Field Notes – Researching Medical Marijuana

– Walanya Vongsvirates

My interest in doing a story about medical marijuana is very personal. I was doing my own research on the matter because my father has glaucoma, an eye disease that causes damage to the optic nerve in the eye and leads to blindness.

My dad is currently 80% blind in his left eye. He has gone through a few surgeries and was prescribed steroids to alleviate the pain, but that didn’t make any significance in his condition.

I wanted to find an alternative for my dad to handle the pain without having to take steroids. Once I found out about all of the benefits of medicinal marijuana, not only did I want to share the information with my dad, I wanted to let everyone know.

This story  evolved a few times from its original state, and I truly think it’s for the best reasons.

As I kept interviewing people and investigating this topic, I kept finding more and more types of people it helped and I wanted to tell all of their stories.

At first I wanted to feature a local family who had a two-year-old with epilepsy. She used to experience a seizure every 90 minutes. The doctors told her she was going to be deaf and that there wasn’t much that they could do.

Her family decided to try medicinal marijuana and within two weeks, the number of seizures she experienced gradually decreased. Then one day, she didn’t have any seizures. She became more responsive and her hearing developed.

After interviewing some of the folks from NV Elements, a CBD dispensary in Reno, and Rebecca Gasca, CEO of of Pistil and Stigma, I found out that medical marijuana high in THC helps veterans who experience PTSD. I felt that the story about veterans had been overlooked so I wanted to feature a veteran.

The learning process continued. I kept finding more people who testified about the benefits of medical marijuana and I was captivated.

I wanted to know about all aspects of medical marijuana, so I decided to find out more about the scientific aspect of it all. I was referred to talk to AJ Fabrizio, the Chief Research Officer of Terra Tech, a company looking to establish medical marijuana dispensaries in Nevada.

In this interview, I couldn’t decided whether or not I wanted to hear more about AJ’s personal experience or the vast amount of research he’s done.

Thankfully, in the two hour interview I was able to find out a lot about both of those topics, but I knew after all the interviews and research that I’ve done, I had found my subject.

As you’ll find from the piece that I did for Next Generation Radio, AJ truly is an incredible person. He took what most would consider a negative and turned it into a positive. More than that, I think he found his purpose in life and that to me, is incredibly powerful.

AJ is such an intelligent and kind person. His research is his life, and his goal is to tell anyone who will listen about it. You can hear the passion in his voice as he lists off compounds that are found in cannabis and the various diseases it helps. He is incredibly smart but more than that, he has a strong sense of compassion, and that’s a story that needs to be told surrounding this movement.

I wanted to show that there are compassionate people behind the movement who truly want to help others and give people the medical relief they deserve.

Everyone has their own opinion surrounding the medical marijuana movement. I’m not advocating medical marijuana, but I am suggesting that people keep an open mind when it comes to learning about medical alternatives.

Equestrian Turns Heartbreak into Healing Therapy Using Horses

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If it were any other day, 10-year old Laurie Roberts would have walked home from school but this afternoon was different.

Mother picked her up and quietly drove Roberts and her little sister home as the two stared out the car window watching walnut trees pass by.

Their father, a U.S. Marine pilot stationed at Fort El Torro in Southern California, crashed into a mountain during a routine test flight, mother said. And he wouldn’t be coming home today or tomorrow or ever.

“Does this mean that we don’t get to go camping,” Roberts remembered asking. Her dad planned all their camping trips and she was looking forward to it.

“I was my daddy’s little girl, and my sister was my mom’s little girl,” she said. “When my dad died, I was nobody’s little girl.”

4_Roberts family

Roberts remembers a quiet house after that. She said her mother avoided having the tough conversation with the children on how they felt about the empty seat at the end of the family dinner table. Her mother just wasn’t prepared to deal with the sudden loss.

To this day, Roberts says they never received a formal investigation report of what happened during the plane crash.

“The grief just did not get processed,” Roberts said.

The trauma of losing her number one supporter made her feel alone. She searched for attention from her mother, who was often distracted taking care of Robert’s ill sister and baby brother.

Though she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the fifth grade, she waited years to seriously seek therapy as an adult. It wasn’t until she was in her 40s when Roberts decided she would take a childhood dream of riding horses and pair it with a passion to help kids heal.

“My horse was my very first therapist and that’s how I ended up in this field,” she said.

“I couldn’t really afford therapy and a horse. I decided my horse was my best therapy so I thanked my therapist very much and said, ‘I can’t afford both of you and I’m opting for the horse.’”


Roberts, 56, is the co-founder and therapist at the Nevada Equestrian Assisted Therapy (N.E.A.T.) center in Reno. It use horses as therapy for clients — who are mostly children, some foster kids, — grappling with emotional trauma, abuse, behavior problems or mental disorders.

At the horse therapy ranch, she teaches them to feed, groom and ride horses. Each client gets to choose their riding horse, with guidance from Roberts. The children evaluate their strengths and weakness while balancing those qualities with that of the horse’s.

“It’s really nice to see growth and change,” she said. “[The children] are feeling sad but they can’t put a name on that. Through working with the horse they’re able to find a way to express it.”

A client with anxiety may not be able to stand near a horse because they are worried and anxious but by the end of a couple sessions, Roberts said, children grow comfortable cleaning the horse’s hooves, brushing its mane and eventually riding them.

“They are a different child through their interactions with the horse,” she said. “They step up and become better people, better children, better humans. They want to be that better person for their horse.”

From Rape Survivor to Sex Columnist

“For me, a lot of things revolve around sex, and that’s just the way I think. I just want people to talk about sex.”

Anneliese-Hucal-looks-at-one-of-her-columns-in-the-Nevada-Sagebrush-EDITAnneliese Hucal loves to talk about sex as much as she loves to have it. She is the sex columnist for the Nevada Sagebrush, the student newspaper at the University of Nevada, Reno. She’s known for columns like “Learn the Joy of Jizz and Sperm Science” where she writes “I love cum. Baby juice as I so fondly call it… revel in the glory that is jizz.” She also hosts a radio talk show, and will soon launch a YouTube channel about sex.

However, there was a period in her life when even Anneliese wasn’t comfortable talking about sex. Here is her story in her own words:

When I was really really young, like five, six, seven, eight, I discovered that it felt really good to straddle a fence and rock back and forth. And I think that was my first encounter with sexual behavior exploration.

I lived on a farm. I had seen what sex was and I had no interest in it at the time because I was equating sex with pigs humping each other in the mud. And I wanted nothing to do with that.

So, this piece is from October 16, 2012. It’s called ‘Encourage Dialogue About Rape, Sexuality:’

‘My monster was born when I was quite young with a stranger’s hand over my mouth.’

I was 15 years old. It was 11:30 or 12 at night. I was pushed down from behind by a stranger. I was afraid to look while it was actually happening. I just closed my eyes and shut down.

Being the virgin good girl that I was thought of, when that was taken away from me I felt like my entire being was just gone and like I was just lost.

I remember lying in the bathtub and holding my breath underwater to see how long I could go before I would pass out because I was so upset. I just had nothing in my life. I didn’t have that deep depression enough to want to kill myself but I was right there.

I went back to school after that summer. The entire year I was so uncomfortable with everyone.

‘One of the lunch monitors said when you dress like a slut you invite trouble Ani.’

Because of the way I was raised, I truly thought that I brought it upon myself. And so I was so scared I didn’t say anything. I didn’t really do anything about it. I actually didn’t talk about it until last year in my sex column, years later.

I had an 82-year-old man write me a handwritten letter last year. His daughter had been through the same thing and she’d killed herself. What I had written had made him truly understand what she was going through because as a male, especially growing up when he did, he didn’t get what it’s like to be a female that has to go on living her life, seeing fragments every day that remind her of what she went through.

Him writing me that letter truly truly showed me that yeah, I’m okay.

I went through my first semester of college and I loved it. Gradually as the year progressed, more and more weird things started happening. I had a roommate who was super against sex but she didn’t count it if it was in the butt. A guy lived across the hall from me who would literally bring a new girl home every single night. There was not a night when I did not see a girl going in or coming out of the room or hear screaming.

I just realized that there’s so much sex going on all around campus. I became fascinated by it and started talking to everyone about personal sex issues. Then I got very comfortable talking about my own. And I’m now the sex column girl.

‘Slut, whore, boyfriend stealer, girlfriend stealer.’ Yeah, I get called a lot of different things but most of them aren’t true, so I’m okay with it.

They think that because I write what I write that I’m sleeping with everyone. That I’m a big ol’ slut and I’m just out there throwing my cat at everyone, and I’m not! I love sex but I’m very selective as to whom I sleep with.

I feel like a lot of columnists and people who work within this trade have a slight fear about what’s going to happen to them in the future but I truly, truly believe that the universe is taking care of me and so I’m just not scared at all.

Check Into Jungle Jim’s Burner Hotel

Techno music blasts from the lobby of the Morris Burner Hotel in downtown Reno, NV, as a handful of twenty-somethings trickle through the lobby.

Sitting near the front door of the hotel is 63-year-old Jim Gibson. He is the owner of the Morris Hotel.

Gibson is a retired business entrepreneur who used to wear suits and ties to work everyday.

Now Gibson wears fedoras, furs, and glow-in-the-dark glasses and goes by the name, “Jungle Jim.” He received the nickname after attending his first Burning Man festival in 2008.

It was a simple moment. Jennifer “Coco” Raiser ran up to Gibson and proclaimed him to be Jungle Jim.

I don’t know where it came from or why and I knew nothing about the fact that it was a gift, you learn these things as you go,” Gibson said.

Burning Man, the weeklong artistic outdoor festival held at the end of ever summer in Nevada’s harsh Black Rock Desert, attracts tens of thousands of people called burners from around the world.

Burning Man Changed Jungle Jim’s Life

Gibson wanted to create a place for burners to gather year-round. He saw his chance when the Morris Hotel on Reno’s edgy Fourth Street was for sale.  But this 1928 building was past its prime.

“These steps when we moved in here were so disgusting,” Gibson said while giving a tour. “You’d walk in here and you’d almost puke from the smell.”

Jungle Jim invited local artists to help him transform the hotel.  Now, rooms once yellowed and browned from cigarette smoke boast elaborate murals.

“The enchanted forest room is incredibly popular,” Gibson said. “It’s so crazy. … A strange looking beast with a goat head and a man’s body with writing and painted trees, butterflies and a very, very strange furry animal coming out of the wall. Legs coming out of the floor.”

Creating Art

In the basement, Jeanette Burleigh meticulously paints a papier-mâché dragonhead. The dragonhead will be used as a stage decoration for the upcoming, “Monsters and Elves” fundraising party. Proceeds from the party will be used to build a greenhouse on the Morris Hotel property.

Burleigh has never been to Burning Man. She lives at the hotel with other volunteers and likes the idea of creating art.

It’s a really accessible art scene,” she said. “Like we can exist and live mostly fairly cheaply and make art together in this really big, inclusive community where people aren’t like, a huge meanie pants about where you’re coming from and whatever. And it’s great.”

Envisioning the Future

Meanwhile, Alon Bar is getting ready for his weekly online show. He is in a makeshift TV studio in the basement called Studio M.

Bar, who goes by the name Vision, is the manager of the Morris Hotel. Vision’s plan is to make the hotel a thriving community in three years.

“Burners are not just doing their praying and blessings,” Bar said. “We wake up in the morning at five o’clock and we are working really hard to achieve these goals.”

Vision, who is from Israel, wants to copy this burner hotel all around the world.

“Yeah so, the goal is pretty much to have this lifestyle all around the world.” Bar said.  “I mean, we are having a great time here in Reno. We are building, we are building community, we are making art. And taking this one and copy it to everywhere on the planet.”

Jungle Jim isn’t ready to go global yet. He just wants to make this hotel a success. After all, for him, it is a big risk.

It’s a labor of love,” Gibson said. “Clearly. It’s the worst business model ever and this is just the most casual, interesting leap of faith that I have ever done. It’s not done like a normal business.”

But the Morris Hotel may already be going global: Gibson has been contacted by burners from China who want to book a stay.


Reno family stuggles with child’s severe skin disease

Jose Gastellum says ever since his son was born, he hasn’t looked like a normal child.

“Like a week, I don’t know, maybe few days he started to get worse. We didn’t know what had happened because his forehead got very ugly, his cheeks had some lumps,” Gastellum said.

Four –year-old Dylan Gastellum has a severe form of eczema. It covers his entire body.  His skin is dark red and scaley. It looks like a severe burn.

“Well because you cannot see him like the pretty child that you say, ‘oh my child is so pretty.’ Especially because I can’t even give him kisses on his face,” he said.

Dylan-close-3Dylan’s skin is so sensitive that any touch can cause pain. Even by rubbing his face it can make him bleed. His scabs constantly ooze.

Doctors prescribed Dylan steroid creams and pills, according to Arlene Torres, Dylan’s mom. His condition was further complictaed by stunted growth, trouble learning and food allergies, she said.

The family lives in small trailer home in a northern Reno. Torres keeps the house dark so Dylan can nap anytime, since he’s too itchy to sleep through the night. Torres says she does everything she can to comfort her son but he gets stressed out when he sees his skin flake off.

“There was a time when he was taking the pieces, like the flakes, the skin flakes back to his skin. Like he was like putting it back, “ said Torres.

Dylan has an 8-year-older brother named Edgar who gets frustrated when his little brother scratches. Torres says despite the family struggles they have remained united.

“Even if it’s good or bad, we have been together in this whole path. So it’s, um, there’s some times when [my husband] tells me that there’s a reason why all these things happen to us. I believe that it’s to get closer,” she said.


 This story was produced for the Next Generation Radio Project. J. Diego Zarazua can be reached via Twitter @jdiegozarazua.

Behind the Burn: Reporting on Jungle Jim Gibson and the Morris Burner Hotel


I first stepped into the Morris Burner Hotel on May 17, 2014. For me, the date wasn’t particularly significant. It was simply the Saturday before I began a weeklong intensive NPR training program at the University of Nevada, Reno. I wanted to go and get a sense of the place and the people, to do some pre-interviews.

Upon entering the Morris Burner Hotel, I was immediately greeted by Jungle Jim Gibson, the microchip entrepreneur who bought the property in 2013. The Morris sits on a half-acre lot in downtown Reno on Fourth Street. Fourth Street’s reputation is an edgy one, to be polite. But Jungle Jim is determined to turn the Morris Hotel into a hub for Burning Man culture year-round. That is the story I think I’m pursuing.


Down the Rabbit Hole

I shake Jungle Jim’s hand, a formality he gently corrects with an embrace and a jovial, “We hug around here.” He immediately offers me a cup of coffee and we set about on a tour of his new venture. The hotel is an impressive ode to its heritage, built in 1928 by the still-existing Savage and Son, Inc. plumbing company. There are detailed accents of the era when the hotel was built. One of the original chandeliers still hangs in the stairwell.

On the second floor, Jungle Jim shows me the hotel rooms that have undergone their metamorphosis—walls once yellowed and browned by years of exposure to cigarette smoke are now adorned with murals. Somewhere in the middle of the hallway is the “Enchanted Forest Room” where a mannequin with a horse’s head and man’s body stands in the corner, keeping watch. Each room is decorated with a different theme, a different imagination telling a different story.

Ushering me down the hall on our tour, Jungle Jim is suddenly distracted. There is a leak in the pipes and one of the showers is flooding. The moment echoes the reality of this project: renovating a hotel that hasn’t shut down in 86 years is nothing short of a labor of love. “Vision”, the hotel’s manager, immediately appears with a mop and bucket and with a calm about him, starts cleaning the mess.

At the other end of the hallway is the Temple of Transition room, a giant mural paying homage to the 2011 temple built for Burning Man. Jungle Jim helped to build the Temple of Transition that year. He is an encyclopedia of past Burning Man events, telling me fact after fact as he ushers me through the hotel. It is becoming evident: the hotel is an art piece in itself.

There are ten principles that come with subscribing to the Burning Man culture and it was very apparent immediately that the people of the Morris Burner Hotel believed above all in the concept of radical inclusion. “We welcome and respect the stranger,” the principle dictates. Jungle Jim tells me of the people who have spent time at the hotel. Some are artists. Some are volunteers. Some are nomads. All are welcome.


Seeing Red

I sit that first day enjoying a cup of coffee with Jungle Jim in the kitchen of the Morris Hotel. He regales me with tales of Burning Man while people mill in and out of the kitchen, many sporting red noses.  Moments later, Vision enters, this time also wearing a red nose. He finished the mopping. When questioned he answers that May 17 is International Red Nose Day, a day created with the intent of “creating happiness in the world.” Vision is all about happiness. He will later tell me in his interview that he aspires everyday to put a smile on someone’s face. That, to him, is art.

The pre-interview is interrupted when the fire alarm goes off. The water that had leaked out of the pipes is responsible and Jungle Jim immediately tries to intervene before the fire department shows up. His efforts are in vain, as moments later a team of firefighters is buzzed through the lobby door, telling of their lunch waiting for them back at the station. Jungle Jim and Vision have a great rapport with these men, welcoming them as friends.

The gentle spirit of Jungle Jim and the seeming chaos of the Morris Burner Hotel would be mirrored in the few next days. I would return several times with my mentor, Nico Colombant, to the Morris Hotel, telling the story of Jungle Jim and his grand hotel. The creation of a hotel to keep Burning Man culture alive year round was the story I thought I was pursuing. But the people behind this project and their relentless spirit to make it a reality are far more remarkable.