Sarah tied her honey-blonde hair into a disheveled bun. She caught the blue and tan swirled glass pipe in her fragile hands and sharply, yet smoothly inhaled the smoke, as if it were instinct. Her face slightly ballooned; she held in the smoke for about five seconds and then let it out with a soft hiss. She let out a sigh, and then loosened the grip on the back of her neck – the pain was leaving.

Sarah is one of approximately 136,000 marijuana users in West Virginia, according to a 2009 report by Of the sampled population, 81,000 reported marijuana use in the past month.

However, Sarah’s use of marijuana stands out for some reasons. She uses it to reduce pain from the numerous spinal cord injuries on her upper back and calcium deposits throughout her body. She also lights up to counteract the harsh side effects of her traditional medication. Her fiance and sister Rita are the only ones cognizant of her habit.

Meanwhile, citizens of three states – Colorado, Oregon and Washington – are set to vote this November on one of the most controversial issues currently in American politics: the legalization of marijuana.

If residents of the states voted in favor of the initiatives, they could eventually purchase marijuana (if older than the age of 21) without any medical stipulations. Marijuana would be treated as another commodity, taxed and regulated much like tobacco.

"It’s really important that the pending bills pass, because it would demonstrate a big step in American progressive thinking," said Berkeley Byers, President of West Virginia University’s Students for a Sensible Drug Policy organization. "It’s not without problems, though."

Byers said he believes the biggest issue with the legalization initiative is the initial outcry by more conservative and religious groups who are opposed to marijuana legalization and the ambiguity of how to effectively tax the herb.

Sarah and her fiance alternately passed the swirled pipe on the back porch that over-looked a pond surrounded by maple, oak and poplar trees.

They bought the secluded tan-and-brown house in late July, and she said she couldn’t have been more proud.
Sarah, a 34-year-old senior professor at a local cosmetology school, teaches courses based on the chemistry related to hair coloring, business administration and customer service.

On occasion, she takes up an offer from a client for a haircut in her home, but because the calcium deposit in her right hand has increasingly limited the movement of her thumb, the job becomes more difficult each time.
Rita is a sociology student at West Virginia University; she uses marijuana recreationally, but also strongly advocates for its legalization so medical patients could opt to "use a natural plant instead of addictive painkillers."

Among the Sociology department in Knapp Hall lies Dr. James Nolan’s office, sandwiched between a classroom and a conference room, his door plastered with various "End the Drug War Now" stickers and "Dilbert" cartoon strips.

Nolan is a former police officer-turned-professor, regularly speaks at Students for a Sensible Drug Policy meetings and is an active member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

"I don’t even like using the phrase ‘law enforcement’ anymore," Nolan said. "There are too many people, especially African Americans, who are imprisoned simply for possessing marijuana, either in their homes or outside."

According to the same report, 2,992 arrests were made for marijuana offenses in West Virginia in 2007, an arrest rate of 165 per 100,000, and ranks West Virginia at number 45 in the nation.

"I first realized that something was wrong with the drug war when I was assigned to do a sting operation in the late ’80s in my hometown in Delaware," Nolan said.

"I pretended that I was a drug user in search of a dealer.

I found one soon enough in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood – he was an African American male, and we had become friends. He said that he sold drugs because this was the only way he could reliably have an income.

"After I ‘bought’ a few grams of cocaine several times, it was time for the squad to bust the operation and arrest both of us so that the dealer would have no suspicion of being involved in a sting. The plan was to give them a sign so that they could come out, but they didn’t receive it.

Finally, I had to do one of the most painful things in my life – I revealed myself as a police officer to this man and made an arrest. Later, he told me he was extremely hurt that I betrayed him and that he considered me one of his closest friends.

It makes you wonder who the bad guys really are in this situation, huh?"

Sarah spends more than $50 on marijuana every month, compared to $250 dollars on generic medication for her conditions.

"If I got the medications I really wanted, the price would shoot up 10 times that," she said.

"Marijuana is so readily available and relatively cheap that sometimes it’s all I can afford."

Because of her marital status, she does not enjoy full health insurance benefits and lived without health insurance for many years because of its cost.

"In the end, it was either getting the house or getting myself top-shelf medicine."

Sarah uses the word ‘stretching’ in place of marijuana because she did not want her 10-year-old daughter, Zoe, to know she was referring to the drug.

She said she wants to wait until her daughter is a teenager so she can maturely discuss her marijuana usage with Zoe.

"She came home from school one day asking why I do drugs," the woman said. "I tensed up and asked her what she meant, and turned out she was only talking about alcohol and cigarettes. Since then, I’ve made an effort never to drink or even smoke cigarettes around her. I don’t want her image of me as a mother to tear down because other people in school have instilled that drugs are always bad, instead of showing students that there are exceptions to the rule."

Byers said he agrees with the woman’s stance on drug education. He said students should be involved in an open, honest discussion about drugs and their possible benefits rather than creating negative stereotypes of marijuana users.

Sarah takes four prescription medications: Gabapentin, 300 mg; Citalopram, 20 mg; Endocet, 10 mg; and Meloxicam, 7.5 mg.

Along with her current prescription, she takes numerous supplements such as Vitamin B-12 and Vitamin E in order to further counteract the negative side effects of modern medicine.

Sarah usually smokes marijuana in the family bathroom at approximately 6:30 a.m. before she wakes Zoe for school and again in the evening before going to bed as a sleep aid, so she "doesn’t feel like a zombie."

"In many ways Zoe is the reason I stayed away from pain management therapy, as I knew that if I made that choice, I would become dependent on the strong painkillers," she said. "It would take away my ability to be a good mother to her, and my whole life is based on her. She helped me through all the pain."

With that, she flicked the burnt remains of the marijuana leaves from the glass pipe into the yard below, stood up in one strong motion, and she smiled for the first time that day.

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