Source: Evening News and Star, Carlisle
Pub Date: 29 October 2002
Subj: Lezley Gibson
LEZLEY Gibson has chucked out her face-paints and discarded her big bovver boots. The ring has been removed from her lip, and her hair, formerly a tangled riot of fluorescent red, is now demurely streaked with aubergine-coloured strands
She still wears a stud in her nose and seven ear-rings in one ear.
But you can't expect Cumbria's most famous cannabis campaigner to suddenly turn into a twinset and tweeds girl.
Nevertheless, Lezley's new toned-down look is designed to show her critics that she means business.
"I am determined to make people take me seriously. I don't want anyone thinking that I am as mad as a hatter,'' she says.
Two years ago, Lezley, a multiple sclerosis sufferer, became the heroine of the legalise-cannabis campaign by winning the legal right to smoke the drug to ease the symptoms of her illness.
Overnight, she became a cannabis celebrity, a drug diva. She was invited to give umpteen press and radio interviews. In the past 24 months, she has appeared on half-a-dozen TV debates, and it was one of these occasions which triggered Lezley's transformation.
"I was in a TV studio with the Liberal Democrat's Baroness Walmsley and she avoided speaking to me. It was quite clear that she thought that I was just a scruffbag, so I realised it was time to tone myself down if I was going to get my message across.
"I have discovered the importance of image,'' says Lezley.
Certainly, she is now being invited to attend serious and respectable events. Earlier this year, Lezley and her husband Mark were invited to represent the cannabis underground movement at a discussion held by the British Pharmaceutical Students Association.
"We were on the same platform as G.W. Pharmaceuticals who are licensed to research the effects of cannabis. I felt we were taken very seriously,'' says Lezley.
Phew. And that was when she still had the nose stud.
Now that she is virtually scrub-faced, her image promises to be almost po-faced when she makes her next big appearance - on Ultimate Question, an ethical and religious programme with Martyn Lewis which goes out in the small hours on ITV.
Lezley's famous court case has given her a frisson that was lacking in her life beforehand. In her former life as a hairdresser, she was more likely to be asked where she was going on holiday or if she was going out that night than handed a national platform on which to espouse her views on drugs.
"Sometimes when complete strangers phone me to ask my opinions on cannabis as a medicine, I feel like saying: 'Look, don't ask me - I'm a hairdresser. The politics of it all are sometimes beyond me but people get in touch with me every day asking where they can get cannabis.
"One day, it all got to me and I was dead upset. My mum told me I should have kept my mouth shut and never got involved.
"But I can't drop out now. I would be letting too many people down,'' she says.
Lezley was born and bred in Carlisle, where her grandparents ran a bakery on Wigton Road.
She developed her first symptoms of MS 18 years ago and retreated to live in the more offbeat atmosphere of Alston, when she met Mark two years later.
Now the couple live with their 13-year-old daughter in the middle of the town in a house that is filled with the waft of sweet-smelling, blue-grey smoke. Nicotine, however, is frowned upon.
"Mark and I both gave up smoking nicotine six months ago. I don't drink much, I don't take conventional pain-killers, I don't drink coffee. I'm very careful about what I put in my body,'' says Lezley.
Given the chance, Lezley will wax lyrical ad nauseam about the beneficial effects of cannabis.
Earlier this year, she spent time in Holland attending a course which qualifies her to open a cannabis coffee shop which is still an illegal business in Britain. She gained a 96 per cent pass in achieving her certificate. Lezley would win Mastermind if she was allowed to make cannabis her specialist subject.
However, a four-hour stint in a jail cell last January after visiting a cannabis café in Stockport has left Lezley reluctant to chain herself to the railings in the defence of cannabis.
"I am trying to change the law but I don't want to be locked up in a cell ever again. I am not a modern-day Emmeline Pankhurst. Being thrown in a cell was horrifying. I never even got a detention when I was at school.
"I am just a woman of 38 who has multiple sclerosis and takes cannabis because I have to,'' claims Lezley.
Unfortunately, Lezley's reliance on cannabis as a medicinal aid means she has spent a great deal of time negotiating with drug dealers. A habit of an ounce a week, costing £160, is hard on the pocket. Dealers, she says, are the most ferocious opponents of the legalise cannabis campaign.
"My belief that cannabis should be free for those who need it medically does not make me popular with dealers. However, there are about 300 people who rely on me to help them get cannabis. I have calls from vicars, doctors' wives and respectable businessmen who ask for my help in finding a supply. I point them in the right direction,'' she says.
Since Lezley's victorious crown court case in Carlisle two years ago, the symptoms of her illness have not markedly progressed.
Multiple sclerosis is like a game of Russian Roulette with the central nervous system. Some escape with minor symptoms - pins and needles, numbness and weakness - while others endure paralysis, incontinence and loss of speech.
"MS reacts to stress and the whole courtroom episode was horrifying. It was like being bullied at school but I am convinced that I would be in a much worse condition than I am if I was unable to smoke cannabis,'' she says firmly.
Despite being cleared of the charge of drug possession, she still has nightmares about the day in August 1999 when six police officers raided her home, seizing seven grams of cannabis.
Lezley says that she and Mark live in terror of it all happening again.
"In parts of London, you can smoke a spliff on the streets and no-one is bothered. In Carlisle, you would probably be locked up and in Stockport, you most definitely are,'' says Lezley.
"We are so knowledgeable about the drug that if the law is changed, I am hoping that we get jobs as consultants on cannabis,'' she says.