Manhandled by Mrs.Taft?

Proponents of Issue 1, the Ohio treatment rather than jail initiative, know well the official opposition buzzsaw. Gov. Bob Taft's anti-initiative campaign has been furious and effective, though the measure may still squeak by. Following Friday's debate in Cleveland among Taft, the Republican incumbent, and his Democratic challenger, Tim Hagan (as well as Natural Law Party candidate, John Eastman), a prominent Ohio medical marijuana activist claims she now knows what it's like to be physically restrained by none other than Ohio First Lady Hope Taft herself.

Deirdre A. Zoretic, Director of Patient Advocacy for the Ohio Patient Network, who's afflicted with the devastating nerve disease, reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), claims that Hope Taft grabbed her by the shoulder and physically steered her away from the governor in the scrum of reporters and well-wishers at the conclusion of the debate. The governor then exiting the hotel ballroom where it was held, Zoretic charges that Taft held on to her blazer for several minutes, preventing her from leaving.

Rather than protest, Zoretic said she took the opportunity to try to reason with Taft about cannabis's absolute necessity for some patients. Besides, she was so stunned that the first lady - who would tower over the 5'5" Zoretic - had physically intervened that she could not muster a verbal protest. Zoretic said that in hindsight, she wished she had raised a ruckus, but, short of trying to rip her coat or wriggle out of it, she saw it instead as an opportunity to try to reason with Taft on drug policy, the first lady's primary policy interest.

A remarkable tale made the more plausible by the fact that Zoretic's face was known to the Taft camp. During the first debate, held in Dayton on October 15, she'd counted herself lucky to be picked by debate organizers to ask the candidates one of the questions videotaped in advance. These videotaped questions from the public inserted into the course of the televised debate, she'd asked about medical marijuana. Taft had voiced his opposition. Hagan - whose father has recently passed away from cancer - voiced his support. The Dayton Daily News noted that Hagan "said if one of his own family members were dying and in pain, he'd send someone out to buy marijuana."

During Friday's debate in Cleveland, audience members seeking to ask a question were invited to approach staffers on either side of the ballroom holding microphones. Zoretic edged her way though the seated crowd not once but twice after her promised opportunity was skipped the first time. (According to The Beacon Journal, more than 700 people jammed a Cleveland hotel ballroom for the debate sponsored by the City Club of Cleveland.)

No shrinking violet, on her second attempt, Zoretic got in to a bit of a wrangle with the man wielding the microphone, complaining over being skipped over in the 'question queue.' She told DrugWar.com she was "very visible" to Mrs. Taft and so was likely noticed by the Taft camp and presumably recognized as the medical-use questioner from the videotaped first debate. (The mid-October first debate featuring Zoretic's question was almost certainly watched in preparation for the two subsequent debates.) She wore no political button and carried nothing but a few sheets of paper.

Having, in effect, declared herself by getting up twice to seek the microphone, at the debate's conclusion, Zoretic used the brace on her arm - "People are afraid to touch it" - to burrow her way through the crowd to the front. Bob Taft had stepped down from the low riser the candidates had stood on, and a group of reporters and others surrounded him not far from the exit. Zoretic says their eyes met several times as Gov. Taft completed an answer. Then, peering over a reporter's shoulder, she formally addressed him "the moment his mouth stopped moving."

Her goal was to publicly present Gov. Taft with a summary of the definitive, White House-commissioned 1999 Institute of Medicine report on medical marijuana's efficacy.

Like a reporter competing for the governor's attention, she blurted out her salutation and, as she tells it: "An arm reached and grabbed my left shoulder. And I was face to chest with Taft's wife. I'm 5'5" and she's much taller. (A recent Cincinnati Enquirer profile of Mrs. Taft declared her a "tall, slender woman.")

Zoretic continued: "I looked up, and she said, 'Can I help you?' I said, I'd like to ask the governor a question. She kept her hand on me, and then she was squeezing my shoulder. I tried sidestepping her a second time. I was in dress slacks and a blazer, and she grabbed my coat by the shoulder and sleeve, and I couldn't move. I should have forced her to rip my coat. I was stunned. Then she made a motion with her hand to wave the governor out, and three security guys ushered him out, and the media followed him out the door. She had her hand on my shoulder the whole time. We spoke for ten minutes, and she held my coat for those ten minutes while we were talking. Yes, I was physically restrained. It was just the two of us over by the side of the room, then she turned on her heel and walked out." It's unknown how long the governor took to exit the public areas of the hotel for either a suite or a waiting car. During that ten minutes colloquy, Zoretic said, "I was forceful, but I never swore." By e-mail, Zoretic noted, "I gave her a copy of the IOM report, and explained the medicinal properties, etc. I ended it with asking her why I deserved to suffer until I die ... . She kept tripping over her words, saying she doesn't think I deserve [that]. Are there no medical options left ... we feel for you." Basically, Taft retreated to noncommittal rhetoric, said Zoretic, all the while clutching her coat.



A Fine Non-Denial Denial

Asked about any such physical restraint, Taft campaign press secretary Orest Holubec said, "That assertion is ridiculous. Mrs. Taft talked to her. She didn't restrain her. She may have put her hand on her shoulder, I don't know." Asked if Taft clutched at Zoretic's blazer in some fashion, Holubec issued this positively Nixonion non-denial denial: "I find it very hard to believe. I'd be shocked if it happened."

Holubec declined to make Mrs. Taft available for comment. Asked to check with the first lady as to her version of the incident, Holubec indicated that she was traveling, "But I can try." He added, "It's insulting to even ask that question."

Perhaps the first lady's traveling party included no one with a cell phone. Perhaps Holubec shrank from asking the "insulting" question. (An insult indeed to the very notion of this country that at a public forum the First Lady of Ohio may have physically intimidated a citizen seeking to petition a public official running for reelection. ) In any event, having confirmed Zoretic and Hope Taft's interaction, Holubec never subsequently offered Taft's version of the incident.

Austin Jenkins, spokesperson for the Hagan campaign, remembered Zoretic from her question at the Dayton debate. He said, "Our obligation here in the last days of the campaign is to remain focused on the issues and not what the Taft campaign is doing."(I should note that Zoretic did not initiate contact with this reporter. I learned of the incident from a third party with no connection to Ohio politics and contacted her.)

As with individuals who are victimized by far worse than befell Zoretic (after all, only her rights as a citizen and overall autonomy as a human being were assailed), her credibility is boosted by the fact that she immediately voiced her outrage at the incident to several individuals. When Hope Taft left, Zoretic said she approached local Fox television news reporter, Bob Cerminara, a veteran of WJW, Channel 8 in Cleveland. She told him of the incident, but failed to elicit much of a response.

Despite a couple of attempts yesterday, Scott Johnson in the WJW newsroom was unable to reach Cerminara - off on a Saturday - for comment.

John Hartman a Celeveland-area marijuana reform activist had provided Zoretic with an extra ticket to the debate. He had left the ballroom upon its completion, but later encountered Zoretic by the hotel entrance. He said she told him then of being grabbed by the arm and how "Hope intervened."

That afternoon, Zoretic called both Ohio Patient Network president John Precup and its co-founder, Mary Jane Borden, to voice her displeasure. Borden said she was "really revved up by the incident - agitated."

Precup declared Zoretic a valuable member of the organization's board of directors. Characterizing her as emotional but reliable, he confirmed her call Friday afternoon complaining of the incident. "She said that the governor's wife intercepted her, grabbed her by the shoulder ... . And then Hope turned her to the side and was running interference," Precup said. He added, "I don't know her to be an exaggerator."

Hartman similarly professed a belief in Zoretic's account, saying, "She may get emotional, but she's not a liar." Applauding the attempt to present the governor with the IOM report, Borden said, "Dee Dee is assertive - she's not afraid to speak in front of crowds." Borden considers her "credible, ethical, a pleasure to work with, a friend."

A Waitress on the Rack

A 30-year-old disabled waitress, Zoretic has faced higher hurdles than trying to talk to a sitting governor, the descendent of senators and a president. Years of pain and political frustration make patients sneer at such trifling challenges.

Doctors can't explain Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome's precise etiology, but know it results from trauma, anything from a gunshot to a very minor injury, even a splinter, when the body's nervous system goes haywire in reaction to an injury. In March, 1999, Zoretic fell awkwardly at work, injuring her right arm. She experiences pain mostly in her right hand and arm; over the years it has spread all the way up to her shoulder.

The federal National Institutes of Health declare RSD to be "a chronic condition characterized by severe burning pain, pathological changes in bone and skin ... and extreme sensitivity to touch." It adds that symptoms include: burning pain, muscle spasms, local swelling, increased sweating, softening of bones, joint tenderness or stiffness, restricted or painful movement ... . The pain that patients report is out of proposition to the severity of the [precipitating] injury and gets worse, rather than better, over time."

The NIH describes the pain as "a burning, aching, searing pain ... that spreads over time, often involving an entire limb. Moving or touching the limb is often intolerable. Eventually the joints become stiff from disuse, and the skin, muscles and bone atrophy." Zoretic stated that prior to using medicinal cannabis, she experienced such pain and atrophy. In a marked understatement, the NIH concludes, "The unrelenting pain from RSD has caused many patients much physical and emotional misery." A published "Clinical Practice Guideline" to RSD notes that, "The potential exists for long-term financial consequences. At an advanced state of the illness, patients may have significant psychosocial and psychiatric problems, they may have dependency on narcotics and may be completely incapacitated by the disease."

Upon completion of the tricky process of confirming this rare disease's diagnosis - and she unfortunately has a textbook case - Zoretic was offered a host of debilitating and addicting pain-management narcotics, from codeine to Percocet (similar to OxyContin) to Vicodin, none of which relieved her most severe pain.

Despite its numerous problems, one drug did offer succor, a nasal spray called Stadol. She used it for close to a year, but such are its addictive properties she never used it for more than two weeks at a time. While on Stadol, she vomited frequently. And, she said, "It felt like constantly having the flu, with a cloudy feeling in your head, and body aches all the time."

Accept Responsibility

A proposed "Opioid Treatment Protocol" - a formal contract the patient and physician sign before any prescription is written - published in the Journal of Clinical Anesthesiology states in its second paragraph: "The patient agrees to decrease reliance on opioid use as much as possible and to focus more on issues of minimizing suffering, changing attitudes and lifestyle, reducing disability, and accepting responsibility for one's own health destiny."

As I'll discuss, Deirdre and her husband Joseph Zoretic's embrace of personal responsibility rendered both of them convicted felons, though the judge refused to impose any penalty.

The opioid protocol adds: "The patient understands that successful treatment of the chronic pain will require more than pain medication; it will require learning new pain management strategies, increasing activity and becoming as healthy as possible." Zoretic said that marijuana lessened the pain to the degree she could exercise and restore circulation and tone to her arm.

The protocol charges the patient, as a condition of obtaining narcotics, with the active pursuit of "any other modalities that may be helpful in reducing pain, increasing pain tolerance, or increasing levels of life-enhancing activities." There's no mention of politicians seeking uninformed votes determining those modalities.

Finally, it warns that quitting opioids involves the risk of death along with a long list of painful symptoms.

Stadol, the one narcotic that actually relieved Zoretic's worst pain, is a synthetic opiate. Initially not under Drug Enforcement Administration jurisdiction when it was introduced in 1992, widespread problems with addiction forced it under DEA control in 1997. A law firm soliciting clients who believe themselves harmed by Stadol when it was marketed without the DEA red flag, asserts that Food and Drug Administration "documents state that 'addiction appears to develop rapidly from Stadol and that abstinence from Stadol was very difficult.' " Another law firm quotes an Ohio State Board of Pharmacy finding "of widespread abuse and addiction throughout the United States" associated with the drug. Such law firms - yes, motivated to emphasize its seriousness - declare Stadol equivalent to Demerol and more powerful than morphine. The narcotics that doctors recommended, though viable for the terminally ill, posed enormous dangers to Zoretic, who, at RSD's onset at age 27, was staring at decades of pain masked by dope. Her state-sanctioned options are a life befogged and useless or - should she reject narcotics - living on a rack of pain, increasingly immobile and headed for years of hospice care, Zoretic sought a third way. As the protocol dictates, she decided for herself how best to ameliorate decades of pain and misery.

She turned to medical marijuana. "When my RSD was so bad you couldn't even blow on my arm without excruciating pain, after marijuana, within ten minutes you could touch my arm." She says that pot relaxes the muscles spasms that lead to pain, her skin color returns to normal and her swelling goes down. "If they're violent spasms, it takes it down to a tremor, and if less violent, marijuana calms them down entirely. In a severe attack, while marijuana is not quite as effective in pain management as the Stadol, it brings me to where I can manage, I can function."

By using cannabis, Zoretic reports that she's regained the use of her right arm. "It helps with the swelling and blocks the pain so I can exercise and build up the muscle again."

The Fire Next Door

Not incidentally, Zoretic unabashedly declares herself and her husband, Joseph, convicted felons.

In March, 2000, the next-door neighbor's house caught on fire when the Zoretics were out. The aluminum siding melting on the house where they rent an apartment, so firemen broke a window on their enclosed back porch to make sure no one was home. A police detective who had come to the fire was by inexplicable happenstance standing right there when their grow on the porch was exposed.

The cops counted 34 plants, but Zoretic asserts many were just trying - and failing - to take root in little dixie cups. She says it was a personal-use garden. What with their home being within the proscribed distance from a school and having their child at home, the charges were boosted to a second-degree felony. But the prosecutors had access to Zoretic's harrowing medical records and agreed to plead it down to fifth-degree possession for her and fifth-degree cultivation for Joe, a machine operator.

The judge, who I won't name here, had them pay court costs and sent them on their way with no further penalty.

(Joseph Zoretic has been active in marijuana reform circles since the early 1990s, long predating his wife's illness.)

What Was Taft Thinking?

Zoretic's story held up under more than an hour of grilling in two separate interviews. Press secretary Holubec confirmed her encounter with Hope Taft. Her fellow patients and activists say she called them to complain right after the debate and, for what it's worth, vouch for her probity. In the absence of any refutation from Taft, Zoretic publicly makes her claim and risks any consequences.

That said, the campaign winding down, the debate a last major unscripted hurdle, did Mrs. Taft place her hands on a constituent - a citizen - so as to preclude any question about medical marijuana in front of several reporters? Was it all about preventing a gaffe in an offhand, unrehearsed response?

I didn't ask how Zoretic treats her incurable, progressive disease beyond our discussion of pain management. The NIH states that normally, if the disease is not arrested within six months or so, "changes in the skin and bones become irreversible, and pain becomes unyielding and may now involve the entire limb. There is marked muscle atrophy, severely limited mobility of the affected area ... "

Cannabis restores circulation and blocks pain to permit exercise, which restores circulation even more. Summers can be quite tolerable. "I'm not on any prescription medication now. And when it's hot out, unless I bump my arm or pick up something too heavy, I might go months without severe pain," Zoretic said. During the depths of winter, however, she fears even answering the door, the cold on her arm perhaps triggering another bout of agony. She's largely housebound during the coldest months.

Zoretic is not cured: she fears the RSD has spread to her thyroid. Surgery is ruled out entirely for RSD patients, so this brave, broke, uninsured woman now faces radiation and chemo.

She walks a legal knife's edge - not fearful, not teetering. She neither invites nor fears retribution: "What are they going to do, kill me?" Without insurance and currently litigating over worker's compensation and Social Security disability benefits, she figures, not entirely joking, "If I get sent away, at least maybe I'll get some medical care."

Meanwhile, she wants to live her life the best she can with her family. It's the only life she's likely to get. And the hapless drug addicts locked up for years all over America rather than getting treated for a medical problem will also probably only get one life, including the ones incarcerated in Ohio. That's the state where, led by, yes, Hope Taft, entire legions of the Taft administration, while on the clock ostensibly working for the public, have toiled since the summer of 2001 to defeat a treatment initiative.

Along with being able to move her arm, Zoretic wants to spread the news to other RSD patients. Having had the disease now for well over three years, she said her doctors are pretty flummoxed by her significant, if not total, recovery. Once this progressive disease takes hold, which typically occurs after a year or so, many patients are on the road to losing the use of two limbs by now. Zoretic said, "The doctors have never seen someone bounce back so completely." She laughs, "I can feel things with my fingers again. Water feels like water instead of slime."

Daniel Forbes writes on social policy. His recent report on state and federal political malfeasance geared to defeat treatment rather than incarceration ballot initiatives was published by the Institute for Policy Studies. Much of his work, including his series in Salon that led to his testimony before both the Senate and the House, is archived at The Media Awareness Project.

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