One family's medical-marijuana story

Erika and Michael Zorn with daughters Lily, 2, and Emma, 6. The couple faces charges for possessing and manufacturing marijuana that the young wife used to relieve debilitating symptoms. (TOM GRALISH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

WHEN Erika Zorn was regularly using the marijuana that she and her husband, Michael, secretly grew in the basement of their Bucks County townhouse, she had a beautiful life.

She worked crazy hours as a manager at LensCrafters, a job she loved, and still had energy to lavish on the couple's adorable little girls - Emma, 6, and Lily, 2. And she capably managed the household by herself - the school and day-care drop-off and pickup, the grocery shopping and meal-fixing - when Michael was out of town for work (he's a photojournalist who specializes in rock 'n' roll).

"I was functioning," says Erika, 33. "Life was really good."

"She was doing great," says Michael, 36.

The bliss ended March 19, when the couple were charged with possessing and manufacturing marijuana. Erika has not used marijuana since then, and her life - and the lives of Michael and the girls - is drastically different.

That's because Erika has a severe form of lupus, an autoimmune disorder that creates antibodies that attack and destroy healthy body tissue.

She also has advanced fibromyalgia, a miserable nervous-system syndrome that causes unbearable muscle pain and tenderness, fatigue and sleep problems.

Her medical use of the marijuana that she and Michael grew had so controlled the symptoms of her illnesses that she was hospitalized only four times in the prior year for pain management.

But since the arrest in March, she has been to the ER six times. Because nothing relieves her symptoms the way the marijuana did. And the opiates she must now take so debilitate her that she sleeps her days away.

She barely works. And Michael has had to turn down work of his own to care for her and the kids.

"I feel so bad for Michael and the girls," says Erika, sitting with Michael in the dining room of their cute Bucks County townhouse while the girls race around.

She is bony and pale. As she talks, she unconsciously winces at the pain that makes it hard to sit still; when Michael gently touches her back, she flinches.

"This is not the life that my family deserves," she says.

"It's not the one you deserve, either," says Michael emphatically.

For years, Erika had used prescribed opiates to control her symptoms. But the drugs made a zombie of her. She couldn't work or be left alone to care for the kids, because she'd nod off like a junkie.

The lupus, the fibromyalgia and the drugs she has used to control their symptoms have created a host of secondary medical conditions for Erika: chronic kidney disease, an enlarged liver, rheumatoid arthritis, gastric problems, brittle bones, heart and blood-pressure disorders and other medically scary stuff too long to list here.

When Erika almost died from complications of opiate use, her doctor suggested she try marijuana. Studies have shown that it greatly lessens the symptoms of lupus and fibromyalgia (and epilepsy and some cancers, too), with none of the dangerous side effects of opiates.

Illegal in Pa.

The first illegal batch of pot that Erika and Michael scored (don't ask how) had been laced with PCP and made Erika violently ill. The next (better) batch relieved her pain. She was overjoyed. But she and Michael didn't want to dabble in the dangerous world of drug sales, where they didn't know from whom they were buying or what was actually in the marijuana they bought.

So they decided to grow their own marijuana, even though medical-marijuana use is illegal in Pennsylvania.

I can hear the critics as I type these words: Why didn't the Zorns score their pot in New Jersey or Delaware, where medical marijuana use is legal?

 

In Jersey, only the state's legal residents are allowed to buy pot from the state's two dispensaries. Same in Delaware, where marijuana has not even been approved to treat lupus.

Besides, not every strain of the plant is the same, just as every antibiotic made by the pharmaceutical industry isn't the same.

Some marijuana has higher concentrations of THC (the ingredient that gets you buzzed) than CBD (the ingredient that reduces pain and inflammation). Others are grown with soils and fertilizers whose chemicals leach into the plants, hurting users like Erika whose battered immune systems are hypersensitive.

Once the Zorns knew that marijuana could help Erika, they refused to let medical politics get in her way. Nor were they willing to wait until Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana use (a move that 87 percent of Pennsylvanians support, according to a Daily News/Franklin & Marshall College Poll released last week).

"My doctor told me that I have three to five years to live," given the severity of symptoms and the need for toxic opiates to alleviate them, says Erika.

The Zorns researched marijuana treatment with the meticulousness that Erika's dire prognosis required.

They bought seeds that would yield the highest concentration of pain-relieving CBDs.

They tested soils and fertilizers to find the most benign mixture.

And then they set up their growing system in a locked room off their basement, hiding the key where the kids wouldn't find it. They also sealed the door cracks and installed high-tech air filters all over the house so no one but Erika would be exposed to the marijuana vapors she inhaled.

'It was a miracle'

In that room, Erika's prayers were answered. Her pain quieted from a roar to a whisper. She was able to sleep through the night. Her appetite returned, along with her energy.

She got her life back. Her family got her back.

"It was a miracle," says Erika.

The Zorns shared with only a handful of people the reason for Erika's renewed health. But one of those people alerted police, who eventually obtained a warrant and charged the couple with possession and manufacturing.

If convicted, Erika, currently a nonpracticing attorney, would never again be allowed to practice law. And she and Michael would have their driver's licenses suspended for six months.

Michael would have no way to get to his photography jobs. Erika wouldn't get to her numerous medical appointments. And there'd be no way to get the girls to and from school (the couple have very few social supports).

"This case is incredibly sad," says their attorney, Perry Liss, who offered his services to the Zorns pro-bono after reading about their case on gofundme.com, where they were raising money for their legal defense. "They're a wonderful couple, a great family. This is very unfair."

Erika's health has deteriorated noticeably since she stopped using marijuana. She has lost more weight. And she must be hospitalized for pain management because she's too scared to take opiates at home, where no one can monitor her heart rate and her breathing.

"I'm afraid I'll fall asleep and never wake up," she says.

If ever there was a poster child for the cause of legalizing medical marijuana use in Pennsylvania, this frail, exhausted and desperate young wife and mother is that person.

I just pray she lives to see it come to pass.


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