October 11, 1993

A Plan to Aid her Son Leads to
Arrest and Push for Change

Joseph Berger (Special to the New York Times)

Monticello, N.Y., Oct. 4 -- The annals of crime do not record many 79-year-old grandmothers who have been arrested for growing marijuana in their backyards, and even Mildred Kaitz has an explanation that she thinks makes her offense pardonable.

She did it for her son, Barton, who lives in Brooklyn and who, at 49, has been suffering from multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease of the nervous system, that has progressively crippled his legs, blurred his vision and deadened his appetite. Smoking marijuana, she discovered, made him eat with gusto, so she did what she says any loving mother would do in similar circumstances: grow the marijuana for him.

"The police said to me, 'what if your son needed an operation? Would you rob a bank?'" Mrs. Kaitz recalled. "I said, 'If it would cure his sickness, I would absolutely. I'd go to jail for life.'"

A judge in this Catskills resort village where Mrs. Kaitz has lived for two decades has placed her on probation for two months. He warned her to keep out of trouble if she wants the marijuana possession conviction erased from what had been an unblemished lifelong record.

Angry With Government

But keeping out of trouble is not the same as keeping quiet.

She is angry that Federal authorities are refusing to let more people legally receive marijuana as medicine and, although she usually responds to life's troubles with a shrugging irony, she has made her views known on local rock stations. Groups like the national Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) have seized on her case to argue for allowing the sick to use marijuana.

Few Given Legal Right

Only nine Americans - with such ailments as cancer, glaucoma and AIDS - are legally entitled to receive marijuana grown by the Federal Government at the University of Mississippi. The number has been frozen since last year, when a review by the Drug Enforcement Administration concluded that marijuana has no medical potency.

Supporters of reclassifying marijuana as a controlled substance with medical purposes, like morphine, argue that marijuana relieves nausea and stimulates appetite in cancer and AIDS patients and relieves pressure in the eyes of glaucoma sufferers. In 1991, Harvard University researchers found that almost half of the 1, 035 cancer specialists who returned a questionnaire said that they would prescribe marijuana if it were legal and a slightly smaller percentage said they had already recommended marijuana to patients.

A still robust woman whose eyes twinkle behind Sophia Loren-like glasses, Mrs. Kaitz insists that she never smoked pot, though she remembers tasting a doctored brownie once. "It had no effect on me whatsoever," she remembers.

But she is not a conventionally staid grandmother either.

There has always been something of the Bohemian in her mother's heart, says her daughter, Revalee Brody, a former police officer.

Attended Woodstock

For 53 years, Mrs. Kaitz, an art shop owner and antiques collector, was married to an Art Deco artist, Gustave Kaitz, who died in December. Mr. Kaitz painted idealized nudes in scenes drawn from mythology.

How many parents can say they accompanied their children to the fabled Woodstock concert of 1969, as the Kaitzes did with their son? And the Kaitzes once had their three children blessed with a feather by the Swami Muktananda.

Still, when visitors enter the white clapboard house that also contains Mrs. Kaitz's shop, they get a greeting not unlike one of a stereotypical Jewish mother. Mrs. Kaitz, who immigrated at 16 from Lvov, Poland, brings out plates of Nova Scotia lox, cream cheese and bagels, and herring. And on the way out her door, offers of soup and care packages never let up.

An Active Life

Until five years ago, Barton Kaitz had led an active life as a film editor for Allen Funt, the maker of the "Candid Camera" series and as the owner of an antiques shop on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue. Although he never married, Barton Kaitz has an 11-year-old daughter, Leah, whom he helps support.

With the onset of multiple sclerosis, his coordination faltered, his mouth numbed and his appetite flagged. In the last year and a half, he has lost 35 pounds, now weighing 150, and he walks on crutches. He lives on Social Security payments of $527 a month in a subsidized Park Slope apartment.

It was painful for Mrs. Kaitz to watch her son's deterioration. On one visit she saw him collapse on her lawn and crawl to a tree to right himself. On another, she noticed he could not eat a dish of liver with peppers and mushrooms, which he had always craved.

"Amother watching that, it's just impossible," she said.

Two years ago, her son told Mrs. Kaitz that marijuana, which he says he smokes no more than a half a dozen times a year, stimulated his appetite.

"I can almost enjoy something," he said in a telephone interview. "When people eat they say, 'That was great. I loved it.' Imagine never being able to say that again."

Mrs. Kaitz also had graphic evidence. Her son smoked a marijuana cigarette in her presence and suddenly craved scungilli. "I don't even know how to make it," she said. "So we sent out to an Italian restaurant."

'I'll Grow It'

Mrs. Kaitz decided she would obtain marijuana for her son and with the help of a more street-smart friend, bought $50 worth. To her disappointment, what she ended with was no bigger than a packet of sugar.

"I said, 'My God, $50! I'll grow it for my son.' " she said.

Younger friends gave her three 10 inch sprouts and she planted them alongside the back entrance steps to her house.

"If anybody asked me, 'What's growing there?' I said, 'Marijuana.' And they'd walk away, shrugging, "Mildred and her jokes.' "

She harvested the buds, dried them in her basement and soon filled a half gallon jar that her son estimates was worth $2,000. Occaisionally, she mailed small quantities of her crop to her son's home in Brooklyn. She even gave it to her husband as he was dying of cancer, mashing some marijuana into his soup to bolster his spirit.

Barton Kaitz said he let his mother grow it for him because he was too enfeebled to hunt for supplies and the cost was prohibitive.

Last July 4, a visitor stole the marijuana jar. So Mrs. Kaitz tried once more, planting foor shoots as well as tending a potted marijuana plant that had been wrapped in a red ribbon with a note that said: "We love your Barton, Happy Birthday."

On Aug 31, two determined village police officers, acting on a tip from neighborhood youngsters, came to her house and yanked out the plants. They informed Mrs. Kaits of her rights to remain silent and be represented by a lawyer. They told her she would have to come down to the station for fingerprinting and bring along $500 to bail herself out.

"These police came here like the Gestapo," Mrs. Kaitz recalled. "Of course when I told them the story they mellowed."

Evidently embarrassed that their captive was not a drug kingpin, she said, the officers nudged her toward an alibi. Perhaps, she remembers them telling her, she had dropped the seeds in the ground accidentally. but Mrs. Kaitz insisted on the truth, so the police charged her with a violation, a step below a misdemeanor that can result up to 15 days in jail.

"For a few minutes I was under arrest," Mrs. Kaitz says, her eyes glinting wickedly. "It was exciting."

When she appeared without a lawyer Sept. 21 in Monticello Vilage Court, Judge John Duiguid told her that if she behaved herself the charge would be erased, which prosecutors say is a typical disposition for a first time marijuana arrest.

Now, friends save some marijuana butts or "roaches" for Barton Kaitz, but there is not enough to make a difference to his appetite. He says he has to hope for an easing of the regulations governing medicinal marijuana use.

"Maybe it's best that my mom got arrested," he said. "She'll tell people where it's at."