Your new novel, Betty’s (Little Basement) Garden, takes on the controversial issue of medical marijuana. What drew you to this hot-button topic?
I started out completely against medical marijuana. I bought into all the propaganda about how dangerous it was, the whole “gateway” theory, etc. When medical marijuana dispensaries began popping up all over Colorado and in the small town where I live, I was quick to joke about them to friends. But then through a series of odd events, I happened to meet someone who used medical marijuana to help with her nausea during chemo. This woman was very low-key, fairly conservative and the last person I ever thought would use the herb. She told me that none of the drugs worked (even the synthetic marijuana pill, Marinol) the way that the plant worked. She told me she was finally able to function during the day, to get a full eight hours of sleep each night and that her stress level went from a “10” to a manageable “4.” From observing her, it was obvious to me that marijuana was incredibly helpful and far from dangerous.
Since I’m as much a researcher as I am a writer, I spent almost four months reading everything I could on the plant, watched hours of video, spoke with numerous medical marijuana patients (whose average age was around 55), and quickly began to value this plant that I’d mocked most of my adult life. The more I dug into the subject, the more I encountered a lot of conservative people using marijuana who were terrified of the stigma around the plant. They were truly afraid of “being found out” even though they were getting relief of their symptoms and they were completely legal with their medical marijuana card. I think that was the birth of Betty Craven’s character. She’s the “fish out of water” as well as the opposite of the stereotypical “stoner persona” that is usually put forth in books or movies. That alone was a compelling idea to explore.
As a novelist, you’re best known for your crime thrillers featuring Detective Jane Perry. Why did you choose to work the debate over medical marijuana into a stand-alone work of fiction rather than into an installment in your popular mystery series?
I never really considered featuring a medical marijuana storyline into a Jane Perry novel. Jane’s stories are much darker and I wanted to create a novel around the medical marijuana subject that was light, fun, entertaining but also emotionally charged and transforming. I also thought it was really important to create a main character that was fairly innocent about the world and could play against the theme. Jane Perry is anything but innocent. And, truthfully, I needed a break from the rigors of writing another intense Jane Perry novel. Oddly enough, Betty’s (Little Basement) Garden was much more of an emotional ride than I ever thought it would be. People can get very passionate and irrational around the subject of medical marijuana. I finally stopped telling people about the book I was writing because I was usually met with a scowl and a comment like, “Oh, God! Why are you bothering with that subject?!” But that just gave me more “author ammo” when it came to creating realistic characters in the book who had “real life” arguments against marijuana.
Betty’s (Little Basement) Garden introduces a wonderfully appealing and complicated heroine, Betty Craven. Was your character inspired by any woman in particular? Would you describe Betty as your alter ego?
There is definitely some of me in Betty Craven. But the character is actually based on two other women I know. I’m nowhere near as refined and precise as Betty Craven. I’m not a towering, buxom blond from Texas with a pageant history. But I guess I share Betty’s guts, determination and fears...especially her fear of failure and a life lost to wasted time. It’s probably no coincidence that I started writing the novel shortly after my fiftieth birthday. Like a lot of people who hit the big 5-0, they realize that youth is faded and you probably have more years behind you than ahead of you. That can be a sucker punch if you let it. Betty Craven experiences these same emotions and regrets and is essentially emotionally saved when she becomes a marijuana caregiver and grower.
On the topic of medical marijuana, whose point of view is Betty meant to represent?
Well, I guess mine mostly. Her deliverance from ignorance on the subject is similar in some ways to my own awakening. I’m not as cautious as Betty Craven but her understanding of the marijuana plant and what it can do is parallel to my own gradual realization. I was determined to not make the book a “pro marijuana” novel because I can’t stand reading anything that has a heavy agenda attached to it. Instead, I wanted to remove the veil that surrounds the plant as well as put to rest a lot of the gossip and ridiculous hysteria that seem to accompany the herb. But I also needed to show that everyone who is involved in the business of marijuana is not altruistic. I wasn’t about to write a book about marijuana without showing the mistakes and misdeeds of some people who are involved with the plant. In the same respect, I also wasn’t going to ignore the flat out hypocrisy that is rampant with those who are against the use of medical marijuana. These people seem to believe that if you put greater restrictions on its availability, that the “problem” will go away. That belief is incredibly naïve because medical marijuana patients will just move to the illegal street market to obtain their herb. I think more than anything, I wanted this book to show an honest portrayal of how the informal caregiver/patient relationship operates in Colorado. Most people are only aware of the dispensaries but they don’t understand or know about the many individuals who grow marijuana for someone else who is unable to. These relationships are often quite rewarding for both parties and are nothing at all like a back alley deal.
Many peopleespecially people of a certain age, like Bettythink of marijuana as a “gateway drug” to hardcore narcotics and self-destructive addiction. How do the facts on marijuana defy this notion? In your opinion, has marijuana gotten a bad rap?
Since I used to believe in the “gateway theory” myself, I needed to see if that was truly replicated in life or just put out there to scare people. The whole “gateway drug” idea is founded on the idea that if you start with marijuana, you’re going to want or crave harder drugs like heroin, meth, cocaine, etc. But if you really start to investigate the types of people who move from marijuana to hardcore drugs, you begin to see emotional patterns within them as well as environmental issues that create their need to escape. I have a line in the novel, “What came first? The pain or the pill” The painwhether it’s emotional or physical or bothalways comes first. Very often, it’s the resolved, deep-seated, suppressed pain that motivates someone to start using harder drugs. It’s NOT the plant; it’s the person who uses it. It’s like blaming a car for an accident instead of blaming the driver. If the person begins using marijuana to escape from a stressful or abusive life, that’s different than the medical marijuana patient who is using it to alleviate pain and reduce stress. It’s the INTENT that’s important here. Is the intent to relax and relieve anxiety or is the intent to get messed up and be unable to function? I can guarantee you that the intent of a medical marijuana patient is the former. Blaming an herb that has documented healing potential for being a “gateway” to harder drugs is just more propaganda, in my opinion. When the herb was legal before 1937 and available at the corner drug store, there wasn’t any panic over marijuana leading to morphine.
There are always going to be people out there who can’t say “no” and, for whatever reason, become addicted to various substances. If life gets to be too much for those who use marijuana recreationally, there’s a good chance that they will experiment with pills, pharmaceuticals and hardcore drugs. What about tobacco, alcohol and even sugar as “gateway” drugs? I realize that anyone who is addicted to cigarettes, drinking and consuming 32 oz. sodas would probably be insulted by that reference. But isn’t it all about sedating the mind and escaping from a life that you find painful, miserable, boring or pointless?
Ironically, for many medical marijuana patients I talked to when I researched the subject, the herb was their “exit drug” from powerful painkillers like Oxycodone or the array of sleeping pills and anxiety drugs they used to be addicted to. One patient told me marijuana was her “exit drug” from meth. Another patient told me that marijuana was his “exit drug” from alcohol and that he was able to quit a lifetime of alcoholism by using the herb. Did he just replace one “drug” for another? I can’t answer that. But I do know that he’s a much happier and well-adjusted person now than he was before he used marijuana.
Since we’re on the subject of facts, would you tell us about your research for Betty’s (Little Basement) Garden? Did you interview physicians or other medical experts? Did you get to know actual cannabis growers, caregivers, and patients?
I interviewed two doctors who issued “recommendations” to patients who wanted to obtain their “red cards” (medical marijuana license) in Colorado. Obviously, these doctors were pro-marijuana, although one was much more so than the other. That one told me she was putting together a database of stories her patients shared with her about their positive experiences with the herb and hoped to one day turn it into a book. I did discuss the subject informally with other physicians but their responses were more flippant and dismissive. In fact, some of the comments they made showed that they were buying into the propaganda just like I used to do. Dr. Robert Melamedewho I did not interviewis a wealth of information when it comes to the science of marijuana. I poured over his published studies and listened to hours of his interviews on the subject.
I also spent a lot of time with growers, caregivers and as many patients as I could. It wasn’t easy getting some growers to agree to let me see their operations because a lot of them prefer to remain low profile. But I did get to see three indoor grows and one beautiful outdoor grow that was stunning. Walking around that operation was beyond incredible. Some of the plants looked more like Christmas trees, towering as high as seven feet, with a width of about five feet. I can’t imagine the work that goes into just one of those plants when it’s time to harvest. The time I spent with caregivers and patients really influenced how I crafted the supporting characters in the novel. Each patient in the book that Betty helps is based on real people I talked to. And these included, doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants and other individuals who were anything but your typical “loser” or “stoner” persona.
What, specifically, are the medical or medicinal benefits of marijuana?
People joke that marijuana is given the reputation within the pro-herb community of being a “cure all.” While that’s tough for some people on the outside of the issue to understand, it seems that nearly every week I read about another study that’s been done to show one more thing that the plant can do. Some of the issues that medical grade marijuana has consistently helped are insomnia, muscular spasms, pain of all types including inflammation, PTSD, anxiety, depression, ADD, migraines, menstrual cramps and nausea. There are a lot of incredible reports lately demonstrating how concentrated oils of marijuana are eliminating skin cancers when the oils are applied topically. The same oil is effective for serious burns. I’ve seen this with my own eyes so I can verify it.
One of the other, truly promising medical benefits involves the neurogenic [nerve] rejuvenation properties of the plant. It appears to act as a regulator of the nervous system. But science has also shown its ability to generate new nerve growth and cells, both in the body and in the brain. This is the kind of stuff that needs to get talked about morethe possibility of how marijuana can be used to help people with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s Disease, traumatic brain injury, epilepsy and other nerve-related conditions.
Do you think staunch opponents of legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes will be swayed by Betty's dramatic transformation?
I really hope so. Wouldn’t that be great? Consider the irony that someone like myself who was SO anti-marijuana could write a book that influences public opinion toward a more safe and intelligent approach to a subject that has been fraught with hysteria and hyperbole. All it takes is one of those major, vocal, anti-cannabis public figures to say, “You know what? I read this book and it opened my eyes to the whole medical marijuana issue and I realize that I jumped the gun when I bought into the propaganda.” How cool would that be? Honestly, if you knew me even two years ago, you would have been shocked at the turnaround I’ve made regarding marijuana. I know what it took for me to take another look at this plant. I was willing to entertain the notion that I was just parroting the words of others who, most of the time, were just repeating the propaganda that was foisted on all if us. I was open to the idea that I was...dare I say it...WRONG. How many people are willing to take that step? If it’s more important for them to feel “right,” at the expense of the truth, they probably aren’t going to stroll too far out of their safe box.
Did you set out to write a novel with a cause? How is the conservative, polished, middle-aged Betty the perfect “poster girl” for medical marijuana?
I truthfully did not set out to write a novel with targeted cause. I pitched this book as a love story between a woman, a plant and a man. It’s really a romance and a coming-of-age story, except that the woman is coming of age at fifty-eight years old. At the core of this book, is a story of a woman who is still grieving for her deceased son, mired in regret for a life she feels has been wasted and conflicted by a rebellious streak that challenges her preconceived ideas of who she really is. This book is all about radical transformation on ALL levels. It’s about a woman finding her voice for the first time and throwing her fears to the wind. The fact that medical marijuana is the engine that drives her transformation is what makes the story unique, in my opinion. There’s this perception that refined, patriotic, Republican women over the age of fifty like Betty Craven would never jump on the cannabis bandwagon. There’s this ridiculous idea that “the Republican is the enemy” when it comes to the marijuana movement. The way I see it, that’s as bad as people claiming that all marijuana users are losers. I would LOVE to see the character of Betty Craven developed into a true “poster girl” for cannabis reform. She’s incredibly grounded, intelligent and enlightened. I would be incredibly honored if Betty became the sensible face of medical marijuana.
As fans of your fiction may not know, you’re also the author of two books on plant medicine. Given your interest and expertise, have you ever considered becoming a cannabis grower and caregiver?
I would love to have the opportunity some day to cultivate cannabis. However, after hanging out with the various growers and seeing how involved a process it is, I know that I don’t have that kind of time. The same thing applies to being a caregiver. Right now, my writing schedule and promotions for my books fill my days. I think once the laws around marijuana become clearer and the climate of fear from the Feds no longer exists, the prospect of growing a few plants in the backyard will be appealing.
As a resident of Colorado, do you support your state’s laws and policies on medical marijuana? Would you like to see a federal law sanctioning the use of marijuana for medical purposes? Do you think marijuana should be legalized for recreational use?
In Colorado, we have Amendment 20 in our state’s constitution, which the people voted for in 2000. But navigating that groundbreaking new rule has been tough. Essentially, it was meant to protect qualified medical marijuana patients and caregivers against prosecution under Federal law. But the legislation was vague and gave a wide interpretation as to what was allowed. But it really became a free for all when Obama instructed Attorney General Eric Holder to have a “hands off” policy on medical marijuana. Literally overnight, dispensaries and grow operations were popping up in every town, with everyone and their brother “getting into the cannabis biz.” Over the last three years, the marijuana laws in Colorado have been amended and made somewhat clearer by altering the language in the law. But for the most part, I’d have to say it’s been confusing for growers, caregivers and dispensary owners. For example, at one point, marijuana caregivers with “red cards” were allowed to grow as many as twelve plants PER person or up to seventy-two plants total (if the caregiver had his/her maximum of five other “patients.”) This was then reduced to six plants per person or thirty-six total. But that was confusing, because some people didn’t understand that half of that thirty-six had to be “in a vegetative state” (i.e., NOT in bloom.) But try telling that to a plant that might want to suddenly “flip” on its own into bloom. So what do you do when your plant dictates the cycle and you’re suddenly two or three plants over your “allowed count” that’s in bloom? Do you destroy it after all the hard work you’ve put into it? Most likely, you don’t but then you run the risk of law enforcement finding your grow and forcing you to destroy it.
I think that anytime you start creating restrictive laws around a PLANT that can and does have a mind of its own, the issue becomes incredibly confusing and, on some levels, ridiculously absurd. So, do I support Colorado’s laws and policies? I support the fact that Colorado is leading the nation in marijuana reform but I don’t agree with the frequently changing alterations to Amendment 20 that only serve to create resentment and misunderstandings with those who either grow marijuana for their own use or for others. As the saying goes, “Federal law always trumps state’s laws.” So, as long as there is a Federal law against the possession, growing, manufacturing, etc. of marijuana, there’s going to be this ongoing issue surrounding the herb. So, yes, I heartily support a forward thinking change to the Federal law allowing individuals to grow the plant with no restrictions, whether one is growing for medical or recreational reasons.
People banter a lot about regulating marijuana like alcohol (which is actually going to be voted on this November in Colorado.) But while you can make your own small batches of beer or wine at home, it certainly requires more equipment and the knowledge of converting either the hops or the grapes into a fermented form. With marijuana, you’ve got a seed that grows into a big plant and, unless you’re going to convert it into butter or alcoholic extracts (tinctures), all you have to do is harvest the bud when it’s ready, dry it and it’s ready to be used. I liken it to having a bunch of apple trees. When the apples are ready, you pick them and eat them. You can convert those apples into hard cider for your own consumption and nobody freaks out. In fact, you can get pretty toasted on that cider if you know what you’re doing and, still, nobody is calling for the regulation of apple trees.
I realize that, unlike apple trees, marijuana has a powerful commerce/financial incentive and the “big” money that can be made on this “weed” is driven by the underground market. But if marijuana was decriminalized and made legal by the Feds, the price would drop substantially, making it less attractive to the black market. In other words, instead of marijuana selling for upwards of $550 per ounce on the black market, it could easily sell for $50.00 or less in an open, legalized marketplace. That would remove the profit motive for the criminal element and possibly remove it from their list of contraband. Perhaps this is a naïve opinion, but it can’t be stated enough that we’re talking about a PLANT and not a manufactured pill or synthetic product. You can’t patent a plant. And I tend to believe in the freedom to grow whatever one chooses to grow in their own backyard...whether that’s apples or marijuana.
What would you like readers on both sides of the medical marijuana debate to take away from Betty’s (Little Basement) Garden?
More than anything, I want readers to put the brakes on the hysteria that surrounds this plant. There’s been too much propaganda, disinformation, outright lies, and third-hand gossip about what it can and can’t do. In the book, Betty Craven buys into the “Reefer Madness” frenzy at first. But through the story, she gradually begins to understand and appreciate the beauty and usefulness of the cannabis plant. It would make me extremely happy if this novel was the fulcrum for intelligent discussion about how to integrate marijuana into the day-to-day lives of those who can benefit from it.
I never say in the book that marijuana is a cure-all or that everybody should use it. But I hope that readers who are the least bit interested in the plant will read the book and discover that what they’ve been taught is completely wrong. If Betty’s (Little Basement) Garden can lift the cannabis veil and promote clear, concise dialogue about this much maligned herb, I would be thrilled. And if I can convert readers who are as against marijuana as I once was, that would be even better. I think it’s time to start discussing this issue like intelligent adults instead of scared little children.