The young cancer survivor surged with adrenaline as she stepped up to the lectern at Imperial Beach City Hall to defend medical marijuana dispensaries and extol the drug’s therapeutic benefits for chemotherapy patients.
Briana Bilbray did not inform her father, who opposes medical marijuana, that she planned to speak out that night in July. The 25-year-old daughter of Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray told city officials that nausea and fatigue were “really pretty words” to describe such incapacitating conditions.
“You feel like you just want to die,” she said through tears in the city that launched her father’s political career. “I didn’t even want to breathe, I was so tired.”
Briana couldn’t persuade the City Council not to enact a ban on dispensaries, but she managed to shatter stereotypes on her way to becoming a torchbearer for the cause.
She is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in San Diego that seeks an immediate halt to the federal government’s efforts to shutter profit-making collectives statewide. As one of four challenges filed in each of the federal judicial districts in California, the legal action could settle the debate over California’s right to regulate production and distribution of medical marijuana.
California voters approved the drug for medicinal use in 1996, but it remains illegal under federal law.
Briana’s cancer has been in remission since late August and has a roughly 40 percent chance of recurrence. A political accountant who is active in her father’s campaigns, she worries about the prospect of patients no longer being able to find relief from doctor-recommended cannabis.
“It was always in my head that, given the opportunity, I would do what I could to make a difference,” she said. “There’s such a negative image cemented in everyone’s brain about marijuana, and that needs to go away because chemo patients are ultimately paying the price.”
The elder Bilbray does not support dispensaries operating in local communities and opposes congressional efforts to reclassify marijuana for medical use. He remains interested in the drug’s potential medicinal value and supports further federal study — as he was 15 years ago in Congress.
“If this is really the benefit that Briana believes, we should be able to scientifically prove it and make it available not just in California, but the rest of the country as well. But it should be based on science not on political pressure or slogans,” Brian Bilbray said.
“Not in a million years would I have dreamed that my little girl would be in this position.”
He reiterated that his stance “was the right position then, and I think it’s the right position now.”
The congressman and numerous law-enforcement officials want to keep enforcing the federal law, saying a growing number of people have exploited California’s program as a cover for recreational use and illegal sales.
Public, private lives
In January, Briana made a doctor’s appointment to examine a mole that “had gotten really bad.” At 24, she was diagnosed with Stage III melanoma, the least common and most serious type of skin cancer, according to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
Determined to graduate in the spring with a degree in accounting from the University of San Diego, she powered through six classes and started a second treatment of chemotherapy in between final exams. She felt on the verge of throwing up all the time. Falling asleep was a recurring struggle.
“When she explains how sick and unbelievably nauseous she was from it, you just really feel for” her, said Jennifer Jacobs, a family friend and Republican strategist.
Bilbray sought out a doctor’s recommendation, pursued a voluntary medical marijuana identification card and bought the cannabis at a downtown San Diego dispensary where she has a friend.
“I was afraid of someone picking me up on a register and being like, ‘Look, a congressman’s kid is smoking weed,’” she said. “But then I thought, ‘Screw it. I have cancer.’ It worked in seconds. It completely took care of the nausea and brought back my appetite.”
She smoked the marijuana at a friend’s house. Her mother and father remained unaware about it until they confronted her about leaving the house in a such a fragile condition.
“Dad said, ‘If it works, do it,’” Briana said.
“For Briana to lose weight was a very scary thing to start with,” Brian Bilbray said. “Anything that would stop her nausea and encourage her to eat … was essential because of how thin she was.”
Briana joins a list of political offspring who have carved out positions contrary to their elected parents’. On it are names such as Maureen Reagan and her sister Patti Davis, Mary Cheney, Barbara Bush, Meghan McCain and Lisa Sanders, the daughter of San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders.
Brian Bilbray was mayor of Imperial Beach before serving on the county Board of Supervisors and then two separate stints in Congress.
Children of politicians often are brought up to put the public persona ahead of their private lives, said Kathy Scales Bryan, associate chair of the American Studies Department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Elected officials often display a healthy family life because that’s one way voters measure character, Bryan said.
“The understanding within a family is that that’s where you could take care of your needs that can’t be taken care of out in public,” she said. “What being in politics does is take that private place and turn that into a kind of commodity that has to be produced on a public stage.”
Briana, a Republican who describes herself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, said she learned that firsthand when photos of her partying surfaced in 2006 — shortly before her father’s re-election bid. She was 19 at the time. The legal drinking age is 21.
‘Make my day’
Family and most of her friends have supported her public stance on marijuana. Some in politics have raised concerns about how it might come off because of the drug’s association with the counter-culture of the 1960s and the general opposition within the Republican Party.
“There are always those who will try to take political advantage of real-life experiences,” Brian Bilbray said. “Look, make my day. The fact is I was a father before I was a congressman, and with God’s help I will be a father long after I am a congressman. And anybody that thinks that a political position is more important than what happens to my children obviously is detached from reality.”
Brian Patrick Bilbray, the Imperial Beach City councilman who cast the lone vote against the ban, described his sister as an “Alpha female” with a deep sense of loyalty.
“She definitely enjoys taking the burden upon her to help other people that don’t necessarily have a voice,” he said. “It took some guts … you have to look at all the political ramifications.”
In her comments at Imperial Beach City Hall, Briana unloaded on a councilman who was quoted in the media saying patients wouldn’t have to travel too far out of town to get the medicine they needed if Imperial Beach passed a ban.
“She spoke so eloquently,” said Marcus Boyd, a local spokesman for the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. “She blew us all away.”
Marty Kaplan, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, said Briana has the potential to go far as a spokeswoman.
“All these stories in the end are really bloodless and abstract unless there are people that embody them,” said Kaplan, who served as chief speechwriter to Vice President Walter Mondale. “I don’t use the word Shakespearean loosely, but here is one of the most dramatic imaginable illustrations of the anguish and the reality involved in this issue, one that takes it far beyond pure partisanship.”
For now, Briana said she’ll continue to work on her parents.
“They are just trying to take the right steps,” she said. “Dad will come around.”