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Lubbock lawyer, cancer survivor discusses costs of compassion after DEA reclassifies marijuana

Michael LeMond said he was diagnosed with cancer eight years ago. He started practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to direct his focus away from the pain and toward achievement.

During surgery responding to the testicular cancer, doctors found he also had cancer on his prostate.

“The testicular was able to be cured through surgery and radiation,” LeMond said. “Radiation failed on my prostate cancer, and I am considered terminal or active monitoring as there's nothing they can do.”

Born in Oregon, Michael LeMond attended Texas Tech University School of Law and has been a criminal defense lawyer in Lubbock for more than 10 years.

As a black belt with a long list of accomplishments, LeMond told Sanabul Sports in a 2023 article that practicing Jiu-Jitsu has been extremely important in helping him manage his health conditions. In the face of his own mortality, he’s taken pride in the fight, even when the prescribed medication felt like it was working against him.

“So you're going to be prescribed Lortab for pain. Xanax for anxiety, which happens when you're gonna die. Zofran and other medications,” LeMond said. “A problem with cancer is you don't want to eat because when you eat, it has to come out, and when it comes out, it hurts.”

LeMond said on top of the illness from the cancer treatment and the anxiety from the terminal diagnosis, further layers to his condition brought added levels of pain.

“Along with the cancer was also a degenerative disc disease, which is an autoimmune where my body eats away the discs. And so I'm bone on bone on bone,” LeMond said.

While also advanced, LeMond said the current medical approach to the degenerative bone disease has been effective but grim.

“Medicine has gone forward enough where they now are able to go in and just burn off all the nerves,” LeMond said. “So I had surgery two weeks ago, they burned off six more. Before that, they burned off four, so I don't have any pain, but I also don't have any feeling.”

The cost of cannabis as an alternative

On June 1, 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB 339, or the ‘Texas Compassionate Use Act,’ which allows some qualifying patients to access “low-THC cannabis” that contains 10% or more cannabidiol (CBD) and very limited amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

In 2019, the program was expanded to include additional medical conditions, and in 2021, legislation increased the THC cap from 0.5% to 1%.

Texas law requires that qualified doctors join a registry and include information in the registry, like the dosage recommendations, means of administration, and the total amount of low-THC cannabis required to fill the patient's prescription. The prescription also orders a licensed marijuana establishment to distribute cannabis to the patient.

LeMond said his prescription for marijuana was around three years ago when the Texas Compassionate Use Program opened up to consider terminal cancer patients of his qualifying condition.

While he believes many tried it when they were younger, LeMond said it wasn’t something he enjoyed, but after being prescribed the medications that came with his conditions, he found a positive.

“The amount of medication that I had to take, and the addictive nature of them, made me have to consider other options in order to divide them up,” LeMond said. “I didn't just go from medications to marijuana. I was able to go from medication A for a week, to marijuana for a week, to medication B for a week, to marijuana for a week, thereby dividing up those very addictive medications.”

“What marijuana does is it increases my appetite, it decreases my stress levels, and it decreases my pain levels,” LeMond said. “So I'm able to not have to take those medications when I take marijuana.”

LeMond said he hasn’t and wouldn’t take marijuana before work, but it gives him an evening option to recuperate to be ready for the next day without the same dependence that comes with many medications prescribed to cancer patients.

“They think, well, it's like cigarettes. Cigarettes are addictive,” LeMond said. “Or they say, well, it's like alcohol. Alcohol is addictive. Or, well, ‘you take it for a Lortab.’ Lortabs are addictive.”

Lortab, or Vicodin, is a combination of opioid hydrocodone and acetaminophen.

While it can stem the pain, this medication can cause addiction, particularly for those who could deal with a substance use disorder, as suddenly stopping this medication can trigger withdrawal symptoms like anxiety and thoughts of suicide.

“Without marijuana, I'm stuck on the pain pills,” LeMond said. “You are not getting around that. That is a medical certainty. Being able to take one-third of those pills because I can balance it out with marijuana is huge.”

Alprazolam is also known as Xanax, a controlled substance prescribed to treat general anxiety and panic disorders.

On top of causing paranoid or suicidal ideation in large amounts, combining Xanax with other substances, particularly alcohol, has been warned to slow breathing and possibly lead to death.

On April 30, The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced it would be moving to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous drug in Schedule III, alongside things like anabolic steroids, and away from Schedule I, defined as substances with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” LeMond said those have not so far been his experience with medical marijuana.

LeMond said the impact of the DEA’s decision to reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III starts with what it does for anxiety in society’s narrative around it.

“It is going to help to change public perception to correctly place it where it needs to be, which is a schedule three,” LeMond said, “So over time, as society sees it as a Schedule three, I think attitudes will change from people who have no interest in trying marijuana.”

“The second thing that it's going to do is allow additional research to get the benefits of it, which I believe and know for myself are massive,” LeMond said. “It is also going to create an opportunity to reduce the costs of my medicine.”

LeMond said when he gets his prescription, it is a bottle with 10ccs, or 300 milligrams, of THC in the bottle. He has to see his doctor to get a prescription and is required several times throughout the year to revalidate the prescription with them, bringing additional costs of seeing the doctor. That bottle costs $100 and is not covered by his insurance.

“If an average person has a dosage of, let's say, 10 milligrams per dose, which is fairly average, and they do three doses per day, that bottle is going to cost them $10 per day for their medicine or $300 per month. Now, that same medicine, THC, you can get in a cartridge,” LeMond said. “It's condensed down to a 1cc tincture; it comes in a cartridge, and you can purchase that anywhere in New Mexico or Colorado, Vegas, California. Because of the competition, prices have dropped, and I can purchase that 1000-milligram cartridge of pure THC for $25.”

LeMond said that takes the 10-milligram dose from the state at $3.33 per dose, down to 25 cents in legal states like New Mexico, a 90-minute drive from Lubbock.

“If I want to drive to New Mexico and get that same medicine, I can get it for $22.50 per month,” LeMond said. “That is almost 15 times cheaper for the same medicine.”

This leaves many Texans in pain with a hard decision.

“If I get stopped on the way back, and I'm not saying I do this, I'm saying hypothetically, I can do 10 years in prison,” LeMond said. “So I have a choice. Do I want to spend $300 per month? Or do I want to risk prison for $22.50 a month? No, medicine should be like that.”

Like rescheduling, he believes the competition opens doors for an innovative marketplace and affordable medicine for millions.

“Once there's competition, and there's multiple places, the prices will drop,” LeMond said. “Once prices drop, people like me can benefit by hundreds of dollars per month.”

Finding justice with compassion

In Lubbock, many questions have been raised about marijuana since it was first announced that a petition effort was beginning to try and effectively decriminalize it in city limits by instructing Lubbock police to stop arresting adults for carrying less than four ounces of marijuana.

The proposed ordinance was unanimously rejected by Lubbock’s city council on Nov. 14. The council argued that it is bound by state laws restricting possession of less than four ounces of marijuana to a class A or B misdemeanor.

After the petition gathered more than 10,500 signatures, the ordinance was allowed to be placed on the May 4 municipal ballot as “Proposition A.”

Prop A was voted down by 64% of Lubbock voters after the highest voter turnout for a May city and school election in at least 20 years.

From a wider legal perspective, LeMond said Prop A isn't going to change much legally.

“What it does: it brings up the conversation when someone who's never experienced marijuana, never seen it, never heard about it,” LeMond said. “All they know is the federal government classified it as the same as cocaine and meth and all those other things. And so why wouldn't they feel that way?”

LeMond discussed a family member who got colon cancer and would not try marijuana because of the stigma attached.

“Eventually, we were able to get him some medical marijuana. And the relief was not only excellent for him but also changed the perception of his spouse, family, and church community,” LeMond said. “Now all of their perception has changed, and now the medicine is able to get out help to other people.”

LeMond spoke of other Texas cities, such as Denton, Killeen, and San Marcos, that have taken similar decriminalization actions to Prop A. He said this spread of local and state efforts across the country opens conversations about marijuana and helps dispel the notion of some cities as hotspots for drug activity.

“Just like people abuse Xanax, just like people abuse Lortabs, just like people abuse any medication,” LeMond said. “This gives an opportunity for the hotspots to go away, and it becomes more of a community issue.”

As a criminal defense attorney in a college town, LeMond said he sees many marijuana cases, often because a student has tried to use it as a counter-medication to something they were prescribed.

“It’s almost never a student with dreadlocks sitting on campus, listening to Bob Marley,” LeMond said. “These are students who have found a medication that works for them under the stressful environment that they are in and are trying to figure their way through this.”

LeMond said students he’s dealt with are also just generally smoking less, meaning they’re also looking for a way to get the effects of marijuana without the coughing and lung concerns.

“It is much better for them to get a cartridge with pure product from a reputable source [so] that they are not subjecting their lungs to additional issues or problems,” LeMond said. “The problem is, is that weed is a Class A misdemeanor. And that cartridge is 10 years in prison.”

He described one student who was arrested with a CBD pen.

“He gets stopped,” LeMond said. “He got arrested. He got put in jail, charged with a third-degree felony, looking at 10 years in prison for something that was legal.”

He said they went to the school's disciplinary conduct meeting, and officials agreed to drop the charges. However, the student was warned to “carry receipts” to prove that what he’s holding is legal to avoid jail in the future.

LeMond said there are two types of people dealing with jail: people with means who are going to go to jail, can bond out, hire an attorney, and go on with their lives, and those who can't afford to get bonded out or find an attorney. Some don't have a home address that they can use or resources that could be held as collateral, and LeMond said those people could end up sitting in jail.

“You are now going to jail. You are now going to be put on Lubbock County Mugshots. You are going to be told that you are facing a felony,” LeMond said. “For a normal person who has a job, how do you go into your boss the next day and say, ‘Hey, I'm getting charged with a third-degree felony, I'm looking at 10 years in prison. See you at lunch.’ So this is terrifying.”

It can be hard to keep track of the weight of marijuana cases on the justice system by sitting and watching who is taking up places in jail purely for marijuana arrests at any one specific time because those arrests aren’t usually held as long if the bond is lower, but LeMond said it’s still affecting people’s lives.

“They're coming in and going out. Who's making the money? The bonding companies. Who's having the problem? People with their employers,” LeMond said. “They're losing their jobs; they're missing opportunities.”

“What I can say is there is not a bad guy on the other side,” LeMond said. “The DAs at Lubbock County, in particular, care. They want to get it right.”

For law enforcement and attorneys in the justice system, getting it right means sticking to the law of your jurisdiction, and for the city of Lubbock and the state of Texas, right now, that could mean 180 days to one year in jail or fines of $2,000 to $4,000 if caught with possession of four ounces or less of marijuana, and that becomes a felony if the plant is concentrated or reduced to a tincture.

“When there are arrests, the police are required to arrest you: ‘Hey, I see marijuana, I smell marijuana, I'm required to do my job,’” LeMond said. “The DA’s office, because of the current laws, is required to file those cases.”

Previous reporting from Lubbock Police arrest data showed more than 4,000 marijuana-related arrests between January 2018 and June 2023. These arrests for LPD and cases for the DA’s office all mean more time and work for officials who have already made efforts to expand to meet demand, leading to stress for the justice system and costs for the taxpayers.

He believes the issue of not moving forward often rests more with the misinformation that tends to follow contentious issues that are made political.

“To me, if I'm going to put a label on a bad guy. It's the people out there saying, ‘Hey, they're putting fentanyl in your weed. Don't even try it once,” LeMond said. “That is absolutely not true.”

Getting the politics out of medicine

As a Lubbock resident who has watched the conversation around Prop A, LeMond said this has become a political issue when he believes it should be a medical issue.

“I also have issues with the guys who just want to smoke weed every day and say, ‘I don't really want to go to work,’ right? I get both sides,” LeMond said. “The reason this is still a political issue is because both sides are getting political points and political donations based upon that.”

He said part of the way that that's going to end, on the federal level, is reclassifying it from a Schedule I to a Schedule III. That means education is sent, and generationally, more people will be able to now view marijuana as a different thing than it was told to them by the government for many years.

“For those that have never tried marijuana, don't understand it, and just say, ‘hey, the government says it schedule one, so I think it's bad,’ I don't disagree with you, based upon what you know,” LeMond said, but it comes down to perceptions.

Another way that shifts the narrative on marijuana, LeMond said, is new developments in the way it is consumed.

“Now you have devices that are able to accurately measure your THC into a cup, and you just breathe it in. It is a one-second breath of a measured amount of medicine,” LeMond said. “You're not sticking anything in your mouth. And I think that's going to continue to help change the narrative as the delivery systems update and improve.”

He compared it to what fine wineries and local breweries have done for Lubbock’s perception of alcohol.

“Imagine if you drank wine through a garden hose, right?” LeMond asked. “But once we put it into glasses and big flutes, and you've circled around and you decant it, it changes the narrative of alcohol.”

“Once the narrative changes, and we take the cloak off of and demystify what marijuana is, and its value and uses, that's when those criminal elements will go away,” LeMond said.

As a lawyer who loves his work but has to approach it these days with more limited time on his hands, LeMond said he’d be happy to see fewer marijuana cases on his desk.

“I would love to be out of the marijuana business,” LeMond said. “More importantly for your average citizen getting put in jail, charged thousands of dollars and bonding thousands of dollars to a lawyer, losing or having their job, public humiliation, public ridicule, possible loss of their jobs, over a medicine.”

In the end, LeMond said it’s about making sure people are open to new discussion, and educated with facts.

“The more that we can stop people from having to dig their feet in the ground on an issue, the more we're able to have some open minds to discuss it,” LeMond said. “And if you get educated, whichever side of the issue you fall in, good for you. But take the politics out.”
Copyright 2024 KTTZ

Brad Burt is a reporter for KTTZ, born and raised in Lubbock. He has made a point to focus on in-depth local coverage, including civic and accountability reporting. Brad's professional interest in local journalism started on set as a member of the technical production team at KCBD Newschannel 11 before becoming a digital and investigative producer.