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5 Red State Activists Making A Difference in 2016

Russ Belville

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The end of the year brings many retrospective “Best of 2016” articles. I don’t intend to proclaim anybody or anything “the best”, and this list would be much longer if it were about all the great red state activists I’ve covered in my reporting. But these five people are some of the best red state activists who I’ve happened to meet through over 100,000 air miles this year covering our fight for freedom:

Texas – Alexis Bortell (HealAlexis on Facebook)

I’m going to take note of two Texas activists, because the first one can’t spend time in her home state.

I met then 9-year-old Alexis Bortell at the SW Cannabis Conference & Expo in Fort Worth. She was taking a chance by coming back into Texas from Colorado. She has had to move there to get access to the cannabis oil that keeps her seizures at bay.

Oh, and to ensure her parents don’t go to prison in Texas for healing their daughter.

Yes, Texas has one of those low-THC CBD oil quasi medical marijuana laws. Alexis will tell you it is ineffective because without certain levels of THC, the oil doesn’t work for everybody, including her.

Since then, Alexis has gone over 500 days seizure free thanks to her cannabis oil. She is also a natural on camera. She has been teaching her Texas legislators about cannabis as medicine in the meetings she schedules when back in the Lone Star State.

Texas – Barbara Humphries Johnson (Emerge Clothing on Facebook)

Barbara Humphries Johnson is a young woman who faced a devastating breast cancer diagnosis head on. She began a regimen of cannabis oil as she went through brutal chemotherapy sessions and a double mastectomy.

Now she has formed her own clothing line – Emerge Clothing – that features some of her own artwork. Barbara has also emerged from the background to become a powerful public speaker. This year, Barbara spoke publicly at marches to the Tarrant County Courthouse in Fort Worth and to the Dealey Plaza in Dallas, and she spoke privately numerous times to her state representatives.

Every time Barbara tells the people and the politicians about her use of cannabis oil to beat cancer, she admits to felonies in the state of Texas.

Georgia – Sharon Ravert (PeachtreeNORML.org)

I helped Sharon Ravert form the Atlanta chapter of NORML, called Peachtree NORML, back when I was working for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Her teenage daughter had a little party at her home. Boys leaving the party got picked up by Georgia cops. That led to a SWAT team barging into Sharon’s home and an armor-clad deputy pointing an automatic rifle at her daughter’s head.

Police only found enough weed to roll a decent West Coast joint. But they also found a dusty old literally-used-for-tomatoes grow light stored in the back of the garage, so the daughter was charged with grow felonies and was facing 26 years in prison.

After thousands of dollars of lawyer’s fees, her daughter escaped any jail time. But that was so long ago I’ve seen both Sharon’s daughters become adults. Long after this battle was personal, Sharon is still out there meeting with legislators, trying to reform marijuana laws beyond the CBD-only that most Southern states have adopted.

Idaho – Bill Esbensen (CompassionateIdaho.org)

Bill and I actually ran around in the same music circuit in Idaho without ever having played in the same band. He’s an old rock guitarist and I’m an old rock bass player and we’ll reminisce from time to time about particular clubs or other musicians from back in the day. But since I fled Idaho in 2003 because I discovered you can, Bill and I have both mostly put our music aside and have been fighting for marijuana freedom. It’s just that Bill has paid a much higher price than I have.

In 2013, shortly before Oregon was to put into effect a new law legalizing the medical marijuana dispensaries we have today, the drug task forces in the state decided to have one last go-round at ruining people’s lives over a plant. They targeted some of the best-run-yet-technically-illegal dispensaries in the three populated corners of the state – Portland’s Human Solution in the northwest, Medford’s Southern Oregon NORML in the southwest, and Ontario’s 45thParallel in the east.

Portland’s dispensary served as a model studied by legislators who wrote the dispensary bill and the other two were running their operations closely to what would become the new law. For that, they all received felony records and spent some time in jail. But Bill had been living in our hometown of Boise, Idaho, the whole time, making the hour commute to the border town of Ontario. For that, he got to spend four months in prison.

Since his release, Bill could have kept his mouth shut and went back to a private life. Instead, he’s been a driving force behind Idaho’s fight to legalize medical use of cannabis, bringing together Compassionate Idaho and Green Majority to run a medical marijuana campaign for the next election.

Missouri – Dan Viets (MissouriNORML.org)

Dan Viets has been at the activism table for almost three times as long as I’ve been involved. Every year, I am impressed at the effort he puts into helping fight for reefer sanity in the Show Me State.

Dan invited me out to keynote at this year’s Missouri Cannabis Conference, my second time at the event. It was a difficult time for everyone there, as eight out of nine states that voted in the election had chosen to reform their marijuana laws—including neighboring Arkansas, breaking through with medical marijuana.

Those assembled Missouri activists thought they would be in the party as well, passing their medical marijuana initiative, for which they had raised millions of dollars and collected hundreds of thousands of signatures. But it was not to be, as they missed the signature gathering requirements in one of the six-of-eight districts in which they had to collect… by just twenty-three signatures.

In an environment where it could have been easy for it to devolve into finger-pointing and name-calling, Dan kept the event on point. How could they learn from their mistakes without blame and succeed moving forward? Activists from all corners of the state, while disappointed, left with even more resolve to make 2018 the year they join their southern neighbors in Arkansas in protecting medical marijuana patients from arrest.

(Note: I can’t be everywhere, and there are many excellent activists whose stories I’ve left out of this article simply because I have not met them personally or they don’t work in a red state. But if you have, tell me their story and maybe I’ll pass it on in my next rant – email me at radicalruss@gmail.com.)

Click here for all of Russ Belville’s columns.

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