By Matt Kaminsky
Gulf Coast News Wire
Michelle Hilmes had to relearn everything. She didn’t know what a tree was and she couldn’t explain the colors in a sunset. She had trouble seeing and she couldn’t communicate.
On Feb. 16, 2015, Hilmes was told that she had a brain tumor. Two days later, she had surgery to remove it; there was no option. If it didn’t come out, it would eventually kill her. Fortunately, it was not cancer.
“When it happened,” Hilmes said, “it affected my vision, my speech, and now I have a mild case of aphasia. It was like I hit a reset on my brain and had to relearn everything.”
Over time, through many doctors, physicians and speech therapists, she is grateful to be where she is today. Hilmes is back in college at Florida Gulf Coast University to take part in the new integrated studies major that will focus on the cannabis industry.
“I have always been a proponent of marijuana,” Hilmes said. “After watching my dad suffer from ALS, I knew that I would one day work in the cannabis field to help people suffering from diseases like ALS or MS.”
Hilmes’ father died nearly 20 years ago from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS, is a neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. The doctors told Hilmes and her sister that marijuana would help her father, but there was no safe way for the daughters to get their father help.
“At 55, my father was diagnosed, and at 57, he was gone,” Hilmes said. “When he was having tremors and couldn’t sleep, I think that was when the doctors told him that marijuana would help him.”
Hilmes and her sister felt hopeless. Their father was dying and the medicine that would help him was a Schedule I drug. If they were caught with marijuana, they could have been charged with a felony, which carries a one-year minimum sentence in prison.
“The (stigma) of marijuana was different back then,” Hilmes said. “It was illegal everywhere in the U.S., so you had to be careful when you talked about stuff like that. It wasn’t until the last two years that I’ve been able to have the conversation with people about the medical benefits of marijuana.”
Hilmes’ sister now has multiple sclerosis, a disease that can affect the brain, spinal cord and the optic nerves in eyes. The doctors gave her sister the same advice that her father received 20 years earlier; marijuana would best treat her. In Wisconsin, where her sister is treated, it is still illegal and dangerous to find and use marijuana as treatment.
“My sister now has multiple sclerosis,” Hilmes said. “She goes through these rounds of being really sick one day, and then, she takes steroids and she’s good for a couple of weeks. After the treatment wears off, she can’t get out of her bed for months. When she knows she is coming to the end of that cycle, she’ll use marijuana to get through the bad side of it. It’s so hard to talk about it because only recently we’ve been able to have this discussion.”
In August of 2018, FGCU created the class, “Weed: Impact of Marijuana.” Now the school is creating a curriculum around marijuana, and Hilmes is beginning to learn the business, cultural and medical aspects of the drug.
Martha Rosenthal is professor of neuroscience and physiology at FGCU who has Hilmes as one of her students.
“I’m very proud of our school,” Rosenthal said. “The strength to say, ‘let’s go do this,’ is admirable. Cannabis is the future, and other schools are starting similar programs.”
Last year in FGCU’s first marijuana course, Former Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott was invited to speak with the class. The class expected Scott to bring an anti-drug view to the class, but his views were toward legalizing medical use of cannabis.
It turned out that Scott had a mother-in-law, Kathy Weber, who was dying of cancer in Tennessee. He wished that she had access to medical marijuana.
Today, marijuana is seen differently. Politicians, police and the everyday citizen are creating a conversation about the health benefits of marijuana.
Johnny Streets is a retired law enforcement officer with the City of Fort Myers Police Department. He served as an officer for over 26 years, and now, he serves the community as a city councilman. His views on the drug are based on people getting help from the advice of health professionals.
“I’m not so hung up on the fight of legalizing medical marijuana,” Streets said. “If a doctor says that a person would do well, I’m not a doctor, so I would have to take the doctor’s advice.”
Before the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, recreational and medical use of marijuana were legal in the United States. The therapeutic benefits of the drug were known, and it had been used since the conception of the country.
“Medical marijuana has been around for a while,” Streets said. “If a doctor prescribes marijuana to a patient and it helps them, who am I to complain when I am not in either of their positions? People have to do what’s best for them.”
Hilmes’ brain tumor was a precursor to developing multiple sclerosis. After the surgery, she was invited by the Mayo Clinic to participate in a multiple sclerosis study.
“There is a high chance that I will eventually develop MS,” Hilmes said. “They are watching participants in this study to see if our brains develop the disease. My father died of ALS and I have a sister with MS. Aside from that going against me, I may never develop it. I like to think that it will never happen.”
When Hilmes found out there was a cannabis program in integrated studies, she dropped everything she was working on and enrolled at FGCU.
Hilmes’ goal after graduation is to open an edible business to serve the community.
“When I tell my friends that I’m going back to college to study marijuana they usually laugh and say, ‘Of course you’re going to get high,’ but now we’re able to talk about it without the (stigma) of the drug,” Hilmes said.