• June 10, 2015

A Photographer Addicted to Telling the Story of Marijuana

Kurt Mutchler

When photographer Lynn Johnson was working on this month’s National Geographic cover story on marijuana, she was surprised how addictive it became. Not the drug, mind you, but the controversial and convoluted medical world that legalization has spawned. So much so, that even after shooting on-and-off for six months for the magazine assignment, she couldn’t entirely let go of the story.

[Hear Johnson reveal what it was like to shoot the marijuana story in the video above.]

“I wasn’t prepared for the passion and depth of feeling that people associated with this plant,” said Johnson. She has continued photographing families with medically challenged children since finishing her assignment last December.

“I felt like what we do for the magazine is to try and take a complicated subject and distill it down to iconic frames that help the reader enter the subject matter. But what I felt was missing was documenting the complexity of people’s lives as they decide to use, or not use, this plant for true medicine,” Johnson explained.

Picture of a young girl dressed in pink, sitting on the carpet receiving medication from a dropper in what looks like a home
Lily Rowland used to suffer hundreds of seizures with violent convulsions every day. Her mother, Sarah, moved the family from Minnesota to Colorado, which voted to legalize marijuana in 2012, so that Lily could begin a daily regimen of an oil derived mainly from cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive chemical in marijuana. The drug doesn’t work for everyone, but today nine-year-old Lily is often seizure free and even on her worst days has only one or two.
All Photographs by Lynn Johnson

Beyond photographing the dispensaries, production facilities, and growers in the states that legalized cannabis—Colorado, Washington, and California (medical only)—what really caught Johnson’s attention were the parents of medically challenged children whose use of an oil derived mainly from cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive chemical in marijuana, is controversial. Some consider themselves “medical refugees,” having packed up and moved to Colorado from other states, some as far away as Maine, to begin a daily regimen of the oil.

Sarah Rowland is one such refugee (pictured above and below). “I had already met and wanted to find more families with children who are medically complicated and fragile, whose lives could really be made better by the use of cannabis—or not,” says Johnson. “And that’s the question: Is this good or is this bad? Does this work? And if so, what’s the cost to the families? Like, how do they decide without any knowledge, or research, or support, or legality? They’re kind of pioneers. I was fascinated by parents who decided to go it alone outside the sanctioned, normal medical community.”

Picture of a mother and daughter both wearing black dresses swinging next to each other on a swing set against a backdrop of a blue sky with white clouds
Lily is virtually seizure free and is just beginning to experience life like never before. Here, she swings with her mother, Sarah, on a swing set near their home in Colorado.

“A good deal of anecdotal evidence shows that high-CBD strains of cannabis can have a strong antiseizure effect.” says Hampton Sides, the writer for the magazine story. But scientific evidence is in short supply. Currently, the DEA considers marijuana a Schedule I drug with no accepted medical use and as dangerous as heroin and LSD.

Orrin Devinsky, a neurologist at New York University, is leading a clinical trial to test CBD against a placebo in treating forms of epilepsy. “There’s a real potential, but we urgently need valid data,” he told the magazine. Until marijuana is reclassified, scientists are finding it difficult to do research that can give parents some real answers. Until then, they are on their own.

Picture of an aerial view of marijuana growing in an irrigated field, shaped in concentric circles
Marijuana grows in an irrigated field on the plains east of Denver—discreetly hidden behind rows of corn. This crop is hemp, a non-psychoactive variety with little tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Its tough fiber has long been used for rope, paper, and fabric, but it’s also rich in compounds with medical promise. Some of this harvest will be used to make CBD oil, which is in such demand to treat children with seizures that cannabis growers have stepped up production.
Picture of a dad holding his young daughter and kissing her on the cheek in the doctor's office where two brain scans are posted, one showing improvement in her tumors
Josh Ryan holds his two-year-old daughter, Sophie, who is diagnosed with optic pathway glioma. In December, a combination of traditional chemotherapy and parent-administered CBD and THC seemed to have shrunk her brain tumor (on screen: before, left; after, right).

Stories like that of Tracy and Josh Ryan motivate Johnson. Their two-year-old daughter, Sophie, has optic pathway glioma (photos above and below) and has been battling a brain tumor throughout her young life. “The family odyssey has been long and complicated, with lost jobs and life savings and endless hours in medical settings. They’re on Facebook to build support and funds for cannabis for other children with cancer,” Johnson said. The Ryan’s are now working with researchers at UCLA and USC to try and establish clinical programs using cannabis oil.

Picture of a family in a hospital looking at brain scans, a father holds his young daughter and a mother, seated, covers her face while looking at a laptop computer
Tracy and Josh Ryan react to their daughter’s brain scan in May that showed some new black spots in the scan. Johnson has continued covering the Ryan family to show how complicated the process is. The Ryans calculate their own CBD treatments for their daughter. With little scientific research available to them, they are on their own.

“They believe that chemo combined with cannabis oil has really made an impact on this child’s life and shrunk the tumor. The problem is [that] that’s still a roller-coaster world for them because they can’t prove any of this. Some of it is by faith, but not enough of it is by science, and they are determined to gather the facts as well as see their child survive. So watching people struggle with that kind of life-and-death journey I find to be the most powerful and meaningful part of this story,” Johnson said.

Picture of a mother standing and holding her 11-year-old son in a red tee-shirt in her arms, they both look at the camera
Kim Clark’s younger son, Caden, 11, suffers from severe epilepsy. Despite having brain surgery twice, he’d never had a seizure-free day until he started taking CBD oil.
Picture of an 11-year-old boy in a green tee shirt standing in a grassy yard and touching the forehead of his mom who is seated on the ground along with another young boy
“There was a person in there waiting to be unlocked. I could see him, but I couldn’t reach him,” Kim says. Kim can now go home to Georgia because of a new state law that protects the use of CBD oil for seizure disorders.

“[The stories] accumulate in our bodies, in our tissues, in our minds. And the accumulation of those stories, of all that people share, it feels like that’s what I’m made of now,” Johnson said. “You carry people’s stories forever.”

Editor’s Note: Johnson’s personal photo essays about medically challenged children have not yet been published.

For a deeper dive into the science of marijuana, read this feature article. You can also see more of Johnson’s images from the story and learn more about how medical marijuana may be helping sick children.

There are 21 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Lindsay Rogers
    July 24, 2015

    To the person leaving FAKE COMMENTS on how RICK SIMPSON offered youOIL, YOU ARE A LIAR and SCUM for trying to SCAM SICK PATIENTS!!!
    RICK SIMPSON DOES NOT SELL OIL- I REPEAT Rick Simpson DOES NOT SELL OIL!!! If anyone offers you oil for sale and, claims to be affilitated with Rick Simpson or the phoenix Tears, IT IS A SCAM!!!
    Vist the REAL PhoenticTears website and learn FOR FREE how to make and take the oil yourself!
    rickcannabisoil19@gmail.com and phoenixtears47@gmail
    Only through EDUCATION will we ever see real change!
    CANNABIS OIL KILLS CANCER and is the answer to beating more than just cancer!

  2. rose joel
    July 17, 2015

    I want to thank rick simpson and the entire management of ricksimpsonmedicalservices for their life saving cannabis oil that cured my Dad’s thyroid cancer,the doctor told us there was little he could since despite all the chemo and radiation,he wasn’t responding to treatment.so a friend of mine came to our rescue by ordering this cannabis oil from rick simpson medicals services which he said rick has been helping patients fight against cancer of various types so we decided to give it a try,so far my Dad is improving very well and presently he can walk around the house all by himself.i felt it’s necessary i let others especially those suffering from this acute disease that once you have a good cannabis oil,it can really give a second chance at life.if you happen to be in dying need of this cannabis oil,you can contact the foundation who supplied us with this email:phoenixtears47@gmail.com,For more information and the delivering process,

  3. CannabisOil
    July 15, 2015

    Cannabis oil cures cancer, view, share, support and like our page:…www.facebook.com/thc.cbdcanabisoil.cures

  4. patricia warren
    July 14, 2015

    My Mother was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer about a one year ago, she has had an extremely difficult journey. She has had two rounds of chemotherapy, one round or Y90 Radiation and now is experiencing liver failure. Jaundice, a weak appetite and depression are a few of her symptoms. I’m wondered what other treatment options she has (such as a liver transplant or a clinical trial) and also how long she has to live. My mother is my best friend and hero, she endures so much as your loved ones do too.but a cousin of mine came to our rescue by ordering this hemp oil from a foundation in US,and so far the medication has proved effective.now my mother can do things she never could do before,i am so happy so i decided to use this medium to alert all cancer patient that with a good hemp oil,you can definitely beat cancer.if you happen to be in need of this medication,you can contact the foundation with this email:(rickcannabisoil19@gmail.com) for more information and the delivery process. Thanks and God bless you.

  5. Colorado Brian
    June 15, 2015

    I have been growing and processing cold press oil for 5 years in Colorado, and have about 1,000 customers who use my “freely given” CBD honey tasting oil, and am always open to people who need help with their chronic pain, contact me. I am a non profit that helps people with seizures, cancer, and chronic pain, living in the USA. So far I have 100% positive response.

  6. Trancend
    June 14, 2015

    The amount of ignorance still around the topic of this is astounding, its like people dont kno how to do simple research .. Firstly there are 85 Cannabinoids in the plant each one with its individual healing properties but when combined together have a wholistic approach..Why would you only use Cbd that is only one cannabinoid out of 85 ,better of using a cannabis indica oil, You can make oil with out it being pycoactive Thca9 needs heat to active it into the pycoactive component Thc9. The whole argument is flawed because weed can be used in a way(such as juicing raw cannabis) suprise surprise ,YOU WILL NOT GET HIGH!!…. the whole industry is bullshit big pharma just dosn’t want to loose out on a plethora of money, yea they really want people to be able to grow the most healing plant in the world in there back yard bahahah get real, You cant patent a plant so there is no money, but o hey make a synthetic thc put it in a pill called marnol and its legal.. hmm starting to make sence? slowly? haha if not maybe get rid of the bye products of phosphate fertilizer manufacture (H2SiF6) out of your drinking water 😉 , more commonly known as Fluorosilicic acid(fluroride) its known to lower Iq , maybe thats why people are so slow haha ;).. sorry if i turned your whole world upsidedown .

  7. Bella
    June 13, 2015

    Cannabis oil has helped soooo many cancer kids that I know! I have watched it save lives first hand, and am a true believer in the power of this for both cancer and epilepsy. There are 100s of scientific studies proving it’s ability to kill cancer, and I can’t wait until this is finally legalized so we can get human trials rolling!!! Hopefully one of these days all these negative people that don’t believe in it will wake up and stop standing in our way of progress! Great piece Nat Geo. Keep them coming!!!

  8. Cindy Cotton
    June 13, 2015

    Whoever posted posing as me above needs help! That comment is NOT from me, and I have seen first hand how cannabis has helped my granddaughter and many other patients like her. It’s really sad to see someone trying to discredit this medicine when it is saving so many lives. My daughter has worked tirelessly to try and help save as many people as she can, and her efforts have paid off! She has oncologists and nurses referring her patients, and is even treating a doctor who is crediting the cannabis for helping to shrink his aggressive cancer. She is working hand in hand with the medical community, and has oncology nurses guiding her patients in dosing the oils. Her oils are helping people get their lives back, they are stopping seizures, shrinking tumors, curing patients with PTSD & severe pain, and allowing very sick kids to feel so good that they are getting their childhoods back. Shame on you for falsifying your identity and speaking of things you clearly know nothing about.

  9. Paul Pot
    June 13, 2015

    Great article but THC is nothing to be afraid of and does have medicinal properties and can be used without psychoactive effect. If the cannabis oil is not heated above a certain temperature then it will be THCA and will not be psychoactive and it has been found to be helpful for people when CBD is not enough. Check out Alexis (Team Alexis on Facebook).

  10. Raymond Cushing
    June 13, 2015

    The reason why cannabinoids appear to “cure” so many illnesses is because prior to prohibition they were part of the human food chain. Dairy cows ate feral hemp, which was rich in CBD, and passed the CBD to humans through their milk. Pigs, chickens and other livestock were also fed hemp and the CBDs were in their meat and eggs. Beginning in 1937, the government eradicated all forms of feral and cultivated hemp, thus eliminating CBD from the human diet, of which it had been part since pre-historical times. The rest of the story? Eighty years of human suffering and misery, untold millions of needless deaths — all caused by Prohibitionists who supported outlawing hemp for one reason and one reason only: because they were told to. Americans are so stupid.

  11. Dorota Zabnicka
    June 12, 2015

    Americans make a great deal about the USA being a free country, where we have freedom. But how can taking away a freedom (like smoking marijuana) making this nation free? We all know this drug does not cause harm to anyone, and if me smoking does not affect you (other than your disdain for it), why should my rights be taken away? We can say the same thing about animal product, some activists are against eating animal meat, so should the government take away the consumption of meet because there are individuals who do not agree with it? Food for thought.

  12. Cindy Cotton
    June 12, 2015

    One of the families is a grower purely for profit and saying it cures cancer. I feel bad for all the poor families who are spending so much money and their child will get worse. None of these people are doctors or even education on the dimensional use. Good luck.

  13. Mustafa Mert Kutlu
    June 12, 2015

    You’ve done awesome job!

  14. victor alvarez
    June 11, 2015

    Its all about money the gov. Has soo much invested in the “war on drugs” it all bs tho. Same as big pharma they dont want ppl to have something that they cant make $ off. Im sorry call me a pessimist but big pharma dosnt want you to be healthy theres no money if ppl aren’t sick or have problems.

  15. Keith
    June 11, 2015

    CBD OIL works…Marijuana also works and of course should be taken responsibly as any other medicine. About a year ago taking to many pain killers after too many surgeries and a broken down body with foot drop, I now find myself healing more everyday that passes. I quit the percocet, neurontin, muscle relaxers and metformin. I wake up and use CBD OIL GOLD twice daily about the size of a grain of rice. I also use some cannabis before bed to help sleep. I actually started a company marijuanapackaging.vegas and sell CBD Oil and tinctures, Charlotte’s Web also to help these people heal without the dangers of prescription drugs. and yes I was a Drug Store Manager for years. Start healing today.

  16. Harrison
    June 11, 2015

    Moved And hopeful for my son after reading your column !!! The only reason CBDs are not available to all kids with these problems is only because OUR GREAT GOVERNMENT hasn’t figured out how to make billions of dollars in tax revenue yet and that makes me sick. The facts are in and all around us. Open your eyes People, this is not heat a bunch of hippies trying to get high, it’s about the kids.

  17. Mark Pommier
    June 11, 2015

    I campaigned aggressively for legal medical cannabis in Minnesota. We passed the legislation in spite of the police giving their horror stories of how evil they think it is. They only wished to preserve their paychecks in the epic failure called the Drug War. Making their living off of the illegal pot trade, they somehow thought they could intercede in a doctor/patient relationship. PLEASE contact your legislators and demand that marijuana be removed as a Schedule 1 narcotic. This frees up research, and lessens the overpopulation in our prisons.

  18. Roger
    June 11, 2015

    “as dangerous as heroin and LSD”
    yeah, except LSD isn’t dangerous at all

  19. Björn Sjöberg
    June 10, 2015

    Of course, just as I posted, it popped up.

  20. Björn Sjöberg
    June 10, 2015

    I can’t see the video. My bad?

Add Your Comments

All fields required.