Moriah Barnhart, executive director and co-founder of WISE Florida (Women’s Initiative for a Safe & Equitable Florida), has a cannabis story that’s similar to many moms who have made the news due to their children’s struggles.
When her daughter, Dahlia, was diagnosed with an early, aggressive form of brain cancer, Barnhart was willing to try anything that would help her daughter recover and enjoy life once more. What worked, was cannabis.
After six months of chemotherapy treatment, Dahlia gained access to cannabis oil as medication, helping her to manage pain and nausea, while aiding her ability to sleep. The miraculous transformation inspired her oncologist to go from cannabis skeptic to full-time cannabis researcher, and Dahlia once again was able to laugh, play and be happy.
“It’s hard when you see a child wake up and not want to be there, not want to be present in life,” Barnhart says. “You see that a lot with adults who are sick, but with a child who doesn’t understand why they are being tortured or what is happening to them, it’s even more difficult. Cannabis was able to give her her life back. She was waking up hungry, thirsty, but most importantly, wanting to be here.”
From Advocacy to the Legal Cannabis Industry
Though Dahlia’s quality of life continued to improve, the story of Barnhart’s involvement with cannabis did not. As many moms who go through such a harrowing experience do, Barnhart began to advocate for the youth who need to use the medicine, founding the organization CannaMoms.
But, as she entered the world of legal cannabis, it became clear that there was a massive divide between the way white parents and their sick children were treated and how Black children who used cannabis were perceived.
“I’ve always said this isn’t just about me and my daughter, and so helping other parents was so important, but pretty quickly into research and educating yourself on the subject, you realize that all parents are being harmed by this, like Black mothers being scared to have their son leave the house every day because of the War on Drugs,” she explained.
“It gets scary once you gain an understanding of disparity rates of arrest and prosecution. They’ll ruin someone’s life, take away scholarships, educational hopes and dreams, for the same crime that every other teenager is committing.”
Once she began to tune in to these disparities, Barnhart decided to go beyond CannaMoms to created WISE Florida, an advocacy group she hopes eventually will become a nationwide initiative. Her goal is to focus on parents who are scared for their children’s safety, seeking to end prohibition due to its harmful effects.
“Cannabis is not deadly, but prohibition is,” she adds. “With CannaMoms, one of the largest changes I noticed over time was the normalization of the word (cannabis). Even just normalizing that term was a lot of work. It’s not that I mind people calling it weed, marijuana, pot. All those terms are fine, but getting certain demographics to use the term cannabis in the mainstream, and doing so in the media, was important because you were merging the cannabis community, the proponents, with the mainstream in such a way that they would listen to the common sense and logic behind it.”
WISE Florida goes beyond normalization to demand action. As per one example of the group’s activism, in 2021 state lawmakers received Mother’s Day cards from Florida-local mothers who worked with WISE, expressing to their legislators their concerns about the harms of cannabis prohibition, further asking them to consider how public safety and legislation could work together.
The women delivered the cards as e-cards, along with flowers and poems, to every member of the state Senate and House.
“This weekend Florida will celebrate mothers for all that we do for our families and others,” the poem begins. “No need for flowers, cards, gifts, or applause; this year all we ask: please consider our cause. Protecting our children is no easy mission, which is why all us moms want to end prohibition. Let’s legalize cannabis, adopt regulations, and join in the progress that’s sweeping the nation.”
Barnhart on Normalizing the Term ‘CannaMoms’
“End needless arrests, which create records that last, and repair the damage they caused in the past,” the poem continues. “Take sales off the street, where they may lead to violence, and put them in stores that are specially licensed. We know you share our goal of preventing harm, and also that bold change can trigger alarm. But decades of forcing this plant underground has proven unpopular, unsafe, and unsound.”
In sending that message to legislators, the women were able to attack their cause with kindness, while also showing concerns from local mothers; that no mother wants their child need cannabis medicine due to suffering, and no mother wants to see a child’s future destroyed because they experimented with cannabis.
Realizing how powerful it was to change the way people think and talk about cannabis, Barnhart knew that if she could normalize the term CannaMoms for those who previously thought of cannabis as a harmful threat, she could make change on a larger level, creating opportunities and changing the narrative for children of color and other marginalized groups.
“I really wanted to bring to light the fact that organized crime is only as big as it is because of things like prohibition,” says Barnhart. “Things like child trafficking that you hear people advocating against are often birthed out of the War on Drugs. If we can end prohibition, we can take money away from the organized crime that also funds child sex. We can take money away from the people who are using children to smuggle drugs and sell drugs and giving guns to young children.”
“This is all common sense,” she adds, “but because it hasn’t been brainwashed into people the way the war on drugs has with the D.A.R.E. program and all of the public programs the government funded for so many decades, it’s hard for them to see that prohibition did not work.”
WISE Florida’s Dedication to Cannabis Reform
Now with WISE Florida, Barnhart would like to see a major change on the federal level, including a relinquishment over the control of states. The group is pushing for legalization and decriminalization, as well as access to home growing for those in need.
“The Women’s Initiative for a Safe & Equitable Florida is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to building support for sensible cannabis policy reform through education, outreach, and advocacy,” the group’s website proclaims. “It is comprised of parents, students and professionals, neighbors, and community leaders, representing all areas of the state and a diverse array of backgrounds.”
“Like those women who fought to end alcohol prohibition nearly a century ago, we recognize the harms cannabis prohibition is causing, and we are taking action to protect our families and communities. Our goal is to end prohibition and replace it with a system in which cannabis is legal and regulated in a manner that improves safety, advances justice, and fosters opportunity for all Floridians.
“It’s a plant and I’d like to see it treated as such,” Barnhart expands on the simple mission of the organization. “That’s the issue of social justice and personal freedom. Simultaneously, I would like to see cannabis medicines that are honed in for specific diseases and specific people that, when people are sick in the hospital, the pharmacy can bring up to the patient’s room.”
Through her work in both the realms of advocacy and patient research, Barnhart would like to see cannabis become a publicly consumed medicine, while seeing marginalized citizens who use cannabis not be treated as criminals. As she dove into this world, she discovered that what was needed most was support for mothers and children, as the topic of cannabis alone has historically proven so controversial that other advocacy were avoiding it.
A Mom-Led Mission
Mothers are some of the most qualified people who can bring a voice and success to this altruistic mission. Moms make up a powerful voting and lobbying block and are willing to sacrifice everything to ensure positive change in the community.
“We are single mothers with special-needs children, critically and chronically ill children. I don’t want more obligation than I already have. I only take on responsibilities when it’s absolutely necessary, and these are things that no one else can do. If I could clone myself or find a million other people capable of these things, I would, but no one wants to do this. No one wanted to give this spotlight to people of color and the battles they go through with their children.”
Barhart says that witnessing the last presidential election, and the overwhelming amount of moms and women who wanted to get Trump out of office and then acted on that want with lobbying and voting, inspired her to see how capable her demographic truly is of impacting meaningful change.
“Women are coming to the realization that they’re the most powerful voting demographic in America,” she explains. “We make the healthcare decisions for our families, so we’re going to take that power back when it comes to the laws that are harming our society and the corruption in government. We’re directly addressing this by going into our communities, talking to YMCA moms and PTA moms. Teachers, mom friends, getting the discussion going in each household. It’s one household at a time, and moms are really finding their power.”
As 2022 continues, WISE Florida and Barhart are fighting for legislative changes state-wide. This unstoppable team hopes to take their fight soon to the national level with a simple proposal: bring cannabis medicine to all, and make sure no child is left behind when it comes to the impact of the War on Drugs.