Marijuana and Mortality

Boomers should look kindly on the medical marijuana measure

And my dog died, too.

For some months I believed, simply enough, that this year was just a bad year, a particular period with much death and cancer. So when my 17-year-old hound dog passed on this winter, it was more than just her time. Missi's demise was one more bleak moment in a year that began with my mother-in-law's funeral.

My wife's mother was good company -- not in some obvious loquacious manner, but in ways unexpected and sharp. One holiday I cooked an elaborate meal, all the time keeping a wary eye on the whereabouts of Missi, a dog who would eagerly swipe the Eucharist out of the baby Jesus' mouth if it smelled like food. Thus engaged, I missed my other dog, Sadie, devouring the stuffing I'd hand-crafted for a dozen guests.

Deborah Laake
Deborah Laake

When I discovered the theft, the top of my skull came off and, I am told, I kicked the miscreant, who tore off, out the door, not to be seen again. After dessert, but before coffee, I was combing the neighborhood, calling for the missing dog. Sadie? SADIE! Up and down the driveway, through the front and back yards, out into the street, around the block, I called that dog's name in every voice register, deep and high, and all at top volume. You can do a lot of dog calling and thinking at the same time: How would I explain to the kids that the dog had left us because, well, because their father had kicked the dog? No one kicks a dog. Am I some sort of hillbilly? Do hillbillies even kick their dogs? I did not sleep much that night.

The next morning the missing dog showed up walking safely behind the legs of my wife's mother. The two of them had been in the guest bedroom the entire time. The two of them had just sat there listening to me calling, "SADIE!" The two of them had said not a peep. One of them had figured I could just shout myself hoarse.

We buried my mother-in-law on a cold morning in Salt Lake with a brace of veterans discharging rifles in honor of her years as an Army captain in World War II. My sons got their first taste of Funeral Potatoes and molded Jell-O in numerous colors, a vestige of their Mormon ancestry that conflicts warmly with the Irish wakes that are the other half of their grieving heritage.

I wondered how many of the Mormon devout at the services knew that my mother-in-law smoked marijuana as a young girl in rural Idaho during the depression.

I figure it's people like my mother-in-law -- fine, decent, hardworking, imperfect citizens -- who've quietly smoked pot that account for the remarkable record of marijuana at the polls. Pro-pot measures have passed twice in the notoriously law-and-order Arizona, the first time with 65 percent of the vote.

Back in Phoenix, Missi's time came and we made a Mexican roadside shrine for her. An elaborate tin cross sheltered pictures of the old girl and we buried her remains beneath a stand of Baja cactus in the backyard. Her water dish still sits in my office.

But no matter what ceremony we undertook, the prospect of death lingered, the phone kept ringing and throughout the year people announced that they were fighting cancer.

I don't know if medical marijuana would have helped them, but it sure would have helped me.

My friend's father has lung cancer. A colleague developed cancer of the larynx. A co-worker's brother dropped dead unexpectedly and the autopsy revealed two hidden cancers raging inside. A neighbor's cancer returned. A friend's mother was discovered to have a tumor attached to an organ. Skin cancer lesions were mentioned, only in passing, though, because even if they were carving holes in your head, it didn't really count unless the cancers were malignant.

The phone again: "Mike, I wanted to tell you, I have prostate cancer."

I have never had a ballot issue hit so close to home as this November's Proposition 203, the medical marijuana measure. Under a doctor's supervision, the sick and dying would have access to pot. More important still, the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana would be decriminalized. Violators would face civil fines of no more than $250.

It is long since time.

Years ago, I got the first cancer call from a friend, Deborah Laake, a best-selling author who'd discovered a tumor in her breast. I didn't know what to do. No matter how many calls you get, you never know what to do. You have to fight the urge to run.

Some people retreat from each other during a bout with cancer. Not Laake. She pulled all of her friends closer. I went to chemotherapy with her. Everyone went to chemo with her. She deepened her ties with others, like my wife, at small dinner parties where, in the beginning, hats were selected for the stylish bald woman about town, and later, in hilarious show-and-tell cocktail soirees where Laake's new breasts were too obviously featured. My mother-in-law broke bread with Deborah during this dramatic period, the two of them wonderfully misbehaving Mormons, each with a glass of wine, one quicker than the other to laugh. Laake's book, a memoir, had gotten her excommunicated from the church. My mother-in-law, then in her 70s, read Deborah's book in Salt Lake on the sly.

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