‘Deafining’ Cannabis

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Imagine explaining the intricacies of growing cannabis by literally spelling out the industry’s specialized terminology. Or helping someone to purchase cannabis by spelling the name of every strain.

That’s been the experience, until recently, of hearing-impaired growers of medical marijuana and the wider population of deaf cannabis consumers. A small Southern Oregon farm, Home Grown ORegonicX, is developing sign language specific to cannabis, which its creators hope will one day become accepted parlance.

“Trying to find people to help and explain growing techniques to our deaf community is like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” says grower Lindsey Michels , who is hard of hearing. “Many people wouldn’t take the time needed with a group of deaf and hearing-impaired medical patients. Instead, we began to build it ourselves and learn from our experiences.”

Learning American Sign Language as a teenager helped Jared Panks participate with a deaf player on his hockey team. Panks says he understood some of the stigma because his grandfather was deaf. He also taught some signs and fingerspelling to members of his wildland firefighting crew to improve their cooperation under cacophonous conditions, such as operating chainsaws and close proximity to helicopters.

“People take their hearing for granted,” says Panks, 39.

Panks’ knowledge coincidentally opened lines of communication with his future wife and business partner, Angela. Both teenagers, they were wakeboarding with a youth group when Panks realized Angela couldn’t hear the group leader explaining how to ride the board behind the boat. Panks jumped into the water to interpret with fingerspelling.

“Having that language barrier basically cuts them off from the rest of the world,” says Panks.

The couple’s paths diverged for several years until Panks saw Angela’s Facebook profile and sent her a friend request. The Grants Pass natives both had family members whose medical issues — spinal injuries, cancer and dementia — could be improved with cannabis use.

Angela Panks, now 35, was diagnosed at age 13 with Usher Syndrome, a condition that causes deaf people to go blind. Believing that using cannabis has helped to slow her vision loss, Angela started growing under Oregon’s Medical Marijuana Program  in 2007, and Jared joined her in 2013.

“We decided that we were going to start growing to help our family,” says Jared Panks.

Needs of the close-knit deaf community soon helped the couple to redefine their mission. While 20 percent of people worldwide are hard of hearing, and 5 percent are deaf — a large demographic — American Sign Language has large gaps, says Panks. Cannabis is among the topics lacking context and content for people who sign, he says. To complicate matters even more, he adds, marijuana and its use has long been signed using slang, some of it derogatory and offensive to people who rely on it as medicine.

“Our deaf community, they still don’t have equal access to it,” says Panks. “There’s a higher purpose.”

Sharing a common purpose, the Panks and two deaf growers, Lindsey Michels and Brandy Easley, started scripting new scenes in American Sign Language to communicate the process, along with the plants’ attributes, on their one-acre Josephine County farm. They’re also forming a nonprofit organization to guide their work and provide a platform for grant funding and charitable contributions.

The group has so far identified signs for 50 cannabis-related terms, expressed on the farm and at industry events. The signs’ relevance derives from their development by people who understand both marijuana and the mechanics of signing, says Jared Panks. If arbitrarily assigned by experts in American Sign Language — but not in cannabis — the signs wouldn’t have nearly such depth of meaning, he says.

“They have to know what they’re talking about to come up with the terms,” he says. “It’s really important that it’s coming from the deaf community for the deaf community.

“It’s very poetic.”

“Hydroponic,” for example, is signed with a swimming fish that jumps and morphs into a plant, says Panks. “Cannabis” is signed by the letter “C” that outlines half of your heart.

“It’s love; it’s compassion; it’s caring,” says Panks. “That’s an appropriate sign to our group.”

The group attracts attention at numerous professional events and routinely makes new acquaintances — with and without hearing impairments — eager to learn more. While interpreting at an international industry conference four years ago, Jared met Tommy Chong, arguably marijuana’s most recognized personality with his own cannabis brands. Chong approached Home Grown ORegonicX about producing a video series of its sign language that could play in dispensaries, says Panks.

“Tommy’s also hard of hearing.”

Acting as innovators and advocates hasn’t cooled the Home Grown ORegonicX passion for farming. They grow 30 different cannabis strains per year and are cataloging their test results to better understand the effects of each strain, says Panks.

Representing six patients, Home Grown ORegonicX made a morally motivated decision to remain in Oregon’s medical milieu, says Panks. But its growers recently acquired 60 acres near Merlin with the long-term goal of operating a farm licensed for recreational sales where deaf people can obtain hands-on experience.

“Home Grown ORegonicX was built from scratch,” says Michels , a 37-year-old Gresham resident. “We compost our own soil, brew our own teas, built our own ecosystem and use natural forms of pest control like specific flowers.”

The farm has served on Josephine County’s cannabis advisory panel, and Angela Panks has been the first deaf judge at cannabis competitions, says Jared Panks. As Home Grown ORegonicX brings cannabis to new audiences, it’s also planting some seeds for social change.

“This is something deaf people can do,” says Panks. “People like us are needed in this industry.”

Connect with Home Grown ORegonicX on Facebook and Instagram.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.



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