While much of the rhetoric over Ballot Measure 2 focuses on its legalization of marijuana in Alaska, the community of medical marijuana users say its approval would make their treatments easier to receive.
When Tyler Emmott first met Jennifer Haines in 2005, she was dating his coworker.
“I asked him if I could get her number and he said OK,” Emmott said.
He continued to court her even as she continued her studies abroad in France.
“I started writing letters while she was away,” Emmott said.
When she returned, he proposed.
“It was a surprise,” Emmott said.
“Quietly,” Haines said. “I don’t like a big production.”
Haines and Emmott have been married now for seven years.
“We play Dungeons and Dragons on the weekends,” Haines said. “Pretty nerdy.”
The couple doesn’t venture out much, because even the most mundane activities could be dangerous for Haines.
“I'm wearing a brace because in the last couple of weeks my shoulder has been partially dislocating in my sleep,” Haines said.
Emmott said he has to be “real careful” with his wife, whose ribs could pop out in a strong embrace.
“I can’t hug her too hard,” he said. “I’m bigger, so I have to always, constantly watch myself so I don’t hurt her.”
After years of physical therapy, pills and puzzling diagnoses, they learned what was wrong.
“I finally ended up at the Mayo Clinic,” Haines said. “They say, ‘You have this weird disease called hypermobility syndrome.’”
She was prescribed more pills for the syndrome, which involves joints flexing beyond their usual ranges of motion.
“I was taking all this really scary stuff, and it's not working,” Haines said.
As her pain grew, so did her husband’s frustration.
“I couldn't fix her,” Emmott said, his voice choked with emotion. “That's the biggest thing. Hurt a lot. When you can't fix her, you just want to take away her pain as much as you can.”
He began researching.
“We were desperate,” Emmott said.
He found an online recipe for a pain-relieving salve using coconut oil and cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive element in marijuana, which is different from tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which gets users high.
“We're looking for pain relief,” Emmott said. “We're not looking to party here.”
In Alaska, it’s legal to use marijuana for medicine with a doctor’s approval, but Haines’ doctor was skeptical.
“He said it was OK to try but he wasn't willing to sign on to a license quite yet,” she said. “So we had to be a little clandestine for a little while.”
Once it proved to be the only effective pain relief, Haines and Emmott were given medical marijuana licenses, and Emmott began making medicine for his wife.
He grows the plant in his downstairs bathroom.
“This is it this is the entire massive operation,” Emmott said, showing what Haines calls their“MacGyvered” makeshift grow room. “Just one little plant and a pot.”
But getting to this point -- legally -- was challenging.
“I have a caretaker card, she has a patient card, but then they say, 'Good luck finding it,'” Emmott said. “So they almost make you have to break the law in order to get the medicine you're approved to use, which is why we hope this law passes so at the very least it will take out that gray area.”
Come November, Alaskans will vote on whether to legalize and commercialize marijuana.
“When Ballot Measure 2 passes, one of the biggest segments of people who are going to consider using marijuana are going to be medical patients,” said Taylor Bickford, a spokesperson for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana. “Passing Ballot Measure 2 will allow patients who currently qualify under the medical marijuana law to more easily obtain their medicine, and it will also allow folks who are suffering from really serious diseases who don't qualify under the law to obtain marijuana instead of these other more dangerous drugs."
Bickford says a change in state law might also benefit military members stationed in Alaska.
"For veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, marijuana can be a really good solution for them, and in many cases, much better than prescription drugs, but they don't qualify currently under our law,” Bickford said.
Kristina Woolston, a spokesperson for Big Marijuana, Big Mistake said Alaskans should vote no on the initiative.
“We have compassion for folks that use medical marijuana,” Woolston said. “Unfortunately, that's not what this ballot measure is about. This effort really is about the legalization of not only recreational marijuana, but also highly dangerous concentrates and drug-infused edibles that are packaged and appealing to children.”
Marijuana concentrates deliver a more powerful high more quickly. In Colorado, where they’re legal, critics say the use of concentrates threaten public health and safety. But proponents say concentrates can be a more efficient and effective form of medicine.
As each side battles for votes, Emmott continues to care for his wife in sickness and in health.
“It just took a long time,” Emmott said. “Things are a little bit better now with different treatment options, but for a long time it was really hard.”