Before 2011, the Turners were a normal Midwestern family.
Wendy and her husband Tommy ran a gymnastics studio. They were raising their three kids — sons Skyler and Coltyn and daughter Ryleigh — in the same small town Wendy’s family had lived in for generations. They loved to travel.
And then, suddenly, things weren’t so normal. Coltyn was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and he involuntarily became the Turners’ center of attention. Most of their traveling now was to the doctor for his appointments. In order to take him, Wendy and Tommy were absent from work so often that many of their employees quit.
Meanwhile, their friends and neighbors couldn’t wrap their heads around what was wrong. “People didn’t believe that he was sick,” Wendy says.
Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disease that has varying degrees of severity; Coltyn’s is on the aggressive, debilitating end of the spectrum and didn’t respond to traditional treatments. “It was just wacko,” Wendy explains, leaving their doctors at the Mayo Clinic baffled. Coltyn ended up in a wheelchair. “And we lived our lives around that.”
With no answers from the professionals, Wendy and Tommy — like many desperate parents in their position — started to look into the matter themselves. In the process, they learned more about cannabis and how it could relieve Crohn’s symptoms. Rather than put Coltyn on yet another pharmaceutical that might do more harm than good, they decided to try out cannabis — illegally.
And it worked. Coltyn started doing better almost immediately. But the Turners didn’t want to live their lives skirting the law, so Tommy and Coltyn moved to Colorado. Wendy stayed behind in Illinois with their other kids and joined the medical cannabis movement, adding more power to one of its most effective factions: Mothers.
Thanks to the work of moms like Wendy Turner, medical marijuana is currently legal in 33 states, four U.S. territories and Washington, D.C. Like Wendy, these mothers will do anything to improve the lives of their children, who are coping with Crohn’s, epilepsy, cancer and other conditions. They’ve tried the name-brand medicines — Lyrica, Lexapro, Humira — and they want something safer and more effective for the ones they love.
In 2013, Paige Figi testified before New York State Assembly members about her daughter Charlotte, who had almost 300 seizures a week before using a CBD-rich hemp extract. Meanwhile, the so-called “Cannabis Queen of Beverly Hills” Cheryl Shuman is also the leader of Moms for Marijuana International, an advocacy group that has built a network of grassroots activists around the world. Other moms have hosted networking events, rallies and fundraisers at the ground level, all in the name of medical cannabis. You’ll find women like Turner, Figi and Shuman in every state, and even overseas, where countries like Brazil and Paraguay have legalized the import of CBD products for certain illnesses — after moms spoke out, of course.
For many, this advocacy begins simply by stepping out of the cannabis closet. In 2013, Moriah Barnhart’s 2-year-old daughter Dahlia was diagnosed with brain cancer. The prognosis wasn’t good. In the months following, Barnhart felt lonely and afraid, and not just because of her daughter’s disease. After months of watching her daughter suffer the pain of pharmaceutical treatments, Barnhart decided to medicate Dahlia with cannabis instead, putting herself up against her doctor’s recommendations and the laws of her home state of Florida. It was isolating to do so — until she started meeting other moms just like her.
“While our children’s diagnoses were all very different, we had so much in common,” she says. “Most importantly, we had the willingness to ask questions, to reach further and an unwillingness to succumb to a prognosis or the status quo.”
With their help, Barnhart co-founded CannaMoms in 2014, an organization that provides a like-minded community to women in need. At their regular meetings, mothers can find guidance, apply for grants and learn how to help the cause. More importantly, the group provides a safe place for the parents of sick children, free from the agendas of others.
“There was a growing need for a non-discriminatory organization dedicated to the needs of sick children and their families within the cannabis space,” she says. “Our children’s lives depend on truth, even when it’s unpopular.”
If a mother is alone in her own community, she can still find the support she needs in CannaMoms’ online community. Barnhart connects regularly with activists in other countries, while at home she’s working with lawmakers, sheriffs and other elected officials to change policy to help more kids like Dahlia. Barnhart’s daughter is alive and doing well today, thanks in part to medical marijuana.
But with all the publicity that comes with being candid about her daughter’s use, Barnhart (and her fellow CannaMoms) must face the stigma that comes with their particular brand of activism.
“At this point, anything that requires review of my history or even a Google search allows anyone to see that I am an avid cannabis advocate,” Barnhart says. “Even if they believe in [medical cannabis], if they believe it is bad for business or believe it will be bad for them to be attached to it personally or professionally, there’s a potential to lose employment and other opportunities.”
Still, for Barnhart, it’s worth the risk. “These are sacrifices we make,” she adds. “But when you are you fighting for something you truly believe in, the stigma that comes along with it becomes a badge of honor.”
And, perhaps more importantly, it strengthens the bonds between the mothers taking a stand. They aren’t just protecting their children — by uniting, they are potentially protecting each other from the legal dangers that come with treating their children with medical cannabis.
“I think we have a little bit more to lose as a mom,” Wendy Turner points out. “[Child Protective Services] can still come in and take our kids away.”
That’s exactly what happened to Shona Banda — although, unlike the other mothers so far mentioned, she’s the patient, not her 11-year-old son. Like Coltyn, Banda treats her Crohn’s disease with cannabis. After her son told his anti-drug class about her medication, Banda was searched, arrested and charged by the state of Kansas with child endangerment, possession and other drug-related infractions. Worse: Her son was taken away by the Department of Children and Families. In 2017, Banda pled no contest for possession of drug paraphernalia with intent to manufacture and received 12 months of mail-in probation. She has since relocated to Spokane, Washington.
Banda’s mugshot became a powerful image in the decriminalization movement in her home state and in the rest of the country. She filed a lawsuit against the state of Kansas for violating her civil rights, but it was dismissed. In 2015, Banda told Truth in Media that she believed that the state was trying to make an example out of her.
“I started this whole process because I wanted to live and grow and be with my children,” she said. “It’s an inalienable right to live and I shouldn’t be punished for pursuing that… I shouldn’t be prosecuted for that.”
Sadly, the same thing that happened to Banda could happen to the mothers who treat their children with cannabis; even in states with progressive laws, marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, and as a result, possessing it can jeopardize a family’s welfare.
This is definitely something Wendy Turner worries about, but for now, her family is safely together in Colorado. She didn’t stay behind in Illinois for too long; the medical cannabis movement there was ultimately successful in 2014, but Wendy felt like the odd woman out on the frontlines, where epilepsy took priority. “I was the lone person yelling about something else, and I kind of got drowned out,” she says. “I’m not going to be away from my family and try to fight when we know that Colorado is a safe place for Coltyn.”
The Turners plan to stay out West for the long run, in a state that Wendy hopes will serve as an example for the rest of the country. And the family has constructed a new kind of normal. Coltyn has been on Cannatol, a sublingual supplement, since the move, and he hasn’t had any major flare-ups in the two years since. He gets to ride his bike, eats like a horse and is no longer in danger of growth failure. In addition to running their own organization, Coltyn’s Crue, the Turners have started traveling again, too, to conferences and meet-and-greets and public speaking events, where Coltyn shares his story with the world.
Wendy knows her family has been fortunate; when the time came, they were able to uproot their lives and move, even if it meant leaving her hometown in Illinois behind. But just because she’s in Colorado doesn’t mean she’s given up her convictions. And she encourages all moms to do the same.
“Keep fighting,” she says. “Because one person can change things and if you know in your gut and in your heart that this is the right thing to do, keep doing it.”