Tamara Netzel was a middle school English teacher, an Army officer’s wife, and possibly the most cannabis naive individual you could have met. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2013, and for a few years believed she could continue to teach and live her life as long as she followed all the doctors recommendations and took the medications they prescribed. When those very medications led to liver failure in 2017, triggering chronic pain and other MS symptoms, she was forced to retire from teaching.
A friend suggested Tamara try CBD oil for her pain, and it gave her relief like nothing else had. She didn’t have a clue what CBD was, nor did she know it was then illegal to possess. By the time she learned she was breaking the law, cannabis medicine was saving her life. Tamara knew she had to get involved and work to change the law in her state of Virginia. In no time at all she found herself front and center in Virginia NORML’s fight to legalize medical cannabis, testifying before the General Assembly, pleading for legal access not only for herself, but for all Virignians. Years later and after countless hours devoted by herself and other advocates at Virginia NORML, the state’s first medical cannabis dispensaries will finally begin opening dispensary doors to patients this summer.
Though for Tamara it was initially about trying to heal herself, she quickly realized that telling stories like her own could help others heal. And not just physical pain, but the mental pain associated with the criminalization of this plant. While some may discredit anecdotal information in efforts to reform marijuana laws, Tamara came to see that statistics and research must be accompanied by human stories to truly help others understand why these laws must be changed.
As Virginia made significant progress in a short time with medical cannabis, Tamara quickly learned she needed to educate herself about the criminalization of cannabis. It concerned her that even as a registered patient, she could still be arrested. She had never had any experience with the criminal justice system, and she didn’t know anyone who had. People would tell her she had nothing to worry about because she was a middle aged white woman with MS. “I knew I didn’t fit the description of people who are disproportionately targeted for marijuana charges. At that point, I realized I had two choices: I could just be satisfied with my own white privilege, or I could try to use that privilege for good,” said Tamara.
Once her teaching career had ended, Tamara was forced to answer the question of who she was now in this world. “I remembered I’m who I’ve always been, a person who helps others, and helps others learn,” recalled Tamara. Her passion for helping and teaching led Tamara to begin curating a powerful new project, Cruel Consequences: Portraits of Misguided Law.
Cruel Consequences was founded with the mission of bringing awareness to the enormous suffering many experience from the collateral damage of marijuana – negative impacts that can last well after court costs and sentences have been fulfilled, and often for a lifetime. Through her advocacy work, Tamara met more and more people who had been arrested for cannabis, and it troubled her how important pieces of those stories were left out of the news coverage the general public sees.
“Before I came to see cannabis as medicine, that missing that information was never a concern for me,” recalled Tamara, and like many other readers, she would unconsciously fill in the blanks with negative assumptions. She quickly learned that even after someone completed their sentence, they still suffered consequences like being denied employment, college loans, housing, and child custody, when all they wanted was to move on from the experience and live their best lives.
After visiting the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Tamara was inspired to make Cruel Consequences a portrait exhibit. Marijuana arrest or conviction stories never tell the reader who that person really is, a loving parent, a hardworking son, a heroic veteran, a brave patient battling a horrible disease. If there is ever a photo with such a story, it is typically a mug shot or other unflattering image, taken often when someone is having their worst day of their life. Why not show these people on a good day? Hopefully those opposed to marijuana law reform could then see the human side of this issue.
In Cruel Consequences’ first year, its portrait exhibits were displayed at dozens of events across the Mid-Atlantic. Notably, the project was the only art exhibit at the first Virginia Legislative Cannabis Summit, hosted by Attorney General, Mark Herring and the Virginia Legislative Cannabis Caucus to educate state lawmakers to learn about cannabis policy, and several portraits were on display throughout the Virginia General Assembly Building during the 2020 legislative session.
This January, Virginia NORML recognized Tamara as Advocate of the Year, and she says she’s proud to have played a small part in their legislative victories. The project is always looking for more stories, please consider sharing yours. Like Tamara, by sharing your story, you can change lives.