By the time you read this, 54-year-old cannabis activist Biz Ivol may be dead. Ivol lives in a small cabin in northern Scotland, and spends most of her time in bed, suffering the torments of the late stages of Multiple Sclerosis (MS). It is an unfitting end for a woman who bravely put her life on the line to end cannabis prohibition, fearlessly mailed pot chocolates around the world to fellow MS sufferers, and grew med-pot in her own home, all while taking on the government in one-woman protests and letter-writing campaigns.
When I spoke to Biz on the phone for the first time, she was compassionate, self-effacing, jovial about her pain and rich with black humor whenever I asked about her life. She had just made international news by telling the media that she planned to commit suicide after her trial for growing med-pot, scheduled for June 2003. The media reported that an eco-friendly cardboard coffin already sat empty and waiting in her living-room.
Euthanasia was a last resort, she said, but the pain she suffered was intolerable, “like a barbed wire being pulled through the spine.”
“Usually when people say they are going to commit suicide, it’s a cry for help,” she chuckled, “but I know nothing will help. I’ve got no quality of life whatsoever, I can’t get out of bed. I can’t even sit at home and knit. I’ve got a cup beside me and I can’t drink it. I have to use a straw. I’m blind in my left eye, and my eyesight goes completely sometimes so that I can’t even read.”
Despite her condition, Ivol was awaiting trial in a few days for cultivating med-pot. During our conversation, the trial was one of only two things that brightened her spirit.
“I can change the laws so they can’t do to anyone else what they did to me!” she exclaimed, suddenly invigorated.
The other thing that noticeably cheered her was mention of the grizzly bears which, I explained, stalked the mountains around my cabin. Her voice grew excited as she asked what they were like and how many of them were left. It seemed to me then a symbol of her ability to still find some interest in an otherwise intolerably painful world.
The breaking of an activist
Ivol’s battle for self-medication began when she started growing med-pot in 1996 on the advice of her doctor, after a synthetic cannabinoid medication resulted in “horrible side-effects.”
She explained to me the innumerable difficulties in making her own medicine ? not the least of which was latitude. Her home in Orkney, Scotland is so far north that she has to contend with “24 hours of dark” in winter and “24 hours of sun” in summer. Compounding environmental challenges, Ivol had to find seeds, learn how to grow, and avoid arrest.
She managed the first two well, but cops sniffed out her operation a year later. In 1997, she was arrested and brought to court where she received an “admonishment,” which meant a warning with no jail time.
She quickly became an outspoken activist, and won nationwide coverage in the UK several times. She created an international network of MS patients who needed cannabis, and provided the herbal medicine to as many as she could. When she was low on weed, anonymous donors mailed her more.
Ivol was a powerhouse of an activist, with more vitality, will-power and political effectiveness than many hundreds of average politically-anesthetized citizens. A second, devastating police raid in 2001 was the only thing that could stop her.
Ivol told me how her condition deteriorated rapidly in 2001 after police ripped up her plants, then charged her with possession, cultivation, and concern to supply (traffic) in marijuana.
“Stressful situations aren’t good for you if you have MS,” she said. “You’re supposed to stay calm.”
Since the raid, she hasn’t been able to walk. She remembered the police interrogation as particularly difficult.
A national embarrassment
With the ongoing media attention, the government couldn’t turn a blind eye to Ivol’s plight. Collectively, authorities had engineered the grossest of publicity screw-ups by persecuting an aging woman with a terminal illness. Parliamentarians buzzed with indignation.
“Does the Prime Minister really believe that the war against drugs will be won by making a criminal of a 54-year-old woman who has led an otherwise blameless life and who is now confined to a wheelchair?” asked UK Member of Parliament Alister Carmichael in July 2002. “When will the Government act to legalize the medicinal use of cannabis and bring an end to the nonsense of prosecutions such as the one facing my constituent?”
Prime Minister Tony Blair responded that he believed local authorities would show compassion in Ivol’s case “but that it must remain a matter for the authorities, not the Government.”
In other words, the Prime Minister couldn’t argue that Ivol’s situation didn’t stir the heart of the nation, but he also wouldn’t change the law because of it. The most Ivol could hope for was an exception in her case.
It may have been Biz Ivol’s recent announcement that she would commit suicide that eventually moved the local prosecutor to drop her case ? after two years of waiting ? on the very day she went to court. The prosecutor also announced that he would consider alternatives to the law for med-pot patients with doctors’ recommendations. After all, he didn’t want another Biz Ivol on his hands. Still, it was far from what Ivol had hoped for ? a change in the law.
Shortly after her case was dropped, she unsuccessfully attempted suicide with an overdose of prescription pills. She also smoked several joints to ease her transition into the afterlife, which ironically may have had the opposite effect by countering the harmful side-effects of the pharmaceuticals.
I phoned Ivol a second time a few days after she was released from the hospital. She still planned to end her life, although she was in even worse physical condition than before, and wasn’t sure she could do it without help. The nurses, however, now refused to even bathe her, let alone ease her suffering. She regarded it as fortuitous that she might die naturally within a few days.
“I messed it all up like I mess up everything,” she said.
“You’ve done a great service to humankind, Biz.” I told her, and another time, “There’s only one Biz Ivol.”
“A good thing for the world, too,” she chuckled.
“The world needs more powerful beings like you, not less.” I said, and she outright laughed.
“Have you seen any grizzly bears lately?” she asked me.