Shona Banda says she had a clear choice: Live in misery, or use medical marijuana to ease her Crohn’s disease and risk going to jail.
It turned out to be an easy call for the Garden City woman. She said her symptoms eased to the point that she could return to work and once again play with her son.
But she didn’t count on her son, now 11, speaking out in school about the benefits of medical marijuana, including saying that it had saved his mother’s life. School officials contacted police, who searched her house and found marijuana and cannabis oil.
That’s where her old choice took a new turn. Police didn’t take her to jail. Authorities took her son and put him in protective state custody.
A month ago, Banda, 37, was a massage therapist eking out a living in the back room of a health food store.
Today, her story has gone global. More than 84,000 people have signed an online petition supporting her. Signatures have come from across the country as well as Spain, France, India, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, Singapore, Slovenia, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
As prosecutors in Finney County consider charges against Banda, a GoFundMe account has produced nearly $40,000 in donations for her possible legal fight.
Part of the outrage is that had she lived an hour to the west, in Colorado, she would have been perfectly fine having marijuana in the house.
“Them taking her son made Shona the perfect storm,” said Sarah Swain, Banda’s attorney.
Even conservative radio commentator Glenn Beck chimed in, criticizing the “smugness” of the police officers who responded to Banda’s house and questioning the merit of prosecuting marijuana cases.
Hold on, says Eric Voth, a Topeka physician and longtime marijuana opponent.
“Until all the reports are in, I would urge people to take pause,” Voth said. “I can’t presume to know what happened in this case. I know a lot of people are trying to voice compassion, but when police and child agencies take a kid out of a home, they do so with serious consideration.”
Voth says marijuana has serious toxic and long-term effects, and that it causes domestic and spousal violence.
Lisa Sublett, who heads the patient advocacy group Bleeding Kansas, thinks charges against Banda could lead to a case that changes Kansas law, perhaps even going to the U.S. Supreme Court.
How it happened
On March 24, Banda arrived home and found two Garden City police officers and two child social workers on her porch. Two more officers were on her property.
Banda recorded with her cellphone as she approached the group.
“What are you doing?” she asked the officers. “Why are you on my porch and in my back yard?”
“We got a call from the Department for Children and Families and we need to speak with you,” an officer said. “Will you give us consent to search your home?”
“No,” Banda answered. She again asked why officers were in her back yard.
“We have a right to be where the public has a right to be,” the officer said.
“The public does not have a right to be in my back yard,” Banda said.
Police got a warrant, and their search of the house turned up marijuana. They referred the case to the Finney County attorney for possible charges of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, possession of drug paraphernalia and child endangerment.
Finney County Attorney Susan H. Richmeier did not return a call seeking comment.
Banda said she started using medical marijuana about five years ago for Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that causes abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition. The condition can lead to life-threatening complications.
Before starting with the marijuana, she said, she walked with a cane and often couldn’t get off the couch.
Banda does not say marijuana can help everyone, but in her case the pain greatly diminished, allowing her to work and to ride bikes with her son.
“Sure, I talked to him about it,” she said.
Authorities talked to the boy after the incident at school. Swain says they interrogated the fifth-grader without parental consent, which she contends is unconstitutional.
“They talked to him for more than an hour,” Banda said.
Changing views on pot
There’s no question that public sentiment toward marijuana has changed greatly in recent years.
Voters in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and the District of Columbia approved recreational marijuana. Another 20 or so states have medical marijuana. Voters in Wichita approved lesser penalties for first-time possession of marijuana, though the issue is in court.
More states are expected to put issues on the ballot this year.
Many health and medical organizations, such as the American College of Physicians and the American Medical Association, have softened views on marijuana and called for more research.
The federal government still lists marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, the same as heroin and LSD. The designation means it has no medical benefit and a high potential for abuse.
President Obama, however, recently voiced support for medical marijuana. And, according to the Pew Institute, 53 percent of Americans now favor medical marijuana.
Because of those developments, Sublett said, the Banda case would almost be funny if it was not so traumatizing to a family.
“The question to Kansans is, ‘Are you OK with your tax dollars being spent on this?’” Sublett said. “This woman goes to bed at night without her son because she had some marijuana in her house when it’s legal in half the country – are you OK with that?”
‘Giving her life to this’
Voth rejects the recent developments as misguided. He says the push for legal pot overlooks health risks in favor of money. Medical marijuana has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“The public has been heavily manipulated into approving these measures,” Voth said. “I’m very worried about the real science being overlooked.”
For now, Banda waits for news from Finney County. She said her business is off because people are afraid to come for a massage.
Swain, of Lawrence, said life is tough right now on Banda.
“She’s giving her life to this and we’re going to fight this until we win,” she said.
For Banda, happiness won’t come with winning a court case.
“I’ll be happy when I get my son back,” she said.