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The Father of Legal Pot

Martin Chilcutt helped make marijuana mainstream
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Martin Chilcutt on the deck of his Kalamazoo home.

© 2020 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

Under cover of darkness on a Sunday evening, when police presence was at its lowest, Martin Chilcutt pulled his car into a North Denver shopping center parking lot, turned off the engine and waited for his contact to arrive.

When he did, the man told Chilcutt to give him his keys and then instructed him to head inside the store for at least a half hour — to buy a few things, pretend to browse, anything really, as long as he didn't draw attention to himself. Chilcutt emerged from the store at the agreed-upon time, took back his keys, started the engine and drove into the night — carefully.

In the trunk was a large garbage bag full of marijuana, perhaps 20 pounds or so, worth tens of thousands of dollars. When he arrived at his apartment, Chilcutt got to work, dumping handfuls of pot onto a white sheet, then measuring out amounts, which he placed in Ziploc bags. No money was exchanged during this clandestine cannabis meeting; the pot was a gift from a grower Chilcutt knew. The dozens of sandwich bags full of cannabis were going someplace else.

It was the late 1990s, and Chilcutt was a retired psychotherapist. Many of the men he counseled in group therapy sessions had suffered from serious diseases — AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis. Some of them used cannabis — when they could find it — to alleviate their symptoms and receive a respite from their suffering. Chilcutt, who uses cannabis himself, had become a Robin Hood of sorts, handing out the bags of marijuana free of charge to his clients and anyone else who needed it.

“I am a strong humanist,” he says, speaking from a plump chair in the cozy living room of his Kalamazoo home. “I have a deep conscience. I’m a compassionate person. I care deeply about people. I knew how marijuana could help people who were suffering, and there was no way I was not going to help them.”

At that time, marijuana was nowhere near as accepted in society as it is becoming today. In 1990, only 25 percent of Americans favored its legalization, compared to 62 percent in 2018, according to data from the Gallup polling firm. Pot was very much underground. Medical marijuana was almost unheard of, with only one state — deep blue California — having a medical cannabis law, which was passed in 1996.

Chilcutt views cannabis as medicine that has as much, if not more, efficacy in treating a host of problems than any prescription drug. He’s seen it help people he cared about. Disabled himself from cancers he developed as a result of radiation exposure when he was serving in the U.S.

Navy in the 1950s, it had helped him for decades. In his eyes, it was a travesty that a substance so safe and useful should be kept out of the hands of those who wanted it. It was a question of freedom and choice, a matter of justice, he says.

So, keeping in spirit with one of his favorite quotes, Gandhi’s “Make the injustice visible,” Chilcutt decided to light a way forward. Alone on his Denver porch one warm evening in 1998, he looked up into a star-filled sky and said, “Goddammit, I have to do this. I have to make this legal for patients.” Raising his hands toward the moon, he exclaimed, “Universe, help me. Support me.”

The path he would tread in the next few years would be one fraught with peril, from shady associates with nefarious motivations to public officials he believes tried to sabotage his plans.

The work ahead was as steep as the mountains just west of the Mile High City. In those first few months, next to no one thought he would get the issue on the ballot, much less that it would pass.

“My friends said, ‘Marty, you’re wasting your time,’” he says. “But I just told them, ‘Watch. You’ll see.’”

The experiences he had in Colorado spearheading the effort provided him with invaluable experience for his eventual move back to Michigan, his home state, where he would become a father of sorts of the state’s medical marijuana movement, an effort that forever changed the way cannabis is viewed here.

First, Colorado

Colorado in the late 1990s had a high percentage of people who took cannabis, but it also had a strong conservative streak. Chilcutt’s advocacy group, Coloradans for Medical Rights, faced a united front of opposition, from the governor to law enforcement to the religious community and many others. He was going to need resources if he had any hope of getting the issue on the ballot.

So he traveled to California, where he’d lived for decades, and began to make connections with cannabis advocates in the Bay Area. At one meeting in Oakland, armed guards took him to the 10th floor of a building, where cannabis was being sold illegally. It unnerved Chilcutt.

“It was pretty shady what was going on, but I had to start somewhere,” he says.

He wound up in Santa Monica, at a meeting with people who developed cannabis campaigns. They told Chilcutt they had access to big donors, including The Lindesmith Center, a George Soros-backed think tank that devoted its research to liberalizing the nation’s drug laws. A few months later Chilcutt heard back from the agency.

“They said, ‘We’re going to take a chance on you,’” he says. “That’s when things really started moving.”

Armed with $250,000 from the center spread out over six months, Chilcutt and his cohort of supporters got to work. They hired a polling firm to gauge the level of support for medical cannabis, found that the majority of those polled supported it, and then set about gathering signatures to get the initiative on the Colorado ballot.

Chilcutt appeared on TV and radio, often accompanied by people with serious diseases who spoke of how they supported the measure in order to alleviate the often debilitating symptoms of their ailments. Chilcutt’s name became well known on the pages of The Denver Post and The Rocky Mountain News. Whether he wanted to or not, he’d become the de facto face of the movement, but he aimed to keep things in perspective.

“Everybody seemed to want a piece of me,” he says, “but I always made it a medical issue. It wasn't about me. I was just there making things happen. It was about the patients. I was doing it out of the goodness of my heart. Nothing less, nothing more.”

By the fall of 1998, Chilcutt’s group had submitted well over the nearly 50,000 signatures necessary to get the issue on the ballot. Everything seemed to be going according to plan, and enthusiasm was high. Then things came to a sudden halt.

Victoria Buckley, Colorado’s then-Secretary of State and a Republican, announced that a review of petition signatures revealed that Chilcutt’s group had fallen short of the number needed to get the proposal on the ballot. The issue made its way through the courts, eventually landing in the Colorado Supreme Court, which sided with Buckley just a month before the 1998 election.

“We didn't know what the hell to do at that point,” Chilcutt says, “but we still had faith.”

A dramatic turn of events took shape just months later.

In July 1999, Buckley died suddenly in her home of a heart attack. While making an assessment of the office Buckley had left behind, her replacement, Donetta Davidson, found several boxes of signatures for the initiative in a closet. Davidson counted the signatures and determined
Buckley staffers had improperly disqualified 2,500. She announced the measure would be on the November 2000 ballot.

Chilcutt’s group believed they had been the victims of a partisan public official intent on foiling their efforts. Davidson said at the time that a short-staffed Buckley had perhaps been in the middle of recounting the petitions when she died.

Chilcutt didn't want to enter the fray, saying only of Buckley at the time, “Bless her heart, she’s gone.”

The initiative passed easily. At an election night party at his home, where guests were greeted with freshly rolled joints and cannabis brownies, Chilcutt reveled in the success of the moment. He’d proved the cynics wrong.

“I knew it was going to pass from the beginning,” he says. “And it did for all the right reasons. I’d told my friends to watch and see. Then they saw.”

Next stop, Michigan

Years went by after the success in Colorado, and Chilcutt decided in 2007 to return home to Kalamazoo, his hometown, carrying with him more than just his belongings. He also brought a plan.

Michigan, he thought, needed a medical cannabis law too.

“Initially people here thought I was nuts,” he says. “They said things like, ‘Marty, Colorado is a liberal state full of hippies.’ I told them otherwise.”

Cannabis in the late 2000s was still very much underground in Michigan, so when Chilcutt attended a meeting of cannabis growers and supporters at a rural Southwest Michigan location, he didn’t reveal his plans to anyone, wary of the possibility of undercover law enforcement being there, something he had been anxious about in Colorado as well.

“You have to be really careful in the beginning,” he says. “You have to be prepared to be exposed.”

He listened and took in the scene. Hundreds of people were in attendance. Chilcutt says he left knowing that at least there was a foundation — however hidden — to build upon. And build he did.

Chilcutt talked to local elected officials to gauge their support for medical cannabis. He found only one — former Kalamazoo city commissioner Don Cooney — open to the idea. Other prominent community members wouldn't touch the idea, seeing it as economic and political Kryptonite. Undeterred, Chilcutt began constructing a diverse web of clandestine support, funding the effort in Michigan out of his own pocket, following the successful script written and honed in the Rocky Mountain State. Success, he told his detractors, would come. After all, he had proof.

“I told them all, ‘You are going to be shocked with how many people will support this effort. This is going to pass. Just wait,’” he says. In many ways, it looked like the same play being acted out. Only the setting was different.

Polling showed support for the idea. A campaign infrastructure was put together. Chilcutt found legal counsel supportive of the idea. Momentum began to build. A successful petition drive got the issue on the 2008 general election ballot in a presidential election year when turnout and enthusiasm on the left was high, with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket.

The initiative passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Predictably, Chilcutt was not surprised.

“I knew I was good at what I was doing,” he says. “I never played games with people. I let the issue and idea speak for itself. It was always about helping people.”

But he didn't rest on his laurels. After Michigan’s successful vote, he wrote the directors of the Veterans Affairs hospitals in Ann Arbor and Battle Creek asking that they not get in the way of veterans using cannabis.

Chilcutt, a U.S. Navy veteran who was exposed to radiation from nuclear test explosions in the South Pacific in the 1950s, developed several types of cancers in his 40s. He treated himself with cannabis and received a great deal of benefit in doing so, he says. No veteran, he thought, should fear using cannabis to treat any manner of disease conditions — brought about by battle or not. Starting in 2007, he received help from Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, a group that lobbies the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to accept cannabis use for veterans in states with a medical cannabis law.

Writing to the VA hospital directors was a gutsy move in some ways. Although a majority of states have some sort of law allowing cannabis use, it is still a Schedule I controlled substance on par with heroin, LSD and methamphetamine in the eyes of the federal government, which funds the VA. But the VA in Michigan ultimately complied with Chilcutt’s request.

“These vets deserve to be able to take cannabis,” he says. “Some of them have PTSD, trauma, several other psychological conditions. Cannabis helps. We shouldn't be punitive with this. It’s medicine.”

‘Wanted to improve society’

There is an apparent, if often unspoken, motivation shared by many cannabis advocates, Chilcutt included. Medical marijuana laws, they say, are the foot-in-the-door type of legislation meant to get people who are not familiar with cannabis comfortable with it. The ultimate goal is full legalization.

Indeed, of the 11 states that currently have a recreational cannabis law, all had a medical marijuana law on the books first. All but three states — Idaho, Nebraska and South Dakota — have some form of law that allows for either medical or recreational cannabis possession and use.

One could argue that Chilcutt is the patriarch of Michigan’s more than decade-long legislative journey of cannabis legalization. It’s hard to imagine the 2018 recreational law passing if the 2008 initiative didn’t pass first.

So, with a recreational pot market estimated to be worth $1.7 billion, do those now profiting in the burgeoning legal cannabis industry owe Chilcutt a handshake and a pat on the back? He doesn't think so.

“No one owes me anything,” he says. “I just wanted to make a change, a difference. I wanted to try to improve society.”

Chilcutt is 86 years old. In his small but warm and inviting home, piles of books and magazines are arranged in towers like stacks of Jenga blocks, some seeming ready to topple over. Sticky notes and documents cover a table whose top can’t be seen, where Chilcutt’s laptop lies open to a New York Times Magazine article. His mind is sharp, his wit quick, his energy palpable.

Yes, he is an octogenarian. No, he will not be denied. Absolutely, he says, his cannabis use — which began at age 18 — has contributed to his longevity.

He has one more trick up his sleeve, another initiative close to his heart that he wants to see on the ballot. But he won’t share what it is — at least not yet.

“I am keeping that close for now,” he says. “When the time is right, you’ll know.”

Reading the tea leaves of that statement, whatever is swirling in Chilcutt’s mind is bound to ruffle some feathers, make some waves.

And prove a lot of people wrong.

Category: 

Helping people

“I knew I was good at what I was doing. I never played games with people. I let the issue and idea speak for itself. It was always about helping people.”

– Martin Chilcutt

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