Michael DeVito, Jr.
A Marine Corps veteran who has devoted his post-military career to working with at-risk youth, Staten Island congressional candidate Michael DeVito Jr. lays out his years-long quest to help his wife find medicine that could give her a life with less pain. In an emotional conversation, he talks about how cannabis can help patients like his wife, Natalie, the need to destigmatize cannabis use, and how a political career fits into his drive to help others.
The Highly: You’re a cannabis advocate who doesn’t use cannabis. How did it enter your life?
Michael DeVito Jr.: As a young person who came from a family of big drinkers and was an athlete, it wasn't something that I was attracted to.
When I was in the Marines, I got stationed in Okinawa. In Okinawa, drugs are not tolerated at all. I saw people go to jail for 30 days and more for having so much as a joint on them. There was an incredible fear of doing any sort of drugs.
In 2012, [my daughter] Miya goes back to Okinawa for the summer to be with her Mom, and we figure out that [my wife] Natalie has celiac disease.
She eradicates gluten from her diet, and over the course of three or four days, our entire life changes. She was just feeling so well, not tired anymore and not achy. Her skin cleared up. It was like a utopia...these two months of this amazing perfect relationship. We were just so incredibly hopeful that she was going to be able to accomplish the things that she really wanted to accomplish in her life.
When Miya turned 16, she decided, "I don't want a party. I just want to go on a cruise."
On the second day of the cruise, Natalie’s like, "I don't feel okay. I feel like something is really wrong." All of a sudden, she ballooned up. She was carrying all this water or something, like she was swollen.
It got worse. She suddenly couldn't eat because everything she ate made her holler out in pain.
We go on this track [of not knowing what to do] from September until the following February. She can't take the pain anymore. She had lost almost 50 pounds. Her doctors just couldn't figure out what was wrong with her and she's finally hospitalized.
We got connected to one doctor who identified [her] gastroparesis, which is a condition that a lot of people who are diabetic have. It's a delay in your gastrointestinal tract. What happened to Natalie was a virus which ostensibly caused nerve damage.
TH: What was the fallout from the virus?
MD: We start with this balancing act of, "Okay, you can eat and be in pain, or you can starve and not be in pain, except you're not going to have any energy because your brain doesn't have enough fuel. You're not going to be able to exercise or even dance"—because she loves to dance. “You're going to lay on the couch all day and gear up to eat a little something and deal with the pain and get right back to not doing anything.” What kind of quality of life is this?
Then it got worse. She started to develop these infections called SIBO, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. Because it was taking so long for [her] food to digest, it was fermenting. Then when it fermented, it would be like this bacterial overgrowth.
[Tears come to his eyes.] There were times where she would say, "I'm giving up. I'm just not eating anymore, and if I die, I die.” The only things she had were muscle relaxers and opioids. The problem with that is when you're not digesting, nothing would [absorb].
She would go for three, four, five, hours and [the opioids] would all hit her at once, then she would be like a zombie for a day. Then she would come out of it, not in any sort of relief. She would just be in intense pain again.
Probably three years into this whole thing, she's diagnosed with another condition: chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction. It is what it sounds like. It's another delay, this one in the lower intestine.
Every two weeks, she would go get intravenous hydration where everyone is going to get their chemotherapy. She is sitting there with a disease that is not going to kill her, but her entire life has been reduced to trying to find enough balance every day to do some things.
She's the smartest person I know. She's brilliant. To see her suffer every day...[The tears well up again.]
[Now I'm tearing up].
TH: How did you incorporate cannabis into her pain management regimen?
MD : When New York passed medical marijuana laws in the state, we had been back and forth with Sen. Savino's office quite a lot because Natalie's condition is a type of neuropathy. While the precise form isn’t a covered condition, the “neuropathy” does qualify. I know that the laws’ passage happened directly because of Natalie's advocacy. Even though she couldn't go to Albany, she was calling. She was talking to the staff and saying that “if cannabis helps me, it's also going to help other people who develop gastroparesis.”
We go through the whole process of her getting certified and me being a caregiver so I can pick the cannabis up for her. What we have access to in New York State isn’t strong enough for her. For what it cost us, the amount that she would need is like my mortgage payment. It's not sustainable. It's impossible.
TH: Could you get cannabis with the strength that she needs in a different jurisdiction where it’s legal?
MD: Yes. For about a third of the price.
That is a reason why we have to immediately start doing cannabis laws better and why this is a federal issue. It has to start from the top down. We have eight states that have legalized cannabis in a way that has allowed it to be accessible and produced in a way that makes the costs come down.
I know that every time Natalie takes a cannabis pill, she's thinking, "Should I save this for when I'm really bad?" Except define “really bad.” There are times when she hasn't eaten enough, stands up too quickly and passes out. Then Miya has to walk in on her Joey (Natalie’s family nickname) passed out.
How do we do this? How do we do it better? I’ll do anything. I’d lick the streets if it was necessary to pay for it.
TH: You work with at-risk youth. What is your view on cannabis in their lives?
MD: My professional connection to it is from the perspective of somebody who is helping young people who come to school disconnected. They smell like they have been smoking marijuana or come from a place where they were smoking marijuana and immediately are labeled. They've been told that they're bad or that they're never going to get anywhere. To be labeled before you even get to the door, for someone to literally put their nose up at you is a disservice [to them]. That doesn't go away the next time you come to school and don't smell like marijuana. It doesn't.
TH: What made you decide to run for Congress?
MD: I get up in the morning on a mission to help people. I've been on this mission for a really long time. It's not about "this is going to get me somewhere." It's about ultimate fulfillment.
My mission of helping people sort of extended to this idea of, "I'm going to go to work today, and I'm going to help just one kid, and I know that [the effect is] going to be exponential. That kid's going to go tell another kid, or that kid's going to go home and help his little brother, or something great is going to come of it. I'm just going to help one kid today."
In November 2016, with the change of leadership and the realization that we're taking a really big turn and my feeling that it was the wrong turn, I was inspired to try to do more. Rereading the Constitution, I started to have this feeling like, "Alright, who are you? Who are you really? If you don't stand up for this, then what do you stand up for?"
TH: If you had 30 seconds with President Trump, what would you say about cannabis?
MD: I would tell him that my wife's cannabis is by her bedside and that her opioids are down in the medicine cabinet. I would tell him that when my wife feels relief, it's a relief for all of us—it’s literally a physical sound of [big sigh]—and that the only thing that does it for her is cannabis.
If that is just one story of one person who suffers every single day, a brilliant person who could be doing amazing things for our country, then there are probably millions of other people in this country that need to have access to this type of wellness.
If that doesn't move our President, I'm not sure what does.
TH: What is the biggest challenge facing Staten Island that cannabis could alleviate?
MD: The biggest thing is the opioid epidemic and using cannabis as a way to help those who are in recovery.
TH: If you are elected in November, how could you help the cannabis cause? How do things even get done?
MD: I think that much like the problem we have with healthcare, where it would be great to say that tomorrow we're going to have universal healthcare for everyone, it’s not realistic. I think these types of things become [goals] we have to work toward. We have to fix some of the structures that are in place right now to ensure that we don't create other problems in the process. My experience with cannabis is knowing the fact that it is not legal in the United States is hurting people.
MD: Or legal-ish, yes.
TH: You're elected, and cannabis legalization come across your desk. Are you pushing it forward?
MD: We're absolutely pushing it forward.
TH: Some say that cannabis is a gateway. What is it a gateway to?
MD: For Natalie, I would say it's a gateway to her being able to live longer. I don't believe that cannabis is a gateway drug. I think that’s a narrative that was written many years ago.