In a small East Texas town, one man fights for his right to medical marijuana-and suffers the consequences.
Hear Laura Burke’s interview with Texas Public Radio KSTX 98.1.
Off of a dead-end street in the lush woodlands of East Texas, Chris Cain rides his motorized wheelchair to his trailer’s front door and pushes it open with his wrist. With his barking Chihuahua trailing behind, he spins and leads me toward his office space, excusing the place’s appearance. “It’s been through two hurricanes and two police raids. It’s had it,” he drawls. In his living room, worn couches face a big-screen television. With a goatee and shoulder-length hair, Cain, 41, calls himself a “rocker.”
Cain has been paralyzed for 25 years. When he was 16, he dove into a shallow creek on a school canoe trip and injured his spinal cord. He was rushed by helicopter to a hospital, but he hasn’t walked since. The accident left him doubly determined to succeed, he says. He graduated valedictorian of his high school class and earned a computer science engineering degree. With his limited hand movement and adaptive equipment, he is competitive in that field.
But the side effects of his injury threaten to derail his career track. Cain suffers from violent, painful muscle spasms that have grown worse. His mom, Esta, 68, has spent years rising five or six times a night to care for him, often sitting on his legs so he wouldn’t throw himself off of his bed. “He is very strong,” she says. “I feel like one of those rodeo guys having to hold his legs down.”
Cain tried prescription drugs for his spasms, but found the medication had debilitating side effects such as rapid heart rate, shortened breathing and his sense that the drugs made him a “drooling idiot.” Cain developed a tolerance to pain medicine and muscle relaxers, so he needed more and more to stop the spasms—all the while becoming more sedated and less functional. “When you have muscles contracting all the time, you can’t think, you can’t work,” he says. “You’re just focused on this pain. If you take muscle relaxers or pain killers, you’re drugged out. Then you say, OK, as long as [my body is] sedated, I don’t care if I’m drugged out. But then after a while you need more drugs to stop the muscle spasms. Then you’re totally messed up. And you just say, I can’t do this anymore.”
He saw his future on these drugs: dependence on his family, difficulty working and thinking, and an IV tube pumping muscle relaxers into his back. Then he discovered that smoking marijuana relieved his symptoms without the side effects. If all he wanted to do was get high, Cain says, he had legal access to a cornucopia of narcotics. The point of smoking marijuana was that he felt less out of it than he did on prescription drugs. Plus, he says, it worked better. His mother attests to its effectiveness. “When he smokes his medicine, I can sleep at night. His legs lay relaxed,” she says.
Cain knew forgoing prescription drugs in favor of marijuana in Texas was risky. But he didn’t realize how far local authorities would take their zero-tolerance drug policies. As he saw it, he was just a disabled guy.
Scientific evidence has begun to support what patients like Cain and their families have been saying for years. According to an article published in the journal Nature in 2005, cannabinoids in marijuana can be effective in treating spasticity. A cannabis-based drug called Sativex has received approval in the U.K. for treatment of spasms in multiple sclerosis patients. Five European countries, Canada, 14 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical cannabis. Texas has not.
Cain’s condition would be covered by medical marijuana laws in any of the 14 states. But he lives in Hardin County, where drug laws are enforced rigidly. Texas counties can’t make their own drug laws, but they do enforce them in radically different ways. “It is so individualized,” says Jerry Epstein, co-founder of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas. He says some parts of the state take a “compassionate” stance, in the language of advocates, toward medical marijuana users. In Amarillo in 2008, Tim Stevens, a man with AIDS, won a case for using marijuana based on “necessity.” Necessity defenses are difficult, as the defense must prove that less harm was done by breaking the law than by complying with it. A jury in Amarillo acquitted Stevens in 11 minutes. But it’s often the personal attitudes of elected officials that determine who will be arrested, prosecuted and convicted, Stevens says. In conservative counties like Hardin, sheriffs are elected on tough-on-crime platforms.
Founded as a lumber town and a juncture of several railroad lines, Hardin’s county seat, Kountze (population 2,115), lies in a tangle of pine and cypress forest. It is not much more than a cluster of gas stations, a Dairy Queen and a county courthouse. The town calls itself “The Big Light in the Big Thicket.” But Kountze has a dark side, too, with a methamphetamine problem and 21 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. Others who live here work in the nearby “Golden Triangle,” the industrial strip along the Gulf of Mexico bordering Louisiana.
Cain’s problems with the Hardin County sheriff’s department began in 1999, he says. The police came by his house and said they wanted to talk to him, he remembers. They had heard that people had been smoking marijuana at his place. “I let them come in my house and search,” he says. “They uncovered a pipe and gave me a paraphernalia charge, and that was that. From then, it’s been nonstop.”
At 9:03 a.m. on July 18, 2003, deputies from Hardin and from the Jefferson County drug task force raided Cain’s home and music studio. Aside from an incident report, other information about the raid has been destroyed. After agents broke down Cain’s door, a woman who was arrested with Cain but asked not to be identified in this article says she kept asking for a search warrant. Officers declined to show it to her. She recalls one of the deputies yelling, “Shut up. If you ask again, I’ll staple it to your fucking forehead.”
Cain had just built his studio. “I guess, to them, it looked like I’d moved in a crystal meth lab, because they were, like, asking where the crystal meth was. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I gave them the misdemeanor amount of weed I had,” he says. According to the police report, the raid turned up just under 2 ounces of marijuana, including “marijuana stems” and “partially burned marijuana cigars (blunts)” on Cain’s property. They confiscated a kitchen scale and $2,125 in cash, which Cain says was money to pay a contractor who had built a handicap ramp at his house. At the time, Chris was learning to brew beer and says he used the scale to weigh ingredients. Cain’s lawyer proved the money was legal, and the police returned it.
Officers also seized thousands of dollars worth of Cain’s computer equipment. “I watched them literally chuck everything into the back of a truck,” he says. The affidavit states that while Coy Collins, a Hardin County deputy, was executing a marijuana search warrant, he observed “numerous devices affiant knows are used in the fraudulent creation and programming of satellite receiver cards … in order to fraudulently obtain satellite service.”
Cain calls the accusation “bullshit.” He was using the equipment, he says, as part of his work researching the use of smart cards for event-ticketing, so he had several card readers around. He was never charged with any crime related to the seizure, but it was a year before his lawyer obtained an order for the sheriff’s office to return the property, which was Cain’s livelihood. Most of the equipment and hard drives were damaged, Cain says. “I’ve spent every year since that 2003 raid trying to build my company back to where it was,” he says.
After the raid, Cain was arrested and booked into a holding cell at the county jail. The cell was not handicapped-accessible, and he had no one to help him relieve his bladder or bowels, he says, though he asked for help. Around 5 p.m., after being held for seven hours, a jail nurse arrived to evaluate his needs. He told her he needed help relieving himself, that he couldn’t eat without adaptive equipment and that he needed sedatives to calm his spasms. The nurse told him he could take care of himself. Late that night, he was released. He spent days recovering from an extended bladder and bleeding around his catheter, he says.
The raid enabled Hardin County to prove just how tough it could be on recreational users. Investigator Ernest Sharp reminded citizens in the Silsbee Bee, “If you are caught with illegal drugs, no matter the amount, you will go to jail.”
Cain’s marijuana case never made it to court. A “big wig came to town,” Cain says. Greg Gladden, who formerly presided over the ACLU of Texas, dashed in from Houston and told a county judge if the county prosecuted Cain, Gladden would establish that officers hadn’t had probable cause to execute the warrant. The county decided to drop the charges. “The information was ‘stale’ at the time it was presented to the judge,” Gladden says. “There is no information in the four corners of the affidavit rising to the level of probable cause to [indicate] there was dope on the premises at that time.”
Still upset, Cain wanted to file a civil suit against the county for the loss of property and income, but his lawyer discouraged him. Gladden was satisfied the criminal charges had been dropped, and he was not optimistic they could win the civil suit. “Those are hard cases,” he says.
Seven years later, Cain still feels the social fallout from the raid. When he became paralyzed, all of Kountze stood behind him, he says. “They support you. They say, ‘This is a supersmart kid,’” He says. When people heard he was using marijuana, and his name appeared in a drug bust article in the local newspaper, his reputation sank. “They see a guy that, ‘Oh, he graduated good, went to college, but he must have given up because of his injury,’” he says. “They don’t see me as someone that’s educated, that’s using marijuana so that I can live a normal life, have a business. I’ve been very successful, but to this small town I’m just a drug user.”
Hardin County Sheriff Ed Cain (no relation) doesn’t understand what the big deal is. “Why are you interested in a misdemeanor case?” he asks. The sheriff knows that Chris Cain says he uses the drug for medical purposes, but has implied this is an excuse to get stoned. In May 2009, the sheriff told the Beaumont Enterprise, “I just don’t think marijuana has any role whatsoever except to make you high.”
The sheriff says, “It is our belief that they are selling marijuana out of that residence, or out of that area.” According to the public record, though, officers have never found more than a misdemeanor amount of marijuana on him, despite the fact that Cain says police have searched his car, home or person more than a dozen times.
Even if Chris isn’t selling, Sheriff Cain says the county operates under a “zero tolerance” policy. “I don’t know how to describe it any better: zero,” he says. “Hardin County residents want zero drugs. That’s what I have, zero drug tolerance.” Asked about his pursuit of Chris Cain, he says, “We do hit hard, very hard. I won’t apologize for that. I’ve arrested friends. I’ve arrested supporters. If you check around, that’s what you’ll find.”
The Legislature could pass a medical marijuana law and make Cain’s problems go away. So far, however, every effort to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes has withered and died. In 2001, former state Rep. Terry Keel, an Austin Republican, introduced a medical marijuana bill. Similar legislation has been introduced every two years by state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, an Austin Democrat. The proposal received a hearing in 2005, but has never reached a vote.
This session, lobbying groups are drafting two bills. Stephen Betzen, director of the Texas Coalition for Compassionate Care, a Dallas-based medical marijuana advocacy group, says, “We are drafting a bill that we think can pass. We’ve talked to sheriffs, community leaders, citizens,” he says. The bill would allow Texas doctors to recommend marijuana to patients. Law enforcement would still be able to arrest someone for possession, but that person could use an “affirmative defense,” citing their doctor’s recommendation, and have the charges dropped. Patients and designated providers could grow their own.
Medcan University, another medical marijuana lobbying group, is drafting a different bill, and is in the process of presenting it to legislators. Both groups say it is too early to say which legislators may introduce a bill. Medcan’s version would tax medical marijuana, taking advantage of the state’s huge estimated budget shortfall for the next biennium. “There’s a $25 billion budget deficit,” says Dante Picazo, president of Medcan. “It’s a horrible burden for our legislators.” The bill calls for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to regulate marijuana and disburse cannabis to eligible patients at holistic “wellness centers” throughout the state. Like in California, counties would determine the number of centers. Medcan estimates the program would create 200,000 jobs, and by putting a 10-percent sales tax on the herb, could generate $952 million in revenue in the first year.
Taxation would mean acknowledging an illegal trade to the federal government. But Picazo doesn’t think a proposed sales tax on marijuana will scare away legislators from backing the bill. He points out that cities have begun taxing the substance with lucrative results and with no backlash from the federal government. During its first six months of taxation, Denver generated $1.2 million in sales tax from its dispensaries.
In most of the country, voters appear more apt than legislators to approve medical marijuana programs. Nine states have legalized medical marijuana through ballot initiatives or statewide referenda. In Texas, neither ballot initiatives nor statewide referenda exist. Betzen says, “Getting a bill passed through the Legislature is the only way in Texas.” And in the current political climate, marijuana reform faces an uphill climb in the Texas Legislature.
In March 2009, six years after the raid, Chris Cain was at a park in Kountze having a picnic with family and friends. Driving by, police saw him in a group of about 30 people and asked him if they could search the backpack on his wheelchair and his van. They didn’t search anyone else. Cain says he has learned that if he resists a search like this, officers will say they smell marijuana, which gives them probable cause to search him. He admitted to having a misdemeanor amount of marijuana. They didn’t arrest him. Instead, they told him, “Today is your lucky day,” he remembers.
In May, Cain went to Austin to speak at a rally sponsored by the Texas Cannabis Crusade and other medical marijuana advocacy groups. Soon after that, his luck again ran out: He received a possession charge in the mail from his “lucky day” at the park. Cain decided not to hire a lawyer and instead pay a fine and take six months of probation. “I thought, hey, maybe they just want me to quit fighting. They want me to quit testifying, going to the news,” Cain says. “I was going to find some alternative to marijuana so I could test clean and they could see that I wasn’t using it, so they would leave me alone.”
On probation, though, the police did not need a warrant to search him. “They pursued me more relentlessly than they had before,” he says. He had stopped
edicating himself with marijuana. Because he had no effective sedative, constant shearing and sliding in his wheelchair from all-day muscle spasms injured Cain’s legs and buttocks. A pressure sore developed, and he was bedridden for five months. “I wasn’t able to get in my wheelchair,” he says. “I wasn’t able to get on my computer. My consulting work came to a halt, and medical bills soared.”
His mother cared for him. “You would think I was under house arrest,” she says. “I couldn’t leave the house. I didn’t go to church.” His father Eldon, 70, ran errands and did the chores. At that point, Cain couldn’t begin using marijuana again; he was being drug-tested regularly under the terms of his probation.
While Cain was bedridden at his parents’ place, the police came to his office, the building he and his friends also use as a music studio, and conducted a narcotics search. “I had told all the people that had access to my computer and studios that marijuana cannot be around me, because I was on probation,” Cain says. “But it looks like someone didn’t obey the rules.”
Standing at the foot of Cain’s bed, deputies told him they had found a pinch of marijuana in his office, he remembers. The officers wanted to arrest him, but he couldn’t be cuffed, and he was under a doctor’s care. “They said, ‘Until you heal, we won’t take you in. When you get back in your chair, turn yourself in,’” Cain recalls. The officers returned several times to see if he had healed. “I felt like a murder suspect, a person of interest,” he says. Once Cain could sit in his wheelchair, he rolled into the police station to turn himself in. Cain’s trial has been set for Jan. 11.
Cain has thought about leaving Kountze. “If I were in Austin or Houston, they wouldn’t care about me,” he says. He’s thought about moving to another state, but says he can’t afford to leave Kountze, where his parents look after him.
In Kountze, Cain says he lives in a state of fear. But he continues to attend rallies, testify before legislative committees, and share his story with reporters. “It’s crazy when you’re sitting there hurting,” he says, “and you’ve got this little herb, this plant, and you smoke it and your [muscles are] finally relaxed. It’s kind of barbaric that you can’t stop your pain.”
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Listen to an NPR story about medical marijuana laws in different states.
Check out one of Chris Cain’s projects.