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Pardon puts medical marijuana back within reach for disabled charity leader

Michelle DiGiacomo began to cry, softly at first, then at increasing tempo, interspersed by an ever louder, “Oh my God. Oh my God.”

The 54-year-old founder of the Chicago-based nonprofit DirectEffect Charities had just learned from a reporter she’d received a pardon from outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn for her 2013 conviction for marijuana possession, along with expungement of her record.

“I’m so happy. I’m so happy.  I’m completely overwhelmed. I feel numb, extremely grateful,” DiGiacomo said Monday. “Thank you, Gov. Quinn. Thank you for remembering me. Thank you for forever changing my life.”

DiGiacomo’s 13-year-old charity was recently in the news for helping to get a letter to Santa from an Englewood boy — who asked only for safety — onto the desk of President Barack Obama, who wrote to him.

The pardon means DiGiacomo will now be able to access the medical marijuana she needs for treatment of chronic pain caused by several diseases.

Her story was one of many cited by advocates in their successful battle to get the Illinois Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act passed. Signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn on Aug. 1 2013, the law took effect Jan. 1, 2014.

The widowed mother of two, who suffers from fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, spinal stenosis and rotator cuff disease, had used medical marijuana for relief since 2009. She was arrested on Sept. 13, 2012, after receiving a shipment from a California medical marijuana dispensary.

DiGiacomo pled guilty to Class 4 felony possession on March 5, 2013, after the Cook County state’s attorney’s office declined to take into consideration both verification from her doctors that she needed it for chronic pain and the fact that she possessed a California medicinal marijuana license.

Prosecutors also refused to reduce the charge for the North Sider, who has long run a lauded Letters to Santa program serving thousands of needy Chicago Public Schools students. Nor would prosecutors reduce her charges, which would have allowed her, as a first-time drug offender, to have the case expunged.

DiGiacomo’s conviction disqualified her from receiving legal medical marijuana, even after Quinn signed the new laws. Doctors and advocates decried that as a failure of compassion.

“[She has] tried numerous traditional medications without any relief,” Dr. Howard An, Rush University Medical Center’s director of spine surgery, told the Chicago Sun-Times in September 2013.

“Each patient who helped pass this law has a story, and each of them was simply looking for compassion in the eyes of the law,” Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said at the time.

Noting that the issuance of licenses to grow and distribute medical marijuana is now left to Gov. Bruce Rauner, DiGiacomo pledged to work to see that patients like her finally get their hand on the legal drugs they need.

“I want to do everything I can to help others in my  position, because I know what it feels like to have no choices,” she said.

“This pardon and expungement is such a blessing for me because I run a charity that works with children, and I never wanted for this to get in the way of the work I’ve done for the last 13 years.

“I am extremely grateful to be able to continue the work I do and not have this hanging over my head.”