The medical cannabis community in Wisconsin and beyond, along with family and friends, is grieving with the news that Wisconsin medical cannabis pioneer and warrior Jacki Rickert passed away in the early morning hours of Dec. 26 at UW Hospital in Madison after a long illness.
I was grateful to have been able to visit her and say goodbye. On Christmas night we played a recently uploaded video of Mineral Point singer-songwriter Rick Harris playing his song, “Legal Medicine Blues,” inspired by Jacki, for her as we sang along. I’m pretty sure she heard it.
Jacki, namesake of a series of Wisconsin medical cannabis bills, had wanted to make it through Christmas and she did. She was 66, an amazing age for someone who had faced so many health challenges over her lifetime from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and other maladies. It was medical cannabis that offered a unique ability to treat multiple symptoms and conditions at once without the side effects and toxicity found with numerous pharmaceuticals she had been treated with. Medical cannabis offered the possibility of “Life with Dignity.”
I first met Jacki a little over 20 years ago, when she led a week long, wheelchair “Journey for Justice” from her home in Mondovi to the State Capitol in Madison for the rollout of medical cannabis legislation sponsored by then State Reps. Frank Boyle and Tammy Baldwin. At the time I was still recovering from a severe infection after an aortic valve replacement a month earlier and was still quite weak. I had been following the Journey’s progress and was on the State St. steps when the wheelchairs came up State St. Jacki had been by then advocating for medical cannabis for years.
In the late 1980s Jacki found a believer in her late physician, Dr. William E. Wright, who in 1991, gained approval for her in the federal government’s Compassionate IND program. The little-known program has provided a small number of patients with federal medical marijuana supplies since it was established in 1976 after glaucoma patient Robert Randall successfully sued the federal government, winning access to 300 pre-rolled 0.9 gram marijuana cigarettes to treat his severe glaucoma. Randall actually had sent me the federal paperwork in the late 1970s, but I was unable to locate a physician willing to jump through the many hoops required, unlike Jacki had in Dr. Wright.
“We’re just ordinary people trying to do an extraordinary thing,” “I’m going to try to make this trip to Madison to bring awareness to the people and hopefully bring justice to those of us who need this drug,” Rickert said in an earlier interview. “It’s definitely going to be hard, but it’s something I have to do.” — Jacki Rickert on the Journey for Justice, 1997.
In Jacki’s case, unlike other patients who were approved, federal authorities balked at supplying her and she never received a shred of federal pot. This led to reaching out to anyone who might help, her US senators and congressman, and on the 1992 presidential campaign trail, then candidate Bill Clinton. Cannabadger worked with Jacki to tell the story of her meeting with Bill Clinton, which you can read here.
Jacki and I went on to become dear friends and collaborated our medical cannabis advocacy through the group “Is My Medicine Legal YET?” (IMMLY.org) for nearly two decades.
In 1999, we joined forces with New Jersey medical cannabis activists Jim and Cheryl Miller in Washington D.C. for a week of lobbying and direct action at the U.S. Capitol. This trip was the beginning of, and the first “mission” of, “The Commando Squad,” a name Jim devised for our tight-knit little foursome of medical cannabis activists.
The direct action was at-then Rep. Bob Barr’s office on Thursday, October 21, 1999. Cheryl Miller was a multiple sclerosis patient who had little movement from the neck down due to the progression of the disease. Jacki had met the Millers in Washington in 1997, and was very close to Cheryl. Along with representatives from DC-based groups, Jim, Cheryl, Jacki and myself staged a demonstration with Jim Miller ending up being arrested and Cheryl briefly detained, by Capitol police.
“I don’t abuse cannabis. I use it as I would any other of my medications. It’s just that this one was created by God and not a big moneymaker for big, greedy corporations, so that’s where the illegality comes in. The police were very nice about it and very apologetic, even helping me move from one room to another at times.” Rickert said. “But I feel very violated, especially when there’s this guy going through my underwear drawer.”.” — Jacki Rickert, March 2000, after her residence was raided by police and small amounts of medicine seized.
In Oct. 2000, the Commando Squad reunited in New Brunswick, New Jersey for an action at the local office of then-presidential candidate Al Gore, who had recently flipped to opposing medical cannabis. Jim and Cheryl brought in a diverse group of activists from New Jersey and beyond, including federal patient Elvy Musikka.
“I am begging you ladies and gentlemen to be open-minded. Just think about it. Tomorrow it could be you, your children, your parents, you never know. You could get a disease, a syndrome, you could get hit by a car, anything. And when it happens you hope there is something out there that’s going to help you.”– IMMLY Founder Jacki Rickert, Informational hearing on Medical Marijuana: April 10, 2001
We were back in Washington again in April 2001 for more lobbying and the 2001 NORML Conference, spending three days at each. Jacki and I visited the offices of every Wisconsin congressman and both U.S. Senators. We even had a few minutes with then Senator Herb Kohl.
Back in the early 2000s things were much different both politically and socially in Wisconsin. There were few medical cannabis activists and for a time, no NORML chapters. And most lawmakers opposed medical cannabis. We were able to get a poll done by Chamberlain Research that found 80.3% support for medical cannabis statewide in Feb. 2002. In 2003, the Republican chair of the Assembly Health Committee, Gregg Underheim introduced a medical cannabis bill after Jim Miller and I visited his office and talked about patients like Jacki Rickert and Cheryl Miller and how cannabis helped them. He held a hearing the following session on that session’s bill, AB740, in Nov. 2005 and Jacki was able to tell her story.
Also in 2005, Jacki and I traveled to San Francisco to attend the NORML Conference where then-NORML Director Allen St. Pierre presented us with the Peter McWilliams Memorial Award for Outstanding Achievement in Advancing the Cause of Medical Marijuana award. In 2003 we had also traveled to San Francisco to attend the NORML Conference and accept the same award for Jim & Cheryl Miller who were unable to travel from New Jersey. Cheryl Miller lost her battle with MS in early June 2003, and Jim along with myself and Jacki began working on the Cheryl Miller Memorial Project, a memorial for Cheryl in Washington D.C. that was held in Sept. 2003.
“It’s going to be really hard to go to Washington and not see Cheryl. From the first time we met back in 1997, we really hit it off. We made a pact – we would be friends and sisters for life. Cheryl was one person I could never say no to.” Rickert said she and Cheryl had dreamed for years of holding a candlelight vigil for medical marijuana patients in Washington, “She kept asking, ‘this time?’ It’s not like seeing Cheryl’s physical presence, but believe me, she will be there. She’ll have the best seat in the house.” — Jacki Rickert on the passing of her “sister-friend” Cheryl Miller.
In 2006, we were again back in San Francisco for another NORML conference. In October, with Jim Miller in Wisconsin for Harvest Fest in Madison, the Commando Squad interjected medical cannabis into the Wisconsin governor’s race, where Republican Mark Green was challenging then-Gov. Jim Doyle, who was on record as willing to sign medical cannabis legislation if it reached his desk, a commitment I had secured in a meeting at a St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser for Doyle before he was first elected governor in 2002. The Commando Squad paid a visit to Mark Green’s campaign office in Green Bay WI on October 9, 2006, and Jacki kept the heat on Green until election day when Doyle won reelection..
On Nov. 14,, 2007, Sen. Jon Erpenbach held an informational hearing on medical cannabis featuring Jacki, doctors and nurses and other patients, myself included. By early 2009, with the politics seemingly aligned, Erpenbach’s and then Rep, Mark Pocan’s 2009 version of the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act (JRMMA) was quickly taking shape.
“You see living, breathing, rolling, walking evidence right here. We wouldn’t come all this way to lie to you. Why would anyone lie about something like this? It would be much easier to just stay at home and go, ‘hey, it’s not my problem.’ — Jacki Rickert, Sept. 2007.
The JRMMA was rolled out in mid-November 2009 with press conference followed by a combined Assembly/Senate health committee hearing on Dec. 15, 2009. Dozens of patients and supporters testified at the standing room-only 8-hour hearing. the story was all over the media.
“Everyone knows someone who would benefit if the law were changed, a mother a father, a sister, a brother, someone. We’re all in this together, every single one of us, whether we thought this was our cause or not our cause, it’s all of ours cause.” — Jacki Rickert, Nov. 16, 2009, JRMMA press conference.
Jacki Rickert was front and center at both, firing back at then Rep. Leah Vukmir for calling the hearing a “circus” and the JRMMA a “ruse” for passing full legalization.
“I’m alive because of cannabis. It’s got to be this bill, this time,” — Oct. 2009 to supporters at Harvest Fest.
Vukmir, a longtime opponent of medical cannabis who has consistently refused to hold hearings on medical cannabis while chairing assembly and currently, senate health committees, is a candidate for the 2018 Republican nomination to run against U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, a longtime supporter of medical cannabis who introduced legislation in Wisconsin and has cosponsored it while serving in Congress and the U.S. Senate.
Jacki’s quest took her all over the country but her primary focus was Wisconsin. Conferences took us to both coasts and places in between, by air, rail and auto.
Jacki loved trains and we traveled to Washington D.C. in 2004 by rail to attend the 2004 NORML Conference. In 2010, we traveled to the NORML Conference in Portland, Oregon from Columbus, Wisconsin via Amtrak’s Empire Builder. While in Portland, Jacki and I enrolled in the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program with the help of Paul Stanford, becoming the first two Wisconsin patients enrolled in the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program after it was opened to patients from any state, a number that eventually reached around 50 until the program was again restricted to Oregon residents in 2016.
In 2012, Jacki and I, both longtime members of Patients Out of Times board of advisors, were invited by the group to present our stories at the April 2012 Patients Out of Time Conference in Tucson, Arizona. The trip to Tucson was our final excursion as travel became more difficult for Jacki.
On Sunday, October 5, 2014, Jacki was honored again, this time by the Wisconsin and Madison chapters of NORML, when she was presented with Wisconsin and Madison NORML’s Ben Masel Defender of Liberty Award.
Jacki Rickert’s life and selfless dedication to the medical cannabis effort in Wisconsin even while battling serious illness nonstop stands as an inspiration. While Wisconsin patients are still forced to wait for legal access to their medicine, despite overwhelming public support for legalization, they are much closer to that day thanks to all that Jacki did to make that day a reality.
Jacki’s family has set the date and location fer her memorial:
Jacki’s Rememberance Celebration
Saturday, January 20, 2018 at 12 PM – 6 PM pin
Art In 1444 E Washington Ave, Madison, Wisconsin 53703
The family has also created a GoFundMe page to help defray costs of the memorial.