Grandfather becomes a protester for medical marijuana

Gene Gatens (right), whose granddaughter is moving to Colorado because she can't get the type of medical marijuana she needs in New Jersey, protesting with Jim Miller.
Gene Gatens (right), whose granddaughter is moving to Colorado because she can't get the type of medical marijuana she needs in New Jersey, protesting with Jim Miller. (JAN HEFLER / Staff)
Posted: January 25, 2014

TRENTON Frigid temperatures, a looming snowstorm, and a set of jitters did not stop the grandfather of a 2-year-old medical-marijuana cardholder from showing up at Gov. Christie's swearing-in this week.

Gene Gatens, a carpenter from Brick, Ocean County, was among a small crowd of 30 protesters to stake out a spot Tuesday near the War Memorial. He hoisted a homemade plywood sign that read, "Don't Force Families to Move for Medicine."

It was Gatens' first experience as a demonstrator and ended up eye-opening and bittersweet. "I did it for the sake of my granddaughter," he said.

A year ago, doctors approved Vivian Wilson of Scotch Plains to use marijuana to control her life-threatening seizures. But the type she needs is still unavailable in New Jersey.

Last month, lawmakers proposed a bill to allow her and others to buy it elsewhere, but Christie issued a stern warning when he learned of it. "I'm done," he said, threatening to veto the bill and any others that might make it easier for patients to obtain the drug. He also said he thought that medical-marijuana advocates just want complete legalization of the drug.

Meghan and Brian Wilson, Vivian's parents, have long battled Christie and are convinced he won't change his mind. They are preparing to move with their two daughters to Colorado next month. There, a special strain that has helped epileptic children and that does not get patients high is being sold as a butter.

"Gov. Christie's words echo in our heads all the time: 'We're done. We're done.' Gov. Christie hates the medical-marijuana program," Gatens said, explaining why he believed he had to take a stand. He said that all he wanted was for his granddaughter to get her medicine, not full legalization.

Christie has said he supports giving the drug to the severely ill but wants strict restrictions to keep those who are not eligible from getting it.

Gatens, 56, said he was bracing for the day when the Wilsons move, taking "his whole world" with them. His ex-wife, Ginger, was with Meghan this week, buying drapes and setting up an apartment that the Wilsons will rent, and he thought he also had to "do something."

He visits the Wilsons once a week, but supports their decision to move.

"He doesn't want us to leave and he's not going to go down without a fight," said Meghan Wilson, who learned about her father's protest plans the night before. "Every little bit of activism helps."

When Tuesday came, Gatens was excited. "I thought maybe there was a chance someone would see that sign and ask, what does that sign mean? And I could explain it to them and they would say, 'Damn it, you have a great point and I'll talk to the governor about this,' " he said.

"I'm a dreamer," Gatens said as emotion crept into his voice.

The drive home took more than four hours - including an hour to get out of a parking garage. The early exodus from state government offices and the heavy snowfall had created gridlock, tripling the normal travel time.

A few days earlier, Gatens had called Jim Miller, cofounder of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana NJ, who had helped the Wilsons lobby for bills.

"I never did this. . . . I didn't want to be in violation of any rules," Gatens said, asking how to protest.

For more than two decades, Miller has been demonstrating at the Statehouse and other places. After some research, he had learned cannabis could help multiple sclerosis patients like his wife, Cheryl, who had found no relief from conventional medications. When she tried it, it helped, he said, and the two decided to make medical marijuana their cause.

Miller had brought her, in a wheelchair, to various protests at the statehouse. She died 11 years ago.

At the Christie swearing-in, the only other protesters were those who carried anti-fracking signs, Miller said. The two men stayed two hours, displaying their signs as lawmakers filed into the Statehouse.

When Gatens got home, he felt uplifted, saying he thought he had achieved something, though he wasn't exactly sure what.

But when he turned on his computer, his spirits sank. A news alert said Christie had vetoed a bill that would have protected marijuana patients from being rejected for an organ transplant. "It's disheartening," Gatens said.

Then photographs showing Miller and Gatens with their signs popped up on Facebook. "It was good to raise awareness," he said. "And to spread the gospel. . . . I may be doing it again in the future."


jhefler@phillynews.com

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

www.inquirer.com/burlcobuzz

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