44-year-old Donny Appleby, a prominent marijuana activist whose mission was to promote free marijuana for the sick, died on October 30 after a failed attempt to make his own medicine. Appleby was attempting to make cannabis oil when his equipment exploded, ripping the door off his bathroom, burning 75 percent of his skin and scorching his lungs beyond repair.
Since then, he has been featured in Ottawa’s two largest papers, the Ottawa Sun and the Ottawa Citizen, and on Global News. The media largely agrees that his death was more than a tragic accident. It was a dramatic commentary on how government stalling, delays and obstructions translate into misery, suffering and death for Canada’s terminally ill.
To understand the story’s deeper meaning, however, one needs to connect with Donny Appleby the person. I was honoured with such an experience.
I first met Donny Appleby in the Summer of 2002 at Mike Foster’s Crosstown Traffic, a premier, longtime activist meeting place and pot culture outlet only a few blocks from Ottawa’s parliament buildings. He was an emaciated figure, aged beyond his years, with a leathery, discoloured look to his skin that you only see in those with serious illnesses. Donny lived with AIDS. He told me about his bouts with nausea, diarrhea and depression, to name only three of his many challenges. Even traveling a few blocks to see me was an effort for him.
Donny was also paradoxically spirited, energized and healing inwardly every day. He told me that his father was a minister, but that when his mother died from cancer in ’91, he lost his faith. He also regained it, through the healing powers of marijuana. After I left the city, he was ordained with the Church of the Universe, which holds that marijuana is a sacrament.
He had more than one reason to believe in the sacredness of marijuana. The plant’s widely-known ability to quell the nausea associated with harsher medicines saved his life.
“People who don’t smoke take what is referred to as drug holidays, simply because the medication makes you ill,” he once wrote. “But myself I have never taken a drug holiday because of my marijuana.”
Regardless, the government didn’t make it easy for him to get the medicine he needed. At first, he was denied a legal medpot exemption because – according to the regulations – he needed more than just his family doctor’s prescription: he needed an AIDS specialist sympathetic to pot. After an extensive letter-writing and protest campaign, Appleby won his exemption, but then was told he would have to grow the cannabis he needed without any help from the feds.
Barely subsisting on a ridiculously inadequate monthly disability check from the government, he set about spending every penny he had – $4,000 over two years – on setting up his own grow room. To make ends meet, he ate out of dumpsters behind restaurants. When his first crop came close to ripening, he was so sick that he couldn’t wait for it to mature, and smoked much of it before it could grow to its full potential.
The experience helped him connect with other sick people who lived under similarly brutal conditions.
“When I was in Toronto this summer I had the privilege of meeting Alison Myrden and Dianne Bruce, two of the nicest people I have ever met,” he wrote on The Marijuana Mission website a few years back. “The two of them are solely responsible for changing my attitude about marijuana, they gave me my first free medicine and that has changed my life.”
One of Reverend Appleby’s projects was “Deadman Seed Co,” a company dedicated to providing marijuana seeds to the sick. Another was the “Mission of Sufferance,” an effort designed to help the terminally ill cooperate in growing their own medicine as a group. At the heart of of his projects was the understanding that it was too difficult for sick people to buy and grow their own medicine, that for them it should be free. Promoting free medicine became Reverend Appleby’s favourite cause.
“I will continue to use the F-Word, ‘free’, until this issue is settled once and for all,” Reverend Appleby told me. “People choosing between medicine and food is no answer to those of us in the lower income bracket. It would be like selling Gucci shoes when so many have no shoes to wear. Most of us exemptees are broke and going into debt to pay for their medicine with no help from our government whatsoever. This is the real story that most are missing and I will continue to tell all who will listen.”
In frustration over the government’s reluctance to reform medpot laws, Reverend Donny Appleby eventually burned his hard-won medpot exemption in protest last July on Parliament Hill.
His death, if nothing else, emphasizes the message that he strove to communicate: that government officials should get past their marijuanaphobia and find the heart to create a truly compassionate medpot program. Long live his spirit ? a spirit that overcame physical frailty to champion compassion against long odds.