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Joint Dreams: How An Unlikely Friendship Reshaped Medical Marijuana Rules In Massachusetts05:53
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Frank Shaw and Jeremiah MacKinnon enjoy the sunshine on a stone bench overlooking Salem Harbor. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Frank Shaw and Jeremiah MacKinnon enjoy the sunshine on a stone bench overlooking Salem Harbor. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

On a stone bench, between Salem Harbor and The House of the Seven Gables, two friends settled in to smoke a little weed.

"We do like this spot," said Jeremiah MacKinnon, 26.

"Yes," added his companion, Frank Shaw, who is 68.

The two make an unlikely pair. Shaw wears a baseball cap with a graphic of a cannabis leaf with EKG monitor waves. MacKinnon sports an old school newsboy cap. Shaw, with gray wispy hair, has the air of a jokester. MacKinnon, a younger millennial, carries the aura of someone generations older.

You might not know it by looking at them, but some say the team is among the most powerful — and surprising — advocating forces for medical marijuana on Beacon Hill.

"Literally, between the two of them, they're really making history together."

Gary Gill

Shaw showed MacKinnon a state-of-the-art vape he just got.

"That's one of the new cartridges," MacKinnon observed.

"This is Granddaddy Purple," Shaw said about the strain inside. "It helps me with my feet, my back and my sleep... My heart beats for cannabis, basically."

MacKinnon pulled out his weed of choice, a joint of Do-Si-Do.

"I got a little something for me, here," he said.

"Oh good," Shaw said.

In the realm of Massachusetts medical marijuana, Shaw and MacKinnon are a dynamic duo. They often appear in local news media, reacting to legislation affecting medical users. And they testify regularly at the Cannabis Control Commission.

Two years ago, Shaw signed on to a lawsuit, challenging Gov. Charlie Baker on a vape ban. It's all part of Shaw and MacKinnon's perennial endeavor to make sure patients' rights remain front and center during lawmakers' ongoing discussions about changes to medical marijuana regulation.

"Literally, between the two of them, they're really making history together," said Gary Gill, at a social event in the Seaport hosted by the pair last year.

Gill, who's a medical cannabis patient, has been friends with Shaw for over 25 years. Before the pandemic, Shaw and MacKinnon held meetups for people like Gill and anyone else who was curious or knowledgeable about the medical cannabis industry. The gatherings are called "Toasty Tuesdays." And Gill said he's in awe of their friendship and what they've accomplished.

"It's just pretty amazing the relationship between a senior and a younger person with the same ideas about the industry," said Gill, adding that their focus is to "make sure the patient's always gonna be taken care of and covered."

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Shaw and MacKinnon met more than seven years ago at a weed testing laboratory in Framingham. They were were there for an industry event and have remained friends ever since.

At their favorite spot in Salem, MacKinnon said his activism has been informed by his older counterpart's wisdom and experience.

"I learn from Frank that when we talk about medical marijuana, there are really people out there that do need it," MacKinnon said.

Jeremiah MacKinnon and Frank Shaw on a stone bench overlooking Salem Harbor. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Jeremiah MacKinnon and Frank Shaw on a stone bench overlooking Salem Harbor. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

He and Shaw both use medical marijuana to treat health ailments. MacKinnon has scoliosis as a result of a car accident a few years ago and suffers from back pain. Shaw has been living with AIDS since the '90s and uses medical marijuana to treat the resulting peripheral neuropathy.

"And it just helps validate, for me, that marijuana is a medicine," MacKinnon said.

When asked what he's learned from his young friend, Shaw laughed.

"Is this supposed to be the older guy teaches the younger?" he asked. "Yeah, I don't know about that. We're just good friends."

After their smoke session, the two get into Shaw's old, white Jeep, with the younger MacKinnon at the wheel. They often drive it around the state to visit dispensaries like Sira Naturals, in Somerville, where they launched a program last year to offer a discount for people who are low-income and living with HIV.

"I started the Frank's Friends initiative to help patients that have AIDS like myself — we get discounts because we're in a hardship situation where we can't afford our medicine," Shaw said.

"The current hardship programs are usually 10 to 20% off," MacKinnon explained. "But Sira Naturals is the first one to partner with the Frank's Friends Initiative, and we hope to get many more across Massachusetts."

So far, six additional dispensaries have joined the Frank's Friends initiative. After their stop at Sira Naturals, the pair heads off again in the white Jeep, which MacKinnon said has been sustained by a GoFundMe campaign.

"And it's managed to keep the Jeep going," MacKinnon said, before helping Shaw in.

"Yep. Absolutely," Shaw concurred.

If the pair were medical marijuana caped crusaders, the white Jeep might be their Batmobile.

"I would say the Jeep is more like the Millennium Falcon [from 'Star Wars'] than the Batmobile," said Michael Latulippe, a mutual friend and Toasty Tuesday attendee. "Jeremiah, I think would be the Han Solo in this circumstance since he normally drives the Jeep. Frank's a little bit more like Chewbacca in that case."

MacKinnon, a Peabody resident, lives with family and earns money participating in focus groups and product surveys. Shaw, a retired software engineer, lives in an apartment in Ipswich with a live-in personal care assistant. But a lot of their time is spent together, on the roads of Massachusetts, championing medical marijuana policy.

Before the pandemic, they'd make frequent trips to the Massachusetts State House to testify before the Legislature. They've been pushing for lawmakers to get rid of vertical integration, an arcane rule that mandates medical marijuana shops grow their own cannabis; advocates say the requirement makes it harder to open up new shops and drives up the price of marijuana. Adult-use pot shops don't have the same requirement.

Most recently, they've created a program to translate medical cannabis literature into different languages to reach more potential patients.

While their advocacy keeps them busy, they find a calm refuge in each other. On the stone bench in Salem, MacKinnon and Shaw plan their next move, smoke some weed and kindle their friendship.

"Easier without wind," MacKinnon said, trying to light his joint in a gust, as Shaw coughs. "This is a beautiful waterfront scene. It's peaceful. There's really not anyone around."

"It's nice," Shaw said. "I enjoy it."

This segment aired on September 20, 2021.

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Quincy Walters Twitter Reporter
Quincy Walters is a general assignment reporter for WBUR.

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