Neighbors Rally Around Woman Charged With Marijuana Cultivation

11/16/10 7:34AM By Nina Keck
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Sue Thayer, center, with Max and daughter Lucy.

(Host) In Wallingford, local residents are rallying around a neighbor who is in court this week facing charges of illegally growing marijuana.  

Sue Thayer admits she broke the law - but says she had a good reason. She says her son was becoming increasingly frail from kidney failure and marijuana seemed to be the only thing that made him feel better.   

VPR's Nina Keck has the story.

(Keck) Sue Thayer is a master gardener and growing plants is her passion.

(Crows and hawk)

(Thayer)  "These are some of my favorites - those are epimediums. These are blueberries and hydrangeas."

(Keck) Thayer's yard in East Wallingford is awash with flowers, shrubs and herbs. The plants are dry and brown now, but still beautiful in the cold November sun.  Thayer walks up a gentle slope to a thicket of apple trees and falls silent.

(Thayer) "Tristan picked this spot.  I'm just beginning to get it all landscaped. Tristan has a beautiful grave."   

(Keck)  Tristan was the oldest of Thayer's three children.  He died of leukemia five years ago at the age of 25. Toward the end of his life, while still in college, she says Tristan found some relief from his grueling chemotherapy by smoking marijuana.

Tristan and Max Thayer

(Sue Thayer) "This is something you can't believe how well it works. You can't believe you're seeing your son sick like that and then he feels better and he has a day to do stuff and feel good and be creative. And the other stuff that they give, he just wouldn't take it - he said, ‘God that puts me out, I'm not gonna.'"  

(Keck) After Tristan's death, Thayer's other son Max, who'd suffered kidney problems since infancy, began to get worse. Daily dialysis was causing him to lose weight and become frail. Desperate to live long enough to get a transplant, Max tried marijuana and says the relief was immediate. 

But since neither Sue nor Max felt comfortable buying marijuana illegally, Sue decided to grow the plant herself.

(Sue Thayer) "People knew what we had been through.  And I didn't think anyone would care."     

(Keck) She was wrong. According to court documents, in August 2007, an aerial search for possible marijuana cultivation in Rutland County led police to her property. Officers removed 30 plants.  

Thayer admits she broke the law, but felt a jury would understand. She says she was shocked when a Rutland District Court judge told her the necessity defense she was planning to use - basically telling the jury that she had to break the law to save her child - would not be allowed.   

(Thayer) "I don't know how a trial like that can go on. I just don't understand. I never would have thought that I couldn't' explain. Because the reasons I did it are obvious and really powerful reasons."    

(Keck) Thayer appealed the ruling to the Vermont Supreme Court - but in a three to two decision, the court agreed with the lower judge.

Michele Martinez Campbell is a professor at Vermont Law School and a former prosecutor who specializes in illegal drug cases.   

(Michele Martinez Campbell) "They were very clear that in order to present a necessity defense, that she would have to show that she had no alternative. And in their view, there is a medical marijuana law where she could have legally grown marijuana for her son and she chose not to follow it.  And so she simply is not entitled to raise this defense that says I had no alternative. Because in the view of the Supreme Court she clearly did have an alternative and chose not to take it."    

(Keck) In 2004, Vermont enacted a medical marijuana law for people specifically with AIDS, MS, and cancer.  Max Thayer says he tried to register but was told he didn't qualify. In July, 2007, the law was expanded to include people like Max. But Max and his mother say the law had strict requirements. You could only have two mature marijuana plants and seven immature plants at a time and they had to be grown indoors.     

Sue Thayer

(Max Thayer) "After the law passed we were doing our best to come into compliance, but we were in a position where we had a year's worth of medicine outdoors that was about halfway through its season." 

(Sue Thayer)  "And since I'm a gardener, I knew that I was not going to be able to grow that stuff in my basement.   I can only do what I can do - I'm 65 years old.  I couldn't lift those plants up and put them in my basement under a light like they suggested.  They wouldn't have lived anyway."  

(Keck) This week, after three years of uncertainty, the case is in Rutland District Court.  

(Martin) "Local people are very upset about it - you know, this is terrible what's happening to her and it's not right."

(Keck) Neighbors Carol Ann Martin and David Sobel have known the family for years.

(Sobel) "There's some discretion in prosecution we can't pretend there isn't.  People can decide whether or not to prosecute a case like this and very obviously they made the wrong decision." 

(Keck)  No one from the state's attorney's office would respond to calls for comment. Rose Kennedy, who worked for the Chittenden County states attorneys for eight years, says prosecutors do have discretion. But she says the legislature invested considerable time and effort into crafting the medical marijuana law.

(Kennedy) "On some level, to replace their judgment with the prosecutor's discretion would be wrong.  And marijuana is still arguably a gateway drug and we don't really want it out there in the fields for other people to get it."

(Keck) Sitting in her East Wallingford living room, Sue Thayer looks tired and admits she's nervous about going to court.  But she believes the marijuana she grew helped her son live long enough to get a kidney transplant this past April - and she says she'd do it again.

(Sue Thayer) "I have  to stand up. What I did was the right thing.  I saw it.  I saw it every day.  And those children - Tristan had a lovely end of life.  And Max has had a really good experience with his dialysis and he's done exceedingly well.  So what they do to me is not going to have anything to do with the things I've already been through.  I've already faced the fire."

(Keck) For VPR news, I'm Nina Keck.

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