For six months, Constance Gee lived under a cloud of depression and fear of the next attack.
It was simply a matter of pressure and time, each building up until all of her perceptions became a jumble and she went crashing to the floor.
“Do you know what a cubist painting looks like, you’re seeing several angles at once?” she said. “Everything kind of shifts.”
Gee, the ex-wife of former Vanderbilt University Chancellor Gordon Gee, was prescribed a cabinet’s worth of medications as she tried to fight the effects of Meniere’s disease, an inner-ear condition that causes severe vertigo and hearing loss.
But even those left her laid up in bed for days in a lethargic fog.
Finally, a visiting friend brought her a small amount of marijuana. Two hits and the symptoms seemed to recede.
“Within seconds, less than a minute, the nausea would be gone,” Gee recalled. “I still had the Meniere’s. But I could buy some time.”
This week, Gee plans to testify about her illness and the benefits she received from medical marijuana to a committee in the state House of Representatives, a monumental development not only for Gee but also for efforts to legalize marijuana on a limited basis.
A bill in the Tennessee General Assembly would legalize marijuana for medical uses, and Gee’s testimony comes amid an effort to show that many people — respected people — are using marijuana to manage a host of illnesses, from Meniere’s to multiple sclerosis to cancer.
Gee will speak about the issue for the first time publicly since her usage was outed in a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal nearly six years ago, part of a chain of events that also included her divorce and her husband’s departure from Vanderbilt. She also has written a memoir detailing her fight with the disease, use of medical marijuana and experience as a university first lady.
The bill is not likely to pass the Republican-led legislature this year. But supporters want to use Wednesday’s hearing to build political support for the measure, hoping that stories like Gee’s will convince lawmakers to take the leap on medical marijuana.
“More and more people have individual experiences with their friends, family members, who are very sick, in pain and dying, that have actually used it, and they have seen for themselves the effect,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis. “More and more of my colleagues have seen how effective it is, and they have seen it’s not at all dangerous.”
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing marijuana to be sold for medical purposes since the late 1990s. None is in the Southeast, though optimistic supporters have regularly introduced bills in state legislatures.
Richardson filed House Bill 294, the Safe Access to Medical Cannabis Act, more than a year ago. The bill would let doctors and pharmacists issue identification cards to patients with cancer or other debilitating illnesses. Such cards would allow them to purchase marijuana through licensed dispensaries, a system similar to the one used in California and other states where marijuana is legal medicinally.
The bill languished until last Wednesday, when it was taken up by the House Health and Human Resources’ general subcommittee.
Supporters argued the bill would allow the state to regulate the potency of marijuana while expanding patient access to it. Opponents countered that doctors have not been trained to prescribe marijuana and that few medical studies have been performed to assess its value.
Events then took a surprising turn.
The Republican-led subcommittee decided to send the bill out of subcommittee to the full Health and Human Resources Committee. The decision was made on a voice vote — meaning no records exist of how individual lawmakers voted — but supporters seemed to outnumber opponents two-to-one.
Proponents see the vote as the first sign that opinions are changing about medical marijuana, even in Tennessee.
“My colleagues, if it weren’t for political considerations, would pass this,” said Richardson. “Enough of them have come and talked to me privately and admit that this is a good, compassionate bill. They are scared it will hurt them in their re-elections.”
Clap of thunder
Gee’s medical problems began in October 2004, when she was awakened in the middle of the night by a clap of thunder at the Monteagle vacation home she and Gordon Gee shared.
The sound left her left ear ringing and with pressure building up behind the eardrum. An examination found she had lost hearing in the lower register.
The symptoms suggested Meniere’s disease, an ear condition that affects about 100,000 people a year, typically in middle age. Doctors do not know the exact cause, but trauma and earlier ailments, such as childhood ear infections and allergies, may be contributing factors.
The condition occurs when fluid backs up behind the eardrum. This can lead to hearing loss as well as dizziness, as the ear is one of the body’s primary organs for maintaining balance.
Gee’s condition gradually worsened until February 2005, when she experienced her first “drop attack.” The experience left her retching for hours. The vertigo was so bad that, lying on the floor, she could not lift her head high enough to reach a toilet.
“A sumo wrestler has his foot on the back of your head,” she recalled. “It’s just the whole world is spinning.”
Gee was so afraid she began to hyperventilate. Her extremities went numb, and she began to fear she was having a heart attack.
The attacks continued through the spring. At her friend’s suggestion, she began smoking marijuana in May of that year. She said she did so discreetly, in a bathroom in the chancellor’s residence, taking one or two hits to put the nausea at bay long enough to eat, to walk her dog, to watch a movie.
Gee’s husband did not approve, she said. She kept it a secret until one day, relieved after another bout with the disease, she told a member of the household staff why her appetite had suddenly returned.
The staffer reported it to the Vanderbilt administration, which reprimanded her.
By then, Gee had undergone two surgical procedures to try to relieve her symptoms by inserting a toxin into the portion of the ear responsible for balance.
The second surgery destroyed her hearing in her left ear and left her with permanent balance problems. But it also made her symptoms bearable.
The Wall Street Journal learned of the reprimand while investigating the Gees’ spending during a renovation of the chancellor’s mansion. The 2006 article stressed her use of marijuana in the chancellor’s mansion and contrasted that to Gordon Gee’s teetotaler habits.
Six months later, the Gees filed for divorce. Gordon Gee moved back to Ohio State University, where he had been president in the 1990s. Constance Gee continued to teach a course in art and philanthropy at Vanderbilt until a year and a half ago.
Constance Gee told reporters at the time that her marijuana use had been medicinal. But she largely avoided interviews, saying she did not want to embarrass her husband or the university.
“But there’s always been a part of me that regretted not speaking up,” she said, “and frankly I was afraid.”
Gee still uses marijuana on occasion, when the symptoms of Meniere’s flare up. Friends supply her, she said.
Now living near Five Points in East Nashville, Gee said she hopes telling the story of her experience will cause a few more lawmakers to change their minds about medical marijuana.
“It wouldn’t have gotten to committee if a few minds, at least, hadn’t been changed,” she said. “It’s incremental, and we’ll keep doing the best we can with it.”
Constance Gee, ex-wife of former Vanderbilt chancellor Gordon Gee, speaks about her support for medical marijuana and how she first came to use marijuana to help with the nausea brought on by Meniere’s disease.