Why is it a crime for me to live?
Source: News and Star, Carlisle, UK
Published date: Saturday, October 7, 2000
Author: Phil Coleman
A jury has refused to convict 36-year-old Lezley Gibson of possessing cannabis after she argued that the drug helps to control her multiple sclerosis. As shadow home secretary Anne Widdicombe pledges zero tolerance on cannabis possession, Phil Coleman asked Mrs Gibson why she intends to continue using the drug.
LEZLEY GIBSON shudders as she recalls the day multiple sclerosis turned her life upside down.
Through a haze of sweet-smelling blue-grey smoke, which billows gently from her roll-your-own cigarette, Lezley casts her mind back to 1985, and the trail of events that eventually led to her appearance last week at Carlisle Crown Court on a cannabis possession charge.
Looking tired as she sits in the kitchen of her home in Alston, she takes another long drag from her cigarette.
Spread out on the table in front of us are dozens of e-mail print-outs from well-wishers who followed her case.
Elsewhere, walls and doors are adorned with stickers bearing the distinctive image of a green cannabis leaf with the logo: "No Victim, No Crime."
Lezley is now a "cause celebrity" for the campaign to legalise the medicinal use of cannabis.
When six police officers raided her home in August 1999, seizing seven grams of cannabis, Lezley could have caved in, pleaded guilty before magistrates, apologised to the court and walked away with a small slap-on-the-wrist fine.
So why deny the charge?
One reason was neatly highlighted this week by shadow home secretary Anne Widdicombe when she declared war on cannabis possession, suggesting on-the-spot fines for anybody caught with the drug.
It is precisely this thinking - the perception of all cannabis users as criminals - that angers MS sufferers such as Lezley. For her, this is an issue of brutal simplicity. In her eyes, cannabis offers reprieve from a terrifying illness.
Forced to choose between smoking cannabis and risking a disabling collapse in her health, there was never any contest.
It's the law that's sick, says Lezley.
She hopes that hearing her story will help people understand her decision to continue risking prosecution.
At 21, Lezley had big plans. Her talent as a hairdresser had blossomed to such a degree that she was ranked among the country's top stylists. Owning her own salon was the next natural step.
With her sister, Paula, Lezley had visited the Manpower Services Commission in Carlisle, hoping to persuade an official there that their business plan deserved a start-up grant.
As the civil servant explained in painstaking detail, what they should do next, Lezley experiences a bizarre sensation, a kind of creeping numbness which spread slowly through the right side of her body. By the time she had left the building, she could barely walk.
"I kept falling over," recalls Lezley, who lives with her husband Mark, 36, and their 13-year-old daughter Tracey.
"My sister had to prop me up against a wall. At first, for some odd reason, we just killed ourselves laughing. But I'd developed total paralysis down the right side of my body. I had pins and needles on my left side. It was horrible."
Lezley's family rushed her to casualty at the Cumberland Infirmary, where she was a patient for five weeks, followed by a three-week stay at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Newcastle.
At first doctors diagnosed a stroke, then a virus, before finally agreeing she had MS.
For six weeks, steroids were pumped into her body as Lezley tried to cope with the distressing side effects - nausea, acne, feelings of aggression and a dramatic weight gain which saw her balloon from seven to 14 stone.
"When they told me I'd got MS, I cried for three days," said Lezley, who was told she'd be in a wheelchair within five years.
"They told me I'd never cut hair again. I didn't want to give in to it. I was right-handed but taught myself to write and put my makeup on with just my left hand. I used my teeth to get my tights on.
"I went though the whole spectrum of emotions - anger, self pity, and asking why me? In the end, it was like bereavement, as if the old Lezley had dies and I had become a new person. Apart from the final diagnosis, the only other thing they told me was not to eat butter.
"My family were always supportive, but I remember leaving hospital and thinking: "You're on your own.""
Like many sufferers, Lezley faces a lifetime of fear. MS is like a grisly game of Russian Roulette with the person's central nervous system, and there's no way of knowing what part of the body will be affected next.
Some escape with minor symptoms - pins and needles, numbness and general weakness. Others must endure the nightmare of paralysis, incontinence and loss of speech or sight.
Even after remissions, old symptoms can return.
"At first, I knew nothing about the illness," said Lezley. "I remember seeing a poster on Caldewgate in Carlisle. It showed a woman with MS, and she was in a wheelchair. As far as I knew, that was the illness.
"When I left hospital, I was determined to find out as much as I could."
A later attack left Lezley blind in her right eye and unable to speak. "I was absolutely terrified," she said.
The illness brought crushing restrictions. At her trail, Lezley tearfully described how she missed out on the "rough-and-tumble" fun most parents enjoy with their children.
"Things like running round in the park, pushing Tracey on the swings, all the things most people take for granted. I couldn't do that with Tracey. She had to learn to just talk to me," said Lezley.
Twelve years ago, afraid that her old symptoms would return with a vengeance, Lezley decided that she had to act. She had read compelling claims that cannabis could prevent relapses, and even improves health.
"I'd never tried cannabis before," she said. "Drugs were never my thing. Years ago I liked to party, but I didn't even drink that much. I'm not and never have been a 'druggie'."
The memory of her first joint is vivid.
"It was awesome," recalled Lezley, pausing for another drag.
"After I'd got over spluttering and coughing, I realised I wasn't so shaky and weak. I'd got used to a feeling of complete illness all the time, but this made me feel normal - the way I used to feel before I had MS."
As the months went by, Lezley's most obvious symptoms receded.
"At first, I was still quite visibly disabled. I had a more prominent limp, more obvious shaking and my speech wasn't 100 per cent. It took a while to kick in, but after using cannabis I never looked back."
The crunch point came on a Friday afternoon in August last year. Six drugs squad officers banged on her front door. Armed with a warrant, they began to search Mark and Lezley's home for drugs.
From a kitchen drawer, Lezley produces a small tobacco tin containing seven grams of cannabis. It was the start of a 13-month ordeal which culminated in Lezley's trial last week.
From the witness stand, close to ears, she struggled to describe the shadow that MS casts over her life, and the part that cannabis has played in liberating her from that nagging fear.
Yes, she's tried alternative treatments - acupuncture, aromatherapy, steroids. None made much difference.
She told the jury: "It's an illness where you never know what's going to happen next. That's the really scary thing. I'd love to be able to get my medication from the doctor like everybody else. I was having one attack after another, and would have got progressively worse.
"Everybody has the right to make themselves well."
Lezley is unshakeable in her belief that cannabis is keeping her well.
She said: "I still get pins and needles, and have a numb left hand, so I'm not allowed to go anywhere near knives! With this illness, you have to change so many things; you can't push yourself, and I don't go out on my own in places like Carlisle, where I had my first serious attack.
"I'm weaker and more tired than I was before the court case, but the point I was trying to make in court is that I'm generally not ill now - and that's all down to cannabis.
"Having MS is a full time job, but thanks to cannabis I have days off. It's a helping hand. It means I don't worry about the future as I used to. I'm sure that if I hadn't used cannabis, my quality of life would now be non-existent."
Lezley's case has sparked world-wide interest. At home she is surrounded by evidence of public support. On the mantelpiece stand three large bouquets sent by well-wishers.
Congratulatory e-mails and letters continue to arrive from all over the world, many from MS sufferers. There was even a 250-name petition of support gathered by well-wishers in Gambia.
"The trial was horribly stressful," said Lezley, who seriously considered applying for political asylum in Holland. "I felt persecuted. Anne Widdicombe doesn't know what she's talking about.
"All I have done is spent the last 15 years of my life trying to be as well as possible. I'm not giving cannabis to anybody else. I'm not harming anybody, and I'm no threat to anybody.
"There's no guarantee the police will leave me alone, but if it came to a choice between becoming ill and breaking the law, I'd choose to smoke cannabis every time. Nobody should have the right to tell em I can't take the medicine I need to stay well."