Wheelchair Warrior

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At first glance, the quiet demeanor portrayed by Vincent Lopez may give the impression that his confinement to a wheelchair is only a minor inconvenience for him. Yet, his physical challenges as well as his passion for the cause of legalization of Cannabis for medical use, becomes apparent soon in a conversation with him.

Diagnosed at age 11 with Becker Muscular Dystrophy (a muscle wasting disease), now in his late 30s, Vincent has learned firsthand the limitations of the established medical system and has experienced the vestiges of living within those limitations. In fact, his drive is indeed inspiring to anyone not faced with life in a wheelchair or a debilitating disease with symptoms that can only be treated by “legalized” pharmaceutical drugs; drugs that can be contradictory, and even sometimes, contraindicative, but viewed as the lesser of evils when the question of medical cannabis is raised to those who are opposed to the advancement of research and availability. Vincent’s passion and experience drives him to push for awareness of medicinal qualities of cannabis and to highlight a perceived need to change the FDA’s imposed “Schedule I” drug status of cannabis to a “Schedule II”, an action that would revolutionize healthcare and enable meaningful research of its possible curative features. In the wake of recent statements made by the AMA (American Medical Association) in support of cannabis research and rescheduling, Vincent recognizes an opportunity to reach out to others, to be the voice of reason behind this cause.

Vincent generously granted me an interview with him to explore many of the most obvious cultural deterrents to legalization, counter-cultural features versus responsible recreational and medical treatment viability, political and professional backlash, handling and administration efforts, etc. More importantly, to visit with Vincent is to see firsthand the long overdue need to examine more closely, the role of government interference in individual proactive healthcare. Federal government policy has created a large gap in understanding cannabis and a fear-based management of crime in drug cartels. The use of legislation to control a cash crop overlooks the benefits derived from exonerating cannabis to a more legitimate resource as medicine, hemp products, economic viability, and conversely, the damaging effects of alcohol. The glamorized promotion of alcoholic products turns a blind eye to its damaging effects, while responsible, recreational use of cannabis is demonized to the public, without recognition of past and present research efforts to prove that not only is cannabis not inherently dangerous, but it can be a readily available healthcare option, extremely helpful for managing symptoms of many widespread conditions.

AUSTIN420: Tell me a little about how you founded The Austin420 and how it ties into your role with Texas NORML?

VINCENT: Well, Texas NORML gets a lot of letters/emails from patients who are interested in getting involved and don’t know exactly what they can do to help; this is where The Austin420 ties in, by offering Testimonials to get out to the readers. You could say that The Austin420 is pretty much an affiliate of Texas NORML, with a goal of revealing a community with a valid medical use and to gain people’s trust in The Austin420 that we know what we’re talking about.

AUSTIN420: So, you get a lot of traffic through NORML then?

VINCENT: Yes, we’re starting to track the connections from site to site.

AUSTIN420: Do you have a doctor that works with you that you can refer patients to? Or do you say, ‘oh hey man, I know cannabis can help you, but, oh well, so long’? (Laughs)

VINCENT: Well, that’s the thing, some of these patients are in what we call a ‘catch 22’ position, where they’ve found that cannabis is something that can alleviate their pains, but physicians/doctors in Texas aren’t allowed to ‘go on record’ in talking about medical cannabis without the risk of losing their licenses, therefore patients have to resort to the black market. Because of this, The Austin420 has evolved its direction to the ‘green states’ that have passed medical cannabis laws, which in turn, allows physicians to talk and/or recommend medical cannabis to their patients.

AUSTIN420: Okay. So are you in contact with these doctors now?

VINCENT: Right now, it’s a lot of medical clinics (wellness centers) in these ‘green states’ that can lead us to physicians, and in conducting interviews with these clinics, we’re learning about community involvement, acceptance from the people and law enforcement, and we’re also learning about the attitudes that have been adopted in accepting medical cannabis, which provides inside information that we need here in Texas.

AUSTIN420: Okay, that’s really interesting because I was thinking about how much acceptance we’re seeing now, but that there’s still a lot of work to do. There’s acceptance among most, but the groups that are against the legal use of cannabis, medical or recreational, are seemingly isolated from the mainstream community, which is very hard to reach, you know, it’s hard to get into the nucleus of these separated groups because they have this myopic view of “it’s wrong, it’s bad, so I can’t go there”. So that’s the difficulty in raising awareness from the notch where it already is which is rather wide, but we have to take it to the next level. It’s hard to cross over that threshold because we’re talking about religious views, health practitioners who are against it, who don’t see the value as opposed to the supposed harm, whatever that may be.

VINCENT: We have to take it to the next level. In having the honor in speaking with Richard Lee, the author and spearhead of California’s Proposition 19 and Oaksterdam University as well as getting to speak with Stephen DeAngelo, the founder of Harborside Health Center, also in Oakland, I have been given credible advice in the form of building a broad-base of community support. Broad-base means not just the ones that we already know will support medical cannabis, but also reaching out to the ones we least expect to support it. That means law enforcement, that means parents, because we have to bring up the issue of educating our kids properly, not with demonizing propaganda because if medical cannabis is going to be the norm in 20 years, then educating our kids properly about cannabis needs not to be ignored. If we ever expect to create of broad-base of community support, we need the other votes as well, the ones we feel wouldn’t support medical cannabis, but actually would if armed with the right information. 

AUSTIN420: Do you do any speaking engagements on the mainstream level at this point?

VINCENT: Well my main purpose for getting involved with Texas NORML was first on the basis of a safety security measure, but it was also about getting involved with the right organization that could mold me (train me) as a viable resource, which in turn has allowed me to speak more confidently about the issue of medical cannabis and the symptoms of these patients. I felt that I needed the backup of an organization rather than going solo, you know. There’s power in numbers and Texas NORML has given me this opportunity to reach out to these numbers, and so, we’re starting to talk about it more. I believe what we need here is a representative speaking for the patients and their conditions; this way lawmakers can see the reality of illness and the suffering that’s going on. So, the importance of having someone who is on the board and is disabled brings forth that presence, that visual representation for the medical community.

AUSTIN420: Have you attempted to contact MDA (Muscular Dystrophy Association) and share with them some of your views and what you’re doing so that they’re aware and what was their response, if any?

VINCENT: Well, I’m actually in the first steps of that, because I recently discovered some information from MDA which stated that ‘medical cannabis can be used as a muscle relaxant, appetite inducer, and sleep aid’. I read that online, but my thing now is to get in touch with MDA and confirm that statement. At this point, the AMA (American Medical Association) maintains its position that they believe more testing for the efficacy of medical cannabis in treating muscle destroying disease is necessary, though the federal government hasn’t rescheduled cannabis like they should.

AUSTIN420: Okay, now let’s just say that a kid has MD or MS?

VINCENT: If a child can benefit from small doses of medical cannabis for their condition (under caregiver supervision), then this is where exceptions have to come in, because that’s what is happening in these ‘green states’. I believe that in order for medical cannabis to be taken seriously, we’re going to have to look at reducing marijuana possession penalties for all, but most especially for patients who are carrying amounts conducive to medical use. There needs to be proper management for anyone qualifying as a patient with a serious legitimate condition, including management for those who may be under the age of 21.

AUSTIN420: I feel like when we come into this world that we’re not promised a rose garden, but we do have the right to seek and pursue a better quality of life.

VINCENT: I believe within the doctor/patient relationship that any option or possible treatment should be available. It’s a confidential relationship between doctor and patient and there should be no restrictions concerning the benefit of any medical treatment, even if it comes from a natural source.

AUSTIN420: What can we do to remind doctors of the “Hippocratic Oath” and their pledge to do whatever they can to help their patients?

VINCENT: The picture I am seeing is that their hands are tied.

AUSTIN420: By their obligations to the medical establishment?

VINCENT: Exactly! They are only allowed to push pharmaceuticals but their hands are tied when it comes to cannabis. I, myself, being a MD patient, am required to take Codeine as part of my treatment. It’s addictive, it suppresses appetite. Cannabis can promote a healthier appetite in addition it can be a good sleep aid, alleviating my pain and muscle spasms, etc. But with cannabis, we can open the door of discovery and find that there is much more of a benefit this plant can provide in treating more symptoms then just that of my own.

AUSTIN420: Let’s talk about your disease, how you’re affected by it, and how you are able to get relief. I’d like to talk a little about using cannabis.

VINCENT: My experience came out of the pains of my condition, Becker Muscular Dystrophy. I will admit that when I first started, it was recreational. I enjoyed it. Throughout the years though, my pains started to increase, and so, I immediately saw the benefit cannabis could provide. It helps alleviate my muscle spasms and stiffness, my chronic back & joint pain, and also aids as an appetite inducer and sleep aid.

AUSTIN420: Do you have a message for people that come to your site? (www.theaustin420.com)

VINCENT: If we want the legalization of cannabis to come to light then we have to show that we deserve it. This is the philosophy of The Austin420. We’re not radical, we’re not renegades. It all comes down to educating the public about the dangers and medical positives of cannabis. This is where proper regulation is needed, so fears and natural concerns can be put at ease.

AUSTIN420: Patient rights are being trampled by our current medical system; the way it’s set up, it’s like, the doctors are poised to write a prescription and get you out of the office ASAP due to insurance limitations, etc.

VINCENT: Right. I’ve been in battles ensconced in medical red-tape just to get whatever medical aids I needed. When you’re disabled, it can be all about what one has to go through just to get their needs met.

AUSTIN420: Yes, I can see what your challenges are when talking to you. Lots of people may not be aware of what you are going through. And most of us, take walking for granted. We have these systems in place, but they don’t work for us, but more so against us. It’s a cruel joke.

VINCENT: That’s what motivates me to champion these problems and speak up for people like myself and those who are at the mercy of these conditions. Some patients can’t even speak, and I see that I do ‘have a voice’. I can either fall into the pits of self-pity, or I can be a voice for a cause, a medical cause that needs not to be ignored.

AUSTIN420: What an inspiring stance you’re taking.

VINCENT: In becoming wheelchair bound, there is so much more that goes with it. I’ve gone through the discrimination, the stereotypical ways of thinking, and have understood people’s reactions to something they can’t understand. The way people act to differences hasn’t changed, and why? Because of fear! I had to go through it to learn how to adjust my feelings to it. At first, my feelings were very angry, upset, and frustrated, but as I grew older I began to realize that some things are just the way they are. Once you realize that ‘we’re dead already’ then the sooner one can begin to live life. Because of fear I was a reserved person and because of fear, I broke out of it. My passion, my heart, and my desire, is what pushed me out of that shell.

AUSTIN420: You channel your fears into more positive actions.

VINCENT: Exactly!

AUSTIN420: I thought about you when you were at the Women’s Alliance meeting and wondered if you were intimidated by your surroundings, but you did a really good job.

VINCENT: That’s great to hear. I wasn’t intimidated. I like to think that I’m in “preparation”. I think about the risks I have to take, as a kind of “step one” so that I can get to “step two” that of becoming more visible.

AUSTIN420: Sure, you could settle into your routine and you could be trapped into a position where you may never get any quality cannabis for your use because of the laws.  But there's no place for self-pity. Then there's that stereotype - the one of "slacker".

VINCENT: We're also making the statement that regardless of any medication that can help me, my trial is a long one, and it comes down to the fact that I have to deal with my pains regardless of that "slacker" image or mentality. For instance, Autism cases where seizures are part of the condition can be deterred by medical cannabis and children are being more affected.  There are stories of children with autism that have been given cannabis and it has helped them. I see this as an example to the world to show that there's the opportunity to "save" the brain of a child.  I mean, we're all vulnerable in the fight, but this is a worthwhile motivation, plus the empowerment that can also benefit these parents who are having to cope with such challenges.

AUSTIN420:Yes!  I'm glad you said that because if you remember during the meeting when Diane Fornbacher (Activist and Managing Editor of Skunk Magazine) related that lots of parents argue ‘what about the kids?  And she said, ‘yes, what ABOUT the kids?’ What are parents going to do if they have a child suffering with a debilitating condition and cannabis could be the answer?


AUSTIN420: What you’re doing is an extremely positive and an optimistic way to live and I’m really glad I got to meet you because it’s hopeful and there are people who don’t have the physical strength to do what they’d like, but they’d love to have the inner strength to go ahead with what’s in their hearts. You’re bringing an opportunity for people who might be ‘down and out’ to see another side of life.

VINCENT: Yeah, I may not be able to climb mountains, but I sure know how to move them.

AUSTIN420: That is one of the key points that should be put in front of these people who are fearful of legalization. It says to them, here’s another side of life that you haven’t considered. You’ve only been looking through your dark glasses. Take those glasses off and look with clear vision at what is in front of you because there’s another part of life that maybe you didn’t realize even existed. And how can you allow a person with that kind of strength to continue on in the same limits. Why can you not open the door for them, a little bit more! ~

NOTE: This interview was conducted in the summer of 2011, but a series of crackdowns on medical marijuana growers and clinics, particularly in California, has changed the climate. Whether or not these efforts are related to permits and licenses, or are simply an abuse of power remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the federal government is still resistant to a compassionate movement.