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Santa's helper nailed for medical marijuana stash

Michelle DiGiacomo ordered weed from a California grower to help relieve chronic pain. She says that landed her in a more painful situation than she ever could have imagined

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On September 13, Chicago police stormed a two-bedroom apartment in North Center and arrested 52-year-old Michelle DiGiacomo, who lived there with her 14-year-old daughter. They tossed the apartment, cuffed DiGiacomo, and hauled her off in a squad car. DiGiacomo recalls her daughter screaming as the police led her away, "Please! She's all I've got!"

DiGiacomo would later write her many friends, describing the night she spent in jail: "I shared a cell with a woman who had severely beaten her grandchild. She attempted to get in my bed to stay warm. She told me that's how you do it in prison."

DiGiacomo is accused of ordering nearly 1.5 pounds of marijuana from a grower in California. The package was FedExed to a UPS storefront in North Center, and the cops were all over the shipment. Sergeant B. Williams (the initial is his preference) of the CPD's Package Interdiction Team tells me a drug dog sniffed the pot at some point in the package's journey, a warrant was issued, the package was opened and the contents confirmed, another warrant was issued, and the FedEx truck that delivered the pot to the UPS store actually had an interdiction team officer at the wheel. When DiGiacomo picked up the package, investigators followed her to her home a few blocks away, and within minutes they were barreling inside. Under Illinois law, the amount of marijuana with which she's charged is considered a Class 3 felony punishable by two to five years in prison. The street value of that much pot, Sergeant Williams says, is over $10,000.

Let's walk the story back ten years.

In the late 90s advice columnist Jeff Zaslow ran a high-profile letters-to-Santa campaign in the Sun-Times. In 2001 the Sun-Times (this was the Conrad Black-David Radler era) decided to can him—so he jury-rigged a program involving Chicago magazine and the Spanish-language radio station WLEY and came up with gifts for about 17,000 kids that year.

Zaslow bowed out in 2002 when he took a job with the Wall Street Journal. But he kept the flame alive: he turned over his files to Michelle DiGiacomo. He'd written about her a couple of years earlier when she asked him for help: there was a 16-year-old bagger at her Dominick's who had a million-dollar smile and the worst teeth DiGiacomo had ever seen. The girl desperately needed braces, and DiGiacomo thought a story by Zaslow might help raise some money for them. It turned out DiGiacomo found a dentist willing to treat the girl for free, but Zaslow wrote an article anyway—about DiGiacomo. When Zaslow left town, she agreed to take over his letters-to-Santa project.

Zaslow once had the Sun-Times behind him; DiGiacomo had just her husband, Paul Fitzgerald, a developer. He died of cancer in 2008, and since then she's been on her own, unable to handle more than about 10,000 letters a year. Last February Zaslow was killed in a car accident, and DiGiacomo, heartbroken, told me how much she'd miss his cheerleading. "I work out of my home, I rent a mailbox," she said the time. "I pay for the newsletter. I do all the Web design, pretty much everything. At Christmas I deliver the letters. I'm on widow's social security and disability. So I'd love to find somebody who'd sponsor my charity."

That rented mailbox at UPS came back to haunt DiGiacomo. As Sergeant Williams would explain, the fact that the package wasn't simply addressed to DiGiacomo's house made her transaction look all the more suspicious.

Williams led the raid. Did he hear his target claim it was medical marijuana? He did. Did it matter? "This is Illinois," he said. "There's no such thing in Illinois, as cruel as it sounds."

DiGiacomo mixes the marijuana into butters, balms, and tinctures, she says—preparations that require significantly more weed than if she just smoked the stuff. "I got a really good deal because it was the end of the greenhouse season," she says. "I got it for less than $100 an ounce. So I basically got a year's worth of medication." But she didn't expect it to be sent to her all at once.

Two of DiGiacomo's doctors have written letters supporting her claim that she needs the marijuana. "I have been treating you for several years," wrote rheumatologist Andrew Ruthberg of Rush University Medical Center, "and can attest to the fact that you have several chronically painful conditions including Rheumatoid arthritis, a cervical spine disorder which has required surgical repair, rotator cuff disease involving both shoulders and a more recent lower back pain disorder. . . . I fully believe that your use of marijuana has been solely for the purpose of trying to moderate chronic pain."

Howard An of Rush, the surgeon who performed a cervical spine fusion, wrote, "Pain is a daily issue. . . . I fully believe that your use of marijuana has been for the use of controlling your chronic pain."

After that night in jail DiGiacomo was bailed out—a friend posted the $1,000 deposit—and she faced a tough decision. Her arrest is public record; her photo had shown up on websites that publish mug shots. And Christmas is coming. It would be disastrous if her donors and clients found out what happened from anyone but her. Her lawyer (since replaced) wanted her to keep her mouth shut and for days she did, but eventually she e-mailed 800 of her donors and clients a ten-page newsletter that told her version of the story.

"I have never felt so defeated in all my life," she began. She described the raid, the night in jail, and the aftermath: "They seized my car as I had transported my medication in it. . . . My landlord has asked me to move."

Her landlord gave her 30 days' notice. "With what happened I decided not to renew the lease," he told me. "It was a really large amount of marijuana she was arrested for having. It made other tenants feel insecure."

Representative Lou Lang of Skokie has been writing bills for years to legalize medical marijuana. He hopes to get his latest—the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act—through the house in the lame-duck session at the end of the year. It permits a patient to legally possess "no more than 2.5 ounces of usable cannabis during a 14-day period." DiGiacomo was charged with possessing nearly ten times that much.

"I need to find three votes," Lang told me. "I have 93 members of the house who are for it but only 57 who are willing to vote for it. I think after the [November] election I might find the three votes to pass the bill."

DiGiacomo would like to be a face Lang can put on his bill, but she's not surprised he hasn't returned her calls. That's OK with her, though; since she sent out her newsletter plenty of people have.

When Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy's son Spencer was seven years old, he and some pals formed a band called the Blisters. The band took off—dad's stature obviously helped—and Tweedy's wife, Susan, tells me that eight years ago the Blisters decided to do a benefit for a local charity.

Susan Tweedy did some research and came up with DiGiacomo's Direct Effect Charities. "She was doing a socks and underwear drive, which we thought was perfect," says Susan Tweedy. "The Blisters played a gig at the Abbey and everyone who came brought socks and underwear. We've done a lot of different gigs for her since. She's got no backing like other charities. She does it all herself."

The Tweedys were on the mailing list for DiGiacomo's newsletter, and last Saturday she got a reply from Spencer Tweedy, now 17. He told her he'd set up a website and a PayPal account. The website announces, "Michelle DiGiacomo needs our help," and declares, "The cost of defending herself against the law has crippled her more than her diseases ever have. . . . Michelle DiGiacomo is not a criminal."

DiGiacomo showed up in jeans and a white neck brace for her first court appearance October 3. The judge ruled the police had probable cause to arrest her for possession, and afterward she stood shaking in the lobby wondering out loud what, when the time comes, she could possibly tell a judge and jury.

"I had it, yes I did," she cried. "I needed it. That's my defense."

Read a follow-up post by Michael Miner on the CPD's Package Interdiction Team.

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