The way Frankie Wallace tells it, his calling revealed itself in his sleep.
“I had a dream [that] cannabis would cure cancer and many other diseases,” he recalled as his wife, Erin, stood beside him on the back porch of their house.
A few minutes before, the three of us had ducked into the basement of Frankie and Erin’s suburban split-ranch house near Portland, Oregon. We went down there to sample something called Absolute Amber, a potent concentrate Frankie concocted by soaking a batch of his latest crop of medical marijuana in butane and isopropyl alcohol, boiling those liquids away, after which the oily residue was frozen and double-filtered. The resulting product was as close to a pure distillation of THC as a mortal was likely to get.
Frankie lit a blowtorch and held it to a small piece of metal attached to a glass water pipe until it was red-hot. He touched the matchstick-size shard of burnt-sienna-colored hash oil to the metal, and it released dense white smoke that the pipe caught, filtered, and delivered into my body. On exhaling, I felt an astringent tingle pass through my lungs. I sat down and quietly counted to 30. The urge to speak would be great, Frankie had warned, but to do so might send my body into a fit of convulsive coughing. As I looked at Frankie and Erin, their soft smiles appeared to curl up like arabesques in an illuminated manuscript.
Frankie is more than a weed aficionado—he’s a marijuana evangelist, a THC high priest. After his fateful dream, he sold all of the couple’s belongings and moved from Birmingham, Alabama, to Erin’s cousin’s garage in Portland, where medical marijuana is legal. They partnered up with another grower and found a house in a nearby suburb, where they now live alongside the two dozen marijuana plants in their garage. They have 12 patients and keep their modest grow operation afloat through donations.
This kind of small business isn’t uncommon in the statured legal-marijuana market of the Pacific Northwest, especially now that “dabbing” is becoming a luxurious but increasingly popular form of ingesting THC and its cohorts. What sets Frankie and Erin apart is that they believe pot can literally cure cancer. And ever since the dream they have been testing their theory on an eight-year-old named Mykayla Comstock.
When Mykayla was diagnosed with leukemia in 2012, her parents took her to Frankie’s house, where she spent six months living in what basically amounted to an intensive-care unit—with lots and lots and lots of weed. This doesn’t mean she forgoes her traditional chemotherapy medications altogether, but rather that this treatment is supplemented with highly concentrated THC oil. It’s very similar to the amber dab I had just smoked out of a water pipe, but instead it comes in the form of one-gram capsules that Mykayla ingests twice a day. These doses contain roughly the same amount of THC as ten bong hits of the highest-grade medical marijuana. Mykayla has built up a tolerance to this crushing level of highness that would turn most people into imploded paper bags.
“It makes me feel energized,” she told me in her family’s kitchen. They live in a sparse three-bedroom apartment in Pendleton, a rodeo town in eastern Oregon. Mykalya’s immune system has been weakened both by the disease and by its treatment. Mold, fungus, dust, and other household detritus could make her fatally ill, so her parents have made every effort to keep their place simple and sterile. Despite her surroundings, and almost defiant of the chemo drugs her parents said she was still on, Mykalya was in good spirits as she and I pretended to cut wooden vegetables at her play-set kitchen.
It was hard to believe that less than a year before I met her, she was given one of the most terrifying diagnoses a child can receive.
“Friday the 13th, [January] 2012, was the day we got told that she had a mass in her chest the size of a basketball,” Brandon Krenzler, her stepfather, told me. “Her oncologist said that the chemotherapy wasn’t doing what it was supposed to. They were going to recommend us to start considering full-body radiation and a bone-marrow transplant. So we gave her her first dose of cannabis oil. Six days later, it was in full remission.”
It’s widely accepted that cannabis has certain palliative effects. It soothes the stomach and relieves pain; it can make the ravages of chemotherapy more bearable. But Brandon, a weed-legalization advocate who blogs under the name CannaDad, believes this plant has curative effects too—he thinks that THC, in conjunction with her chemotherapy, helped to send Mykayla’s cancer into remission.
When someone smokes weed or otherwise consumes THC, the chemical binds to the endocannabinoid system and, according to Brandon, helps his or her body reestablish apoptosis, the scientific term for the regular death of cells that is interrupted in cancer patients. This claim has some scientific basis—peer-reviewed medical journals recognize the potential of cannabinoids as therapeutic agents in cancer treatment—but for now, the idea that cannabis oil can cure cancer is more counterculture folk wisdom than scientific fact. As researchers from New Zealand wrote in the medical journal Cancer Management and Research last August, “There is still a great deal of conflicting evidence around the future utility of cannabinoids… as therapeutic agents.”
The spread of the idea that THC could actually fight cancer (along with other medical conditions ranging from anorexia to inflammatory bowel disease) can mostly be traced back to Rick Simpson, a Canadian marijuana activist who runs the Phoenix Tears Foundation, an organization named after a potent cannabis extract. A movie Rick produced in 1998 called Run from the Cure has propagated the notion that weed is something of a miracle drug to receptive believers around the world. In 2012, the group’s theories got mainstream attention when the parents of Cash Hyde, a toddler with a brain tumor, gave him cannabis oil, resulting in national headlines like ABC News’s “Toddler with Cancer Takes Cannabis Oil.”
Cash died in 2012 from his disease, but as Mykayla’s case shows, there are plenty of parents willing to follow in the Hydes’ footsteps. When faced with a child’s potentially fatal illness, many families are willing to try all sorts of experimental treatments—some that involve a lot of risk. What’s the worst thing that could happen if you give a terminally ill kid medical marijuana?
Mykayla’s oncologist refused to comment on the story, and Brandon asked that I withhold the doctor’s name. However controversial Mykayla’s treatment might be, it’s in accordance with Oregon’s Medical Marijuana Act, a law enacted in 1998. It states that patients of any age who have cancer can be prescribed medical marijuana, but unlike almost every other drug a doctor doesn’t have to specify dosage or duration of treatment when he writes the scrip. Instead, pharmacological concerns are entrusted to the individual dispensaries and patients.
Mykayla’s prescriptions are filled by Collective Awakenings, a dispensary in Portland, along with Frankie and Stony Girl Gardens, a nearby grower and oil producer. Mykayla’s mom is her caregiver and is allowed to administer the drug. Of course, giving an eight-year-old THC pills is against federal law, but states like Oregon offer caregivers enough protection and resources to operate inside state lines. Mykayla, Erin told me, is “the healthiest child on chemotherapy.”
Despite the tolerance Mykayla has built up over the years, she still gets really high, which her parents trumpet as a very healthy, positive thing. She eats and plays, more or less, like a normal kid. It’s sort of hard to see the psychoactive effects take hold—after all, so much of being stoned for adults is entering a childlike state of reverie. But Brandon describes what he calls “halos” in Mykayla’s eyes when she “feels her dose kick in.” When I hung out with them at their apartment, the conversation about cancer and chemo and apoptosis eventually gave way to their own unique brand of familial joy, and we ended up playing the didgeridoo and giggling. It was all oddly wholesome.
The next day, at Frankie’s, Mykayla grabbed a tiny magnifying glass and roamed through Frankie’s two-car garage, which is now more precisely described as a professional grow room. Ready-to-harvest stalks of Washington Red Apple and Blackberry Kush, two powerful indica varieties, towered over her, their buds sticky and heavy among the whirring of air-circulating fans and buzzing of grow lights. She looked tiny and curious as she examined the glimmering trichomes of the plants. I was watching her, but I was feeling the dabbing pretty good; we went outside into the front yard and started tinkering around with some moss near the roots of a tree until Brandon reminded us that she could be susceptible to mold or fungus.
It was easy, in moments like that, to forget that Mykayla had a potentially fatal disease, or that the treatment her parents had chosen for her was, understatedly, unorthodox. She was just a little girl exploring the world, and likely trying her best to forget about the heavy thing hanging over her head.
While we were playing at her apartment, Mykayla showed me a dream journal she had been keeping throughout her illness. It was a stapled-together booklet of lined notebook paper filled with crayon drawings of dreams about giant piles of ice cream, ladybugs, and other kiddie stuff.
A couple of her dreams stood out. One was called “The Big Tree,” and it was about a pine that bends and sways in response to stormy winds that afflict an imaginary forest. The tree never falls, withstanding the tempest by being flexible.
Another dream, which she called “The Big Day,” was about her entire family getting together and having a magnificent feast to celebrate something.
A short while later I pressed Mykayla about what occasion was being celebrated in her dream. She said she didn’t know—but maybe she will one day.