Burn Victim John Richardson Turned to Medicinal Marijuana to Help Him Live

Activists at a Lake Forest rally in 2009

Who are you, and how did you get to using cannabis?

 My name is John Richards, and I’m 35 years old. I was born in Fullerton, in 1982, but I grew up in Whittier. When I was in 7th grade I met my best friend who got me into the world of skateboarding. I was introduced to a bunch of new guys, most of them are still my friends. My friend Stevie was the one who talked my dad out of sending me to Servite [and] sending me to Lucerne High School with him in Whittier.


My friend’s parents and grandparents had a place along the Colorado River on the California side, near Blythe. It was Memorial Day Weekend in 2001, and I just finished my first semester at Fullerton College. I took the weekend off to go party with my friends at the river. It was a group of us: myself, Steve, both his grandparents and a bunch of our friends.


We were just having a normal, good time. Stevie passed out a little bit earlier than usual that night; and when he passes out he’s out. He’s a big guy, like around 6 foot 2 and 280 lbs, and snores loud. When you hear him snoring, you know he’s out cold. So I knew he was out.


Before we left with his grandfather to go to the boat drags the next day, we drew on our friend with a sharpie because he was still out. But when we got back, his grandpa sat down on a bench and we were about to eat, and as soon as I sat down people started screaming, “Barry, your kitchen is on fire!”


I turn to look over my shoulder and saw the front of the trailer home and the kitchen fire. It was a panic. There were a lot of people there running around.


I ran through the crowd of people and into the trailer home—I couldn’t stop thinking about Stevie. I knew there was just no way he was getting up. He never got up even when we tried to get him off the bathroom floor. So I ran through the kitchen, which is where the majority of the fire was at the time—the curtains and the cabinets were in flames. And kitchen fires don’t do well in trailer homes. I ran through straight to the back room where he was. I ran and woke him up in a panic. I was shaking him and he could tell by my voice. He popped right up.


In between those seconds of me running in and waking him up, people were breaking windows to help us, but someone threw a wooden chair through the sliding glass door, which unfortunately fueled the fire. The trailer was completely engulfed. I recall seeing it come at us in a spiral motion. I had my hands on his back and gave him a push… I remember coming out the door first with Stevie behind me.


A big percentage between how much we were burned was I was wearing a T-shirt and he wasn’t. I could see people’s faces when I was running out; the back of my shirt was on fire. People had hoses and put water on the dirt and I rolled in it.


Oh man. I was 19 years old at the time. I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve surfed in Fiji, I’ve traveled and done some pretty intense stuff, so I’ve felt adrenaline. But when I got up after I stop, dropped and rolled the adrenaline was roaring. There is no other word to describe it… I was calm the whole time, though.


It took 45 minutes for an ambulance to get there and another 45 minutes back. It was in the ambulance that I started to panic. I heard the driver say something along the lines of, “These guys are in critical condition. You better get ready or these guys are going to die.”


My friend started yelling. They stuck a needle in my arm and began shooting me up with morphine. The last thing I remember is the EMT cutting off my favorite board shorts that have been with me all over the world. I was pissed.


Did you feel anything at the time?

No. I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t know the severity or feel the pain. I was in complete shock. I didn’t know anything until I woke up, three and a half weeks later after being in coma from how badly I was burned.


But when we got the hospital finally after flying us to Palm Spring and then driving us to a hospital, the doctors didn’t even want to work on us. They thought there was no hope and that we were basically dead already.


What happened when you woke up?

Coma was a series of dreams, then this in-between state where you’re awake but hallucinating. I finally came to and saw my mom sitting next to me on the chair. I asked her what happened, and she told me I got burned. Apparently Stevie and I had the exact same response: “Is my dick okay?”




It was a lot easier in the hospital than it was once I got out. It went from medical professionals and really strong drugs to a bottle of Vicodin to, “Alright, your family’s taking care of you now. Good luck.” Although I was happy to be in my own bed, I literally had to peel myself off of my bed every morning. I had to wear a shirt to bed and then go in the shower every morning because it was easier letting the water peel it off me, than me take it off.


Why do you use medical marijuana?

When you get burned you begin to itch during the healing process. Your nerves are repairing and the itch will drive you crazy—it’s really painful. The medical professionals gave me the tip that medical marijuana was one of the only things that worked. There are other meds that kind of work, but medical marijuana is one of the only things that really, really work. And it’s absolutely true: cannabis is the only things that will take away that itching and nerve pain. So I started smoking it and was one of the first people to get a medical marijuana license.


You used to have to go to San Diego to get your license and then go to a yellow house to get your meds. It led me to become an advocate, and I was a patient volunteer to work at one of the first collectives as a managers. I’ve been a patient volunteer for most of my adult life, and I’ve loved it. I love helping people.


Do you have nerve pain every day?

The pain comes and goes. When I wake up in the morning, it’s usually the worst. But smoking cannabis still helps with the nerve pain, and I don’t think that’ll ever stop. But I’ve become so adjusted to it that there’s pain I don’t even notice anymore. My feet are numb all the time. The doctors told me I’d never surf again—but this last January I was surfing down the line. Cannabis helps with everything; all the pain. It’s a part of who I am. It’s helped me get here today. Without it, I wouldn’t have made it this far.

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