Association recommends keeping the federal
government's designation of marijuana, while encouraging further
research. The California Medical Association urges moving marijuana to
a less-restrictive class of drugs, together with cocaine and morphine,
to allow for easier studies.
Research has not shown whether or not marijuana is a gateway drug,
Joy says. It has found that some people become dependent on marijuana,
with withdrawal symptoms similar to those of caffeine addiction, Joy
says. She notes that accepted drugs such as morphine also are
Smoking marijuana can be as bad for you as smoking tobacco, Joy
says. Along with the THC, a smoker inhales many other substances,
which also makes the science messy, she says. For a terminally ill
patient, the risk may be worth it, but the field of medicine would
prefer to develop an alternative form of administering THC, such as an
inhaler, she says. The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research recently
received approval for a study involving vaporizers.
States follow California's lead
California led the way for medical marijuana when voters approved
Proposition 215 in 1996. Now eight states have legalized medical
Two states have medical marijuana laws that either aren't
functional or don't fully legalize it:
Source: National Organization for the Reform of
Expert: Terri Ziem, fitness director, Arden Hills
Country Club & Spa, and author of the book "Kids in