Cannabis in PA

Why the brain behind ‘Pizza Brain’ moved to California

Going public with the story of treating his infant son’s cancer with marijuana left him with few other options.

Brian Dwyer and his son Waldo

Brian Dwyer and his son Waldo

Facebook / Brian James Dwyer

Brian Dwyer first became known in Philly for being the literal “brain” behind Pizza Brain, the Frankford Avenue pizzeria that’s also the world’s first pizza museum. But last spring he made news in a different way: By going public about how he and his wife had been treating their infant son Waldo — who was diagnosed with cancer at 6 months old — with cannabis oil. And how it had been extremely successful. So successful that Dwyer was determined to spread the good word about medical marijuana by making a documentary about his son’s journey.

He launched a crowdfunding campaign, and raised $9,700 for “Waldo on Weed.” But then Dwyer discovered there was a downside. Some of the closest people in his life cut him out, and many family and business relations became strained. Plus, medical marijuana, while recently legalized in Pennsylvania, is far from being implemented, and without help or a financial safety net, obtaining the cannabis oil for 2-year-old Waldo became harder and harder.

By the end of summer, the only option that made sense was to get on a plane and head to California.

Facebook / Brian James Dwyer

“So, what’re you and your family doing,” I asked the short woman with the close-cropped haircut sitting across from me on the plane. “Why are you traveling across the country to San Francisco?”

We had just taken off, and were approaching cruising altitude. Everybody was putting on their headphones and opening up their laptops and tablets and various other screens, adjusting their turreted personal air holes, tuning out. I had better things to do, like sit there, dumbfounded, full of questions, blankly tearing out pages of a SkyMall catalog and folding them in such a way as to temporarily block out the bright blue screen mounted to the back of the seat in front of me.

I couldn’t believe it. We had made it onto the plane. We were going through with it, consequences and credit card bills be damned.

“Nothing too exciting, I guess,” the short-haired woman said, politely smiling. “Just a wedding for some college friends. Honestly, I can’t believe we agreed to this. I mean, we’ve got two kids…” She nudged her husband sitting in the seat beside her. He smiled without looking up. “Plus we both have full-time jobs. And, god, school is starting next week, and…” She motioned to her five year old daughter, who was staring into her dad’s laptop, watching a Disney movie.

“Woo! It’s just a lot right now. But” — she rolled her eyes — “we’re making the best of it. We’ll get a long weekend in, at least.” She looked down at her other daughter, this one much younger. She made a face like she’d just sucked on a lemon and stuck out her pierced tongue at her baby, inciting joy.

“But, what am I saying?” she continued. “I know it’ll be fun. I’m sure we’ll just…yeah…UH. Sorry. It’s hard raising a family these days, you know? It’s hard being a parent.” She rolled her eyes again and cartoonishly shrugged her shoulders, as if I knew exactly what she was talking about.

I did. Creating a human and raising it while holding down a job — a life! — that didn’t demand a blood sacrifice of the best parts of your soul was a lot harder than people let on.

A lot harder. How anybody pulled it off without significant assistance from friends, family, or government, how anybody parented more than one child without, more or less, disappearing into domestic responsibility-land, how anybody did anything, really, to sustain themselves and keep the whole show going, was beyond me. I could barely keep up, save up, or hold onto money in any discernible way, and I had it better than most. I had my health. I had food to eat for the week. I had a car. I had access to WiFi. I was living in America.

“Whatta you expect?! This is late-stage capitalism, for ya!” she said with guttural authority, fidgeting with the infant strapped to her chest while cramming a nipple into its gaping but smiling mouth. “We’ve got everything a human could ever want, and it’s not enough!” She laughed.

“America’s eating itself, if you ask me. And it’s choking,” she said, stroking her baby’s hair.

Damn, I thought to myself. Late stage capitalism? Definitely not a phrase I was used to hearing during the opening remarks of casual flight-time small talk, or anytime, really, unless of course I was smoking weed on the kitchen floor with uncle Dango.

Fair enough, I decided: This is the state of things in 2016. America was changing. The time for small talk, it seemed, was running out; a thing people were growing tired of. Speaking this openly about how weird it felt to do *anything* in America was not only passable airplane conversation between perfect strangers — it was essential.

“Enough about me,” she said. “It’s great to share the back row with another family!”

“Yeah, for sure,” I said. “Right next to the ol’ toilets.”

Just then, a toilet flushed. The thundering, high-pitched sucking sound of waste being sucked through tubes, followed by the wafting of chemical cleaners and nervous airplane farts. We both laughed.

“I’m serious, though,” I said enthusiastically. “Back here, we can be as rowdy as we want. We — er, I mean — our kids can yell and scream, stand on the seats, go apeshit, do whatever they want! Nobody expects any different from us back here!”

She nodded earnestly, nipples out, shifting her weight, patting her youngest daughter on the butt. “The name’s Ray, by the way,” she said. “Nice to meet you. And you are…?”

“Same,” I said. “I mean, name’s BJ. But yeah. Same — nice to meet you. A pleasure to share the back row.”

“Hell yeah. The family section,” said Ray. Her breast-feeding child looked over at me, laughed with her mother’s nipple still inside her mouth, and farted. Cute kid, I thought to myself. Bad ass mom.

“And what about you?” she asked, distracted but sincere. “What calls you guys out to the Bay?”

“Oh. Us?” I motioned to the two kids sitting next to me, one 34 and one two — Danielle and Waldo. They were giggling, poking each other, singing songs, hunting through a giant reusable carry-on grocery bag in search of beef jerky and cheese sticks. They were in their happy place, which, the more I got to know them, was just about everywhere they went.

“Sorry what was your question, again?” I asked Ray, preoccupied by the promise of bougie jerky and cheese.

“I was asking, why’re you guys traveling out west?” she repeated.

“Oh yeah…Hm.” I stopped myself from answering too hastily. “That’s a great question…”

It was in this moment that I realized, I didn’t exactly know.

To my continued dismay, I had not yet mastered the art of talking about what I or my family were currently up to in passive conversation without sounding, well…borderline certifiable. I was trying to find the words. I’d been trying to find the words ever since April, when Danielle and I decided to go public with Waldo’s cancer journey, letting anyone and everyone know that, undeniably, weed saved his life. And has saved thousands, millions more.

It was hard to know what to make of it, or what to do with the energy behind our story, most days. It was even harder to explain it to people without overwhelming myself, or coming on too strong; which, of course, I had to find out the old-fashioned way: through trial and error. Mostly, error.

It had been a funny summer, no doubt. Funny ‘ha-ha’ and, also, just, *funny*, as in, peculiarly shaped and scented. Everything I knew, or thought I knew — about friendship, about parenting, about family, about medicine, about weed, about death, about dreams, about being human, about life — had changed… including myself and my modus operandi.

My parents had stopped talking to me. I’d lost some of my closest friends (some by choice and some by mistake). I’d lost my sense of stability. I’d given up worrying about my reputation. I no longer had a cell phone. I had holes in my shoes, pants and underwear. My business partners and I were no longer speaking. I’d lost a lot of things. I was broke. There were hospital bills to stay on top of. I was living with my mother-in-law, taking whatever odd jobs could float the grocery bills. I was feeling, without doubt, rather sparse.

But despite all this, I felt deep down behind my lungs that this was exactly, precisely, absolutely where I was supposed to be at the moment: On a plane with my wife and kid, heading west on one way tickets to Northern California…where the trees were red and the grass was legal…where there might be work for us, or answers, somewhere, living on a pot farm, sleeping in a tent.

I had no idea when we’d be coming back. Or where we were going, exactly. All I knew was, we were on our way.

Want some more? Explore other Cannabis in PA stories.

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Brian Dwyer