Monday, August 20, 2018
Human Interest

Threat of prison looms for woman who eased chronic pain with marijuana

Seated in a wheelchair and wearing a jail-issue jumpsuit, Amanda Gould felt certain the judge would release her. Her lawyer, her kids and husband thought so, too.

She knew her case was complicated, knew she had messed up by violating the terms of her probation. But two months in the Pasco County jail for something that soon may be legal seemed punishment enough.

In August, during a regular drug screening for a 2013 DUI conviction, she had tested positive for marijuana. She says it's the only thing that eases her pain and allows her to function as a mother.

At an Oct. 8 hearing, Circuit Judge William Webb held a stack of papers with Gould's medical history. A probation officer had recommended that her probation continue.

"I think that's a waste of time," the judge said. "It's pretty clear to me from this report that she likes drugs and she's not going to stop using them, no matter what."

Gould's attorney, Marc Joseph, sounded dismayed. "Your honor, I disagree." He said his client was chronically ill.

Webb referred to Gould's file: "This says she's on numerous narcotics."

Those were prescribed by doctors, Joseph said.

"But you're suggesting she was also self-medicating, by smoking dope?" Webb asked.

"I do, your honor," Joseph said, "and if we had medical marijuana in this state she would be a prime candidate for that. "

In other words, if voters were to approve the Florida Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative, known as Amendment 2, on Tuesday's ballot, Gould's reliance on the drug soon could be legal.

What did the defense suggest? Webb asked.

Joseph took a moment. Thirty more days in jail seemed fair.

Not even in the ballpark, the judge answered. He said Gould belonged in prison.

Her sentencing is Monday, the day before the election.

• • •

She lit a joint on her back porch in Clearwater this summer because the opiates the doctors prescribed created as much misery as they blocked.

Even as a teenager at Osceola High, the pain started each time the seasons changed. Gould met her husband, Christopher, around that time, and the pain has only worsened in the 17 years they've been together. Maintaining a job is impossible, and oftentimes so is taking care of her four kids, ages 2 to 18.

Doctors have diagnosed Gould, 36, with fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, Lyme disease, Sjogren's syndrome, and at least 23 other health conditions. She has been prescribed medications that take pages to list — intense painkillers like oxycodone, a ketamine compound lotion, as well as fentanyl, a powerful drug often used for cancer patients.

The opiates turn her into someone she doesn't like. She spends days throwing up. She has attempted suicide.

For years she smoked marijuana because afterward the pain dissipated. She regained her appetite and generally felt more pleasant. But whenever doctors found out, they took her less seriously. Ten years ago, she flushed some pot down the toilet, determined to stop. But she started again, conflicted.

Then, a turning point. One day, Christopher, who works as a chauffeur, had a California neurologist as a passenger. The conversation turned to Gould's illnesses, and the doctor suggested she try marijuana.

That prompted the couple to research the drug's medicinal value, and Gould began to think of it as more cure than recreation. She continued using it for years.

Then came the 2008 DUI.

She had driven to Port Richey to meet a friend, and they had a few drinks at a bar. A Pasco deputy pulled her over and took her to jail, where officers found a joint and a Xanax pill in her pack of cigarettes. She was charged with introducing contraband into a detention facility, possession of marijuana, and possession of alprazolam (the active ingredient in Xanax, used to treat anxiety).

A court evaluation found Gould incompetent to stand trial. She said it was because her illnesses and medication sometimes impair her memory and comprehension. She underwent regular mental health checkups.

Meanwhile, her health got worse: spinal surgery, a coma, intensified pain. She began using a wheelchair and got in-home hospice care. In summer 2013, finally fit to stand trial for the 2008 traffic stop, Gould pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of DUI and marijuana possession. She was sentenced to two years of probation and 50 hours of community service.

Christopher drove her to community service at the Poor People's Economic Rights Campaign, where director Bruce Wright oversaw her as she solicited donations for the homeless.

"She was conscientious and ambitious," Wright said. "And she had great fundraising ideas for our future."

Gould far surpassed her required service, volunteering more than 100 hours.

But with the regular drug screening that comes with probation, she could no longer use marijuana to ease her pain. The opiate regimen left her weaker than ever. She lost weight. Confined to her bedroom, she watched her 18-year-old son and husband care for the family.

"I had to survive," Gould said.

So she smoked the joint, and felt better. And made dinner and folded the laundry. When Christopher returned home that night and saw a smile on her face, he knew.

• • •

Dr. Juan Sanchez-Ramos, a neurotoxicology expert at the University of South Florida, said people with symptoms like Gould's often don't respond well to opiates. "We have plenty of data to show that cannabis is effective for this pain," he said.

Told of Gould's ailments, he said he might recommend Sativex, a cannabinoid mouth spray that is legal in Canada and more than 20 other countries. "She would absolutely be a good candidate," Sanchez-Ramos said.

Webb's office said the judge does not comment on pending cases.

His court date with Gould — one day before the vote on Amendment 2 — is symbolic, more than anything.

Palm Beach lawyer Michael Minardi, who specializes in medical marijuana cases, said a judge would not be legally required to change a sentence if the measure passed, but he'd hope for compassion.

Approval would be a sign that "the people in Florida do not want to prosecute people in her circumstances."

Minardi said he'd argue for medical necessity, given that marijuana is the only drug that alleviates Gould's pain, and her use doesn't threaten others.

• • •

It's a good thing she binge-watched Orange Is the New Black before she went to jail, Gould said with a smile. But seriously, she said, the positive aspect of jail is that she has kicked her dependency on prescribed opiates.

She and her husband have talked about sending her to Colorado if Amendment 2 fails.

In jail she gets methotrexate, often used to treat cancer patients, and she's losing her hair. As she sat behind a glass partition, her hands shook — part of her condition, she said.

"I made a mistake," said Gould, a wheelchair resting behind her. "I was desperate.

But a judge sending her to prison?

"This is crazy," she said. "I'm a housewife."

She cupped her face in her hands. "For goodness sakes, there is a woman across the pod who boiled her baby."

Jon Silman contributed to this report. Contact Weston Phippen at [email protected] Follow @westonphippen.

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