The legalization of medical marijuana in Mississippi gives hope to many throughout the state, but for Austin Calhoun, this new legislation means returning home to his family and friends while still having access to the only form of treatment that has helped him regain his quality of life.
Calhoun was born and raised in Puckett, Miss., where he spent his time fishing with friends and playing sports like football and tennis. In 2014, however, he noticed an unfamiliar mark on the back of one of his legs that his doctor decided to treat as a staph infection, giving him a week’s worth of antibiotics. Almost three weeks later, Calhoun found himself ill with flu-like symptoms that never let up.
“Nobody could really tell us what was going on,” said Austin. “It just progressively got worse. I developed a form of epilepsy, chronic nausea, vomiting and fatigue. I also started developing arthritis really bad in a lot of my joints.”
Austin eventually was diagnosed with Lyme disease after unknowingly contracting it from a tick bite. He visited 22 doctors and was prescribed 17 different medications to combat the chronic symptoms he faced. During this time, he lost nearly 40 pounds, and his mother, Angie Calhoun, became increasingly concerned with how deathly ill her son looked.
“One day, I went upstairs to give him his medicine, and it just still haunts me because I walked into his room and he’s lying there with a sheet on him,” said Angie. “And it just looked like a little skeleton was lying under that sheet.”
At that moment Angie and her husband, Brad, knew they needed to make a change. Through prayer and research, the couple decided to travel to Colorado Springs, Colo., with Austin to seek an alternative form of care. With a thick binder of his medical records for the year in hand, Austin and his family saw a doctor who quickly asked them about their goal for the visit.
“I was like, ‘I know that I’m not an in-state resident. I know I can’t get a medical card,’” said Austin. “‘But I just want to know if you think I’m a candidate to get a medical card.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You are the definition of a medical candidate for medical marijuana.’”
After their appointment, Austin vaped medical cannabis for the first time and quickly felt like himself again for the first time in nearly 18 months. Because medical marijuana was not legal in Mississippi at the time, Austin made the difficult decision to move more than 1,000 miles away from his hometown to Pueblo, Colo., to have access to medical cannabis.
“I had to be somewhere that I didn’t have to worry about going to jail for being treated,” said Austin. “It was worth the journey to be able to feel like a normal human being again.”
After seeing the relief medical cannabis gave her son, Angie Calhoun decided to advocate for medical marijuana in Mississippi and founded the Mississippi Cannabis Patients Alliance.
“My true belief is that this is a form of medical freedom for the sick people of our state, and they should have the right to choose what medicine they want to treat their body with,” said Angie.
Angie shared Austin’s story with others throughout the state and beyond while Initiative 65, a voter initiative that proposed amending the Mississippi Constitution to allow qualified patients with debilitating medical conditions to use medical marijuana, was being drawn up in 2020.
On Nov. 3, 2020, 74% of Mississippians who voted cast ballots favoring Initiative 65.
For Angie, the excitement became relief as the legalization of medical cannabis meant that her son could receive the treatment he needed while once again living in his home state. Austin returned to Mississippi as a resident shortly after Initiative 65 was approved by voters with hopes that the medical marijuana program in Mississippi would be up and running in the next few months.
However, his plans were put on hold after the state Supreme Court ruled the ballot initiative process unconstitutional in May 2021.
“I sold my home in Colorado and came back home, and I would say roughly two weeks later, the Supreme Court made their decision on Initiative 65,” Austin said. “I was like, ‘I can do what I need to do to survive until (legalization) happens.’”
Ultimately, the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act, which was similar to Initiative 65, was approved by the legislature on Jan. 26, 2022, and Gov. Tate Reeves finally signed the bill into law on Feb. 2, 2022.
“I felt so elated,” said Angie. “It was a huge relief because we fought so hard. I know it’s two years, but it seemed like an eternity.”
Though it took longer than he anticipated, Austin has qualified for his Mississippi medical marijuana card and looks forward to himself and others across the state getting access to life-changing treatment.
Angie Calhoun and the Mississippi Cannabis Patients Alliance still actively advocate for the more than 147,000 patients in the state who suffer from chronic pain that could be alleviated with medical marijuana. She collaborates with the state health department, dispensaries, doctors, pain clinics, researchers, growers and patients to ensure Mississippi’s medical cannabis program is successful and safe.
“I love people. I love helping people,” said Angie. “I know that medical cannabis can help so many people regain their quality of life. I want everyone to potentially have the same benefits that my son did.”
Story by Loral Winn