Love, life, and death: A Martha’s Vineyard marijuana story

Paul Jackson — File photo by Steve Myrick

Paul Jackson can grow anything. His skill with soil and seeds is legendary. His home is surrounded by four large gardens. Over the years he has collected more than 300 ribbons from the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair. He brings the exhibits in by the wheelbarrow full, and he gets his own table in the Ag Hall.

Mostly, he grows vegetables for food, and flowers for the fun of it, at this Edgartown home. But always, through the years, over in one secluded corner of the garden, there was a plant he grew at first out of curiosity, and then, just in case he needed it.

Paul Jackson is not the only amateur horticulturist on Martha’s Vineyard who grows marijuana. But he might be the most unusual.

He doesn’t use it. He doesn’t like the way it’s abused. He doesn’t think people understand it. He has no use for commercially grown marijuana. He’s not all that crazy about the new medical marijuana law that took effect in Massachusetts January 1.

But when Mary, his wife of 53 years (and companion for seven years before that), was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009, he was ready. He brewed a tea from the plants in his garden, and helped her sip it to ease the pain in her ravaged body.

“After 60 years, there was no way I was going to let her suffer,” he said.

It took only six months for the cancer to take her. For that time, Paul and Mary had a lot of normal, happy time together, or as normal as it could be with frequent chemotherapy treatments and the cruel disease robbing her body of strength.

Mary died on April 15, 2010.

“I never, ever saw pain in her face, and I could talk to her,” he said. “I talked to her at 5 pm, and she died at 8 pm. I’ve been keeping this back for so long. I don’t like pain. People with cancer, what they have to go through, there’s no need. I get so damned mad. It’s just not necessary.”

A long-ago lesson

Thirty-one years ago, Paul and Mary Jackson’s son-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. It was Mary who cared for him in their home.

Chemotherapy was rough. He would travel off Island for treatment, and return unable to eat, vomiting violently.

He would lose as much as 12 pounds, and suffer from dehydration. Mary would help him regain his strength, with vegetables from the garden and venison and fish from the freezer.

None of the medications doctors prescribed could relieve the misery. A doctor prescribed synthetic marijuana in pill form, but he reacted very badly. Then Mary gave him real marijuana. He felt less pain, and he could tolerate food. He recovered from the cancer.

Old and new

Paul Jackson’s face shows the weathering of 78 Martha’s Vineyard summers. He is tall and thin, and spry. His blue eyes fix on you with a directness that imparts the confidence of his convictions.

He is rooted in a simpler time, when nobody needed a permit to build a shed, or kill a skunk, and you could buy a house on Martha’s Vineyard for $3,000. He is a bit puzzled by the 21st century.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me. I can’t understand everything today, the way it is, and everything today isn’t half as good as it was way back. It’s junk. It’s crazy.”

In his day, if you didn’t hunt, if you didn’t fish, and if you didn’t grow your own food, you didn’t eat much.

On a remote island, an independent streak was not a character trait, it was a survival mechanism. You believed in what you could see in front of your face, and were skeptical about the claims of people you didn’t know.

“They’re telling you what to do and what not to do and they don’t know what the hell it’s all about. I knew what it did. If they told me I couldn’t grow it, I’d go to jail. There’s no way they were going to stop me. I will not watch anyone I love go down in pain.”

Common sense, in a legal sense

With a recommendation from a doctor, the new medical marijuana law that took effect this year makes what Paul Jackson did perfectly legal. But he is skeptical of the new law, and leery of commercially grown marijuana.

“It’s got two sides to it,” he said. “It’s a good thing if it’s used right. It’s like anything else, like booze or anything else. I’m afraid it’s going to be abused.”

Long before it was trendy, Paul grew everything organically. His daughter jokes that the best gift anyone could give him was a truckload of horse manure.

He reasons that chemicals in commercially grown plants, reacting with the drugs used in chemotherapy inside a body, is probably not a good thing.

“What they’re doing today, they’re mixing it with chemicals to make it grow fast,” he said. That’s not the way it works. You’ve got to grow it organically and slow, or it hasn’t got the same effect.”

Fact and feel

Doctors and scientists have varied opinions about whether marijuana is good medicine. The scientific evidence that it is effective as medicine is scant, but scientists who want to study it face a maze of bureaucracy to get marijuana and conduct scientific studies, so few rigorous scientific studies have been done.

Paul has not a shred of doubt.

“I could see what it did for her,” he said. “She was eating and happy, right up until she died. She could talk to you in a sensible way. You had to see it to believe it.”

When Mary got sick, her doctors prescribed morphine, a powerful opiate, to alleviate pain. Paul never used it. He calls morphine a horror show. “I didn’t tell them that, but I knew what marijuana would do. There was no way I was going to give her morphine. No way. An overdose will kill you.”

In sickness and in health

For most of the six decades Paul and Mary Jackson were together, wherever one of them was, the other was there, too. They worked together, dragging for scallops in bitter cold weather, landscaping property in the hot summer sun, or working in their own gardens. Later he worked at a dairy, and she worked at the A&P.

When doctors diagnosed Mary’s cancer, being apart was never a consideration. He saw no sense in letting strangers take care of her in a strange place.

“People don’t see that, because they usually take them somewhere and somebody takes care of them. You’re just a number, or it’s somebody they don’t know.”

He also knew that no medical professional would risk their license by recommending a therapy that included an illegal drug.

“They don’t understand. I see no harm in it whatsoever. If you take it and it doesn’t work, it’s not going to hurt you. You can’t do that with morphine.”

Every doctor, medical professional, and caregiver that played a part in Mary’s medical treatment knew her family was medicating her with marijuana. No one objected, but if the subject came up, they would often cut off the conversation.

“Nobody wants to talk about it, and all these people are suffering. They can’t get into that. They didn’t want to promote it. They knew what we were doing, but they couldn’t talk about it.”

But quietly, in a discreet way that doesn’t involve the caregivers themselves, they talk about it now, in whispers and in code words. They ask him if he might be able to help other people who are sick.

Laughter and tears

Sitting in his neat Edgartown home, with Mary’s intricate hooked rugs framed on the wall, and photo books filled with pictures of their fair entries and 12-foot tall flowers, Paul begins to chuckle.

He is remembering a day near the end of Mary’s life when she apparently made herself a few extra cups of tea. He sat with his wife and his daughter Beverly at their kitchen table. The marijuana tea made Mary hungry, so she had some soup to nourish her body.

And she laughed. Laughed and laughed and laughed. Flailed her arms around and giggled. The laughter was contagious, and soon everyone was in hysterics.

Mary has been gone nearly three years now, and the grief still sometimes brings a tear to Paul Jackson’s stoic face.

But remembering that day at the kitchen table, laughing about all the little things that made their lives a joy, brings a chuckle. It is one of his fondest and most comforting memories.