In this edition of Cannabis Conversations, former municipal court judge Doug Bench discusses his transformation from ardent prohibitionist to medical cannabis advocate.
Project CBD: Hi, I’m Martin Lee with Project CBD and today we’re going to be speaking with Doug Bench, a retired lawyer and municipal court judge from Ohio, who’s been rethinking his ideas about cannabis. This is yet another edition of Cannabis Conversations … Welcome to Cannabis Conversations.
Bench: Thank you, Sir. It’s an honor and pleasure.
Project CBD: Now, you’re with a group called Rethink Green. You are the founder and co-director. We’re going to talk about your changing thoughts about marijuana – or as we prefer to say cannabis. Tell us about your attitudes toward cannabis when you were a judge and a lawyer.
Bench: When I was a judge and lawyer in Ohio, in one word: I was a prohibitionist. I had some experience with cannabis when I was a juvenile court referee and developed very negative feelings about it. Went to judicial college – was told it was horrible, it was bad, it wasn’t medicinal, it was addictive, it’s a gateway drug – all the crap we used to get fed. And as a municipal judge, I put over 300 people in jail for marijuana offenses, some of them for a year.
Project CBD: And generally, were these offenses for possession, or deals, or what?
Bench: Never for deals. Municipal Court is for misdemeanors. So it was never large amounts. It was usually personal use, frankly. They got it at school or they got it on the street corner, and we didn’t want them going the route that everybody we were told was going. So, we gave them some shock treatment in jail. I stayed a prohibitionist most of my adult life.
Project CBD: So what precipitated the change in your attitude toward this?
Bench: I went to our place in Colorado and tried to repair the deck and couldn’t breathe. Came back to Florida, went to the doctor, and did all kinds of tests, and the doctor said you have a terminal disease. You have COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease]. You’re late stage. We’re going to put you on oxygen. You’re going to get steroids. We’re going to have to do this and that. And I begged him to tell me how long I had, and he told me up to 20 months. There’s no cure. And, when my wife and I left that office, I was feeling sorry for myself. My wife was angry. He had no right to tell her husband that he was going to die. And my wife was into essential oils, which I used to bitch about because they’re expensive. But frankly, her interest in essential oils saved my life because she went home and said I’m going to find an essential oil that will fix my husband. I ain’t done with him. And four months or so of research, she found cannabis oil as the “quintessential” essential oil. My wife flew to Colorado from Florida – she knew my attitude about cannabis – and she lied to me. Her real reason for going was to buy some cannabis oil in a predominant high-THC strain. And she committed a felony, brought it home on a plane, came to me and said, “Take this, I think it will help.” “What is it? “It doesn’t matter what it is, honey, take it.” “What is it?” I asked. “Well, it’s essentially an essential oil,” she said. Right! I told her to get the hell out of the house.
Project CBD: You knew what she had brought back at that point.
Bench: Yes. I said that’s unlawful. You just broke the law. It’s unlawful to have it in this house. Why don’t you leave with it. And that went back and forth for about a week. Then she’s coming down our spiral staircase with two suitcases. I said, what are your doing? She said, ‘I’m leaving you, unless you take this.’ I said, ‘How do I take it?’ And that night – I had no idea, I’d never touched it. When I was in judicial college they’d put it on a plate and burned some so the judge would know what it looked like.
Project CBD: You’re talking about flower? But oil is different from flower.
Project CBD: So what happened when you first took it?
Bench: It tasted awful. Put a drop under my tongue. I told her it tasted like crap and I sat up in bed and said, ‘Am I going to get high?’ She says, ‘Honey it’s 8 in the morning, you just slept 8 hours for the first time in over a year’. I said, ‘Holy crap! I’ll take another drop.’ I never felt any high or anything. And in about two weeks my wheezing and crackling in my voice was dissipating. In about three months I was getting my strength back. And in five months, I went back to that same doctor and said I want you to do all those tests you did on me, that pulmonary function test, chest x-ray, everything. I want it done again. He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Just do it.’ He did them all and came back in and said, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ ‘What are you talking about, Doc?’ ‘Well, your lungs are clear. I can’t even find any scar tissue’. I said, ‘I know.’ He shut the door and said, ‘What are you doing?’
Project CBD: And you told him?
Bench: I told him I’m committing a felony every day – because it wasn’t legal in Ohio then. And I’m going to keep doing it because I’m getting better.
Project CBD: How did the doctor respond to that?
Bench: He put in my chart, he said I can’t put in the chart that you’re cured, we’re not allowed to do that, but I will put in your chart that you are now asymptomatic for unknown reasons because I can’t risk my medical license.
Project CBD: So going through this experience, how did that turn you around in terms of the way you were living your life and talking to people about cannabis?
Bench: I’ve got to tell you, that was hard. I mean 45 years of prohibitionist – now all of a sudden seeing personally, it saved my life. So my wife and I talked about it, the only audience I had were the contractors I was teaching Continuing Education required classes for the state of Florida.
Project CBD: You’re talking about building contractors?
Bench: Yes, plumbers, roofers, general contractors. And, I said I’ve got to tell them, honey. It might save a life. These guys are all old farts like me – it might save a life and you can’t tell them, you’ll lose your license. I’ve got to. If it saves one life, losing my license, I don’t care. That was the beginning because I’ll never forget the first class I told was on April Fool’s Day, April 1, 2016. And, I told them my story, and they were all conservative contractors, and what started happening is that they started coming up to me at the breaks – “Doug, my wife has COPD, can you help?’ ‘Doug, my husband has renal cell cancer, can you help.’ And, I kept saying, no. Until the contractor that came up, 6’4” guy, tears coming down his cheeks, can you help our daughter, she has intractable epilepsy, 20-25 seizures a day. I said, shit, yes I can help. And that was the beginning. I told my wife we’ve got to start doing webinars. I knew how to do webinars, I’d written several books on the brain and how to improve performance of your brain, I knew how they worked. So we’ve got to start doing these to educate our database list about cannabis. And that’s how it started. And my wife came up with the name “Rethink Green.” I thought it was a beautiful name. So that’s our website. That’s our organization. That’s our Facebook page. And we just have these webinars – we started out 5 or 6 people, and my wife and I sitting there teaching them all about cannabis. And then, 10-12 people.
Project CBD: Apart from these seminars, are you interacting at all with the state government in Florida? It does have a medical marijuana program, at least on the books, I don’t know how much in reality. But are you interacting with officials? Because, your story is very powerful. You come from the criminal justice system, and you bring a certain authenticity that’s hard to match. It’s indisputable what you’re saying.
Bench: Our first step, we went around the state speaking at Rotary Clubs, Lion Clubs, promoting passage of Amendment 2, which was our medical cannabis law – not law, but Constitutional Amendment. And, after it passed it became very apparent that the legislature, and the governor especially who was anti-cannabis (owned several pain clinics, imagine that!) and they didn’t want it. So I said, I’ve got to start going to Tallahassee. So we started going to Tallahassee during the session. There’s some wonderful people from NORML and other organizations in Florida that have what they call lobby days, where you go and lobby, and they set up appointments with all the legislators – and I’ve been doing that now for three years because they still don’t have it right. It’s a mess. The first thing that was a mess, they wanted to impose a 3-month waiting period. You can get your card making sure you’re eligible for one of the conditions that’s been approved, you can get your card, but you can’t get your medicine. There’s a 90-day waiting period, cooling off period. What a crock of crap that was. So I went in front of the hearings the Department of Health had and to their face called them murderers. Because of that requirement, people were literally dying, waiting their 90 days. So we got that thrown out. And other changes have been made, not the real good ones that protect employees and protect employers with a medical card, etc. So we’re going to be back in Tallahassee first of every year.
Project CBD: So you’re in Florida now, if people in Florida or elsewhere, as an educational organization Rethink Green offers, how do they contact you, how do they know about you?
Bench: They can go to our Facebook page, called Rethink Green. It’s on Facebook, there’s tons of information there, our contact information there. Or they can email me [email protected], and that’s our website, Rethinkgreen.org, which would give all of our contact information and everything they need to know to get a hold of us. We are going to expand beyond Florida. There are many states that have no such law that needs one – people are dying. I’d be dead right now. I don’t know, I think I’m still kicking!
Project CBD: We’re glad you’re not dead! Thank you very much Doug Bench.
Bench: You’re welcome.
Project CBD: It’s been another edition of Cannabis Conversations. We’ll see you next time.