Cannabis Activist Diane Fornbacher’s Journey

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PHOTO: Shutterboxx Photography/Toni Liu
Trigger warning: This article discusses childhood abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, murder, & suicide.

In a country where popular television programs receive more votes than national political elections, it seems like a miracle when anyone takes an interest in politics. How is it, then, that some people wind up caring so much about an issue that it becomes their career, their drive, their raison d’être? Some of the most passionate, compassionate,  and dedicated humans alive today work as activists, a job title that means nothing and everything at the same time.

So what is an activist, and how is one made? Activists are really just people who work in an intensive, professional capacity to bring about real change, generally by trying to change cultural perception and official policies at the same time.  People generally aren’t born activists, and they usually don’t inherit the lifestyle from their families (though it can be passed down and can even be spread within groups of friends). Instead, people are drawn to activism by the events they experience in their lives. Something within them demands that they must do all they can to right an injustice, to make the world a better place.

Such is the story of Diane Fornbacher, Ladybud Magazine‘s publisher and a board member of the NORML Women’s Alliance and national NORML.  From a humble beginning and through until now untold hardships, she has risen to be a prominent voice among those in this nation seeking to end the cruel injustice of the War on Drugs. Diane’s tale shows how a person from humble, average origins became a fearless voice for justice and legal reform in the United States.

The Early Years
Diane was born in Michigan at K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base (a now a decommissioned U.S. Air Force base in Marquette County, Michigan, southeast of the city of Marquette) to working-class parents. Her father worked for the Air Force, and he met and fell in love with her mother during his tour at Utapao Air Force Base, Thailand during the Vietnam War. As such, Diane and her brother suffered the common misfortunes of many military children in the United States: an overworked father, instability in terms of where the family could be living, and of course, very strict discipline both at home and school.

Diane Age 3

Diane, age 3, Miami, FL

Unfortunately, as all too often happens, the strain of the service lifestyle proved too much for her parents’ marriage. When she was in kindergarten, Diane’s father found out about her mother’s affair with their neighbor. He beat Diane’s mother on more than one occasion, sometimes with the children in the room. Diane’s entire life changed shortly after the affair was discovered. First, her parents spent more time apart from the children, leaving them both in the care of friends and sitters. During this time, Diane was sexually abused by two different caretakers. She was 4.

Her mother moved in with her lover next door to their old home, taking Diane and her brother along. Even early on, there were problems with the new “family.” A very young Diane, having been frustrated and ignored in her request to speak with her mother on the phone, struck out at her mother’s boyfriend, who Diane called “uncle” in Thai. He responded by throwing her across the kitchen. She slammed into the oven, hitting her forehead on the unforgiving handle. She ran outside crying, and soon her father, still living next door, found her.

When he heard the story, he got into a fight with “uncle,” a defense of his daughter which would later cause issues for him during the divorce. Her father went to live at the Air Force barracks soon after the altercation, no doubt finding it too painful to live next door to his two children, his estranged wife, and her lover. Shortly thereafter, he moved to the Philippines, where Diane would have very little contact with him for the rest of her young life.

Stranded without the father she loved as a child, Diane had no one to turn to when her “uncle” began abusing her physically and sexually, treating her in many ways the same as he did her mother. This man eventually became her stepfather. Diane was frightened to tell her mother, as victims of abuse often are. One day, she would learn that those fears were justified in her case.

Diane & Mom

“No matter how old you are, Diane, you will always be my baby.”

When Diane was thirteen and living on base housing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, her mother found out what was happening to Diane in their own home. In a rage, a desperation that only a betrayed parent can know, Diane’s mother struck out at the man who had hurt her and her daughter for years. She did what many parents claim they would if they discovered that someone was hurting their child: she fatally shot him three times with hollow point bullets. Tragically, she took her own life as well, leaving Diane and her brother to watch her abuser bleed to death on a neighbor’s front porch. No child should ever have to witness something so gruesome, and while Diane was now free of her abuser, she was also left without the mother who had loved her for her entire life.

The Cinderella Years
After a brief stay with her paternal aunt and uncle, Diane was placed with her father and his new wife. Life with her mother had been hell, but that had been because of her stepfather’s abuse. Diane’s mother, flawed though she had been, loved both her children deeply. Trapped in a house where everyone had a place but her, Diane couldn’t understand why no one there seemed to love her. Her stepmother at best treated her like a housemaid, and at worst made her feel like an untouchable living in a home full of elites.

Living in a house and caring for eight people after her father retired from the air force would be trying under the best of circumstances. Still, the family got by relatively well. Unfortunately, Diane’s stepmom was using the social security support checks for Diane’s living expenses to support her addiction to bingo. While the rest of the household was properly cared for, Diane was left to patch a life together from the scraps left behind.

Instead of being lovingly supported while she struggled to come to terms with what had happened to her and what her mother had done to save her, Diane was told that she was not allowed to cry. She was expected to cook, clean, and behave herself in school. While at school, she would slip away during the many  lunch periods when she had nothing to eat and hide in the library.

She read science fiction by author Piers Anthony for hours. She lost herself in the intricate cosmology of fantasy, in a world where good and bad were obvious, clear, and produced logical results. Although the books helped her cope with her terrible home situation, all they could do was postpone the inevitable.

It wasn’t even a year before Diane began climbing out her window, running away repeatedly and occasionally stealing some of her father’s heart medicines to attempt to end her life. Eventually, she was given the option of living in a group home when social services intervened. It should speak volumes about her home environment that Diane chose the group home over her father’s household. Although there was enough to eat there (for the most part), there was still the complete lack of affection and love.

diane grad

Graduation day with foster parents, Denny and Carole

The rest of Diane’s youth was an uphill struggle. Once a teen enters the system, people tend to write her off. Still, Diane struggled forward, wanting to make something of herself. As she approached her eighteenth birthday in foster care, she began planning to attend college at the nearby Penn State Altoona satellite campus. She lived with friends and their families, trying to make the best of her difficult situation.

Far too many young people like Diane are left floundering. Many don’t finish high school, let alone go on to college. Diane, however, perhaps inspired by her mother’s love, perhaps by the need to keep what had happened to her from happening to others, continued fighting, trying to better herself and her lot in life. The transition to college would change Diane’s life in ways she couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

The College Years
Like many cannabis enthusiasts and activists, Diane actually wasn’t a fan of cannabis the first time she tried it. When she was fourteen, her cousin from Boston was visiting her in central Pennsylvania, and the two of them smoked pot together with a friend. Diane got slightly dizzy and didn’t take to it. Although she smoked socially a few times in high school and once with her dad, cannabis wasn’t really part of her life in any meaningful way.

That changed when she was at college. After her roommate moved out, Diane fell into a deep funk. It was the kind of depression where the people around the sufferer eventually just give up on trying to reach out. She wouldn’t leave her room. She quit both of her jobs and stopped going to classes. After weeks of isolation and desolation, a friend slipped a joint under the door to her room with a note that it would help her. It was the note as much as the joint that helped; it made Diane feel less alone. She smoked the joint and it did help her feel better. She wrote pages of poems, cried, and released some of the pain she’d been holding for so long, and began to move forward with her life again.

Diane found a temporary calling in helping other students experiment safely with psychedelics and entheogens. She would stand by, ensuring their physical safety and facilitating a productive and positive experience. Eventually this, combined with her reputation for being willing to share her cannabis with those who were hurting, drew some unwanted attention.

Diane’s college career ended when she was busted for cannabis possession. As an extra kick in the ribs, she was also charged with “moral turpitude.” While she didn’t see any jail time as a result of the charges, the record of them has continued to haunt her for her entire adult life. It would cost her a job at a daycare where she loved working many years later. The charges mean, at least in the state of Pennsylvania, that Diane can not work in healthcare or education (barring a governor’s pardon). She also had her driver’s license suspended (even though she hadn’t yet obtained one) and was forced to undergo drug treatment therapy for cannabis. It seemed that college was not only where Diane found cannabis, but also where she paid a high price for her cannabis use.

Diane & Julian

Diane, Dr. Heicklen & his “torch of freedom” at one of the first cannabis demonstrations held at main gates of PSU. PHOTO: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Activist Years
It was also at college that Diane became a full-fledged cannabis activist. It was at the primary Penn State campus that she met Dr. Julian Heicklen. Heicklen is a well-known jury nullification activist, but when Diane first joined up with him, he was primarily a cannabis activist. Diane heard him speaking and knew she wanted to work with him immediately. The two of them got into all kinds of productive trouble together, including smoking cannabis publicly all over the place and getting arrested in 1999 on campus for using a bullhorn during a cannabis protest. Those charges were later thrown out by a judge for being unconstitutional.

During this time, Diane also joined NORML as a volunteer/member, wrote for High Times magazine, and was photographed as one of the most-clothed marijuana models ever featured in the magazine in a trippy shoot featuring her as Joan of Arc. She was also named High Times’ Freedom Fighter of the Month in January 1999.

diane high times

Diane as Joan of Arc with an ounce of psilocybin mushrooms as a prop. PHOTO: Dan Skye/Trans High Corporation

She wrote for a local entertainment weekly called Buzz, a Knight-Ridder funded publication, but was eventually fired for her liberal content. The entire staff quit in protest. She later helped found and write for the short-lived but much-loved Spite Magazine. Diane made a name for herself writing as “Honeybud Weedwhacker’, known for mouthing off against prohibition policies and not being afraid to talk about any substance a reader might have questions regarding.

It was shortly after all this excitement that Diane finally found the kind of love she hadn’t experienced since her mother’s death. She met her husband on the main campus of Penn State, and the two of them spent many happy years together, while Diane continued her work with activism and educating the masses about the benefits of cannabis.

diane liberty bell

Diane waiting for the Federal Park Police to respond after she gave them the Bill of Rights as a Free Speech Permit at the Liberty Bell in November 2000.

When Diane welcomed her first son into her life in 2003, she knew everything she had known was changing – and yet, strangely, things were much the same they had always been. Now, however, her activism and her cannabis use were even more dangerous to her and her new family. Like so many strong women before her, Diane refused to let ridiculously old, racist prohibition policies determine the course of her life. She continued to work behind the scenes, working on promotional events, providing a place to sleep for activists visiting for events, and working professionally in industrial film, modeling, and voiceover.  Then, after devoting herself to her children’s early development, she returned to frontline activism with redoubled energy and passion. This time, it was about making the world a better place for her children.

Diane in SKUNK Magazine

Diane as ‘Tokin’ Female’ in SKUNK Magazine’s 50th Issue
PHOTO: Kevin Loreaux Photography

At first she dabbled in working with traditional cannabis publications, but it became clear to Diane that something was missing from the editorial voice of the major magazines. Women were under-represented and women’s issues were non-existent in the cannabis legalization conversation. Diane decided to strike out on her own and create Ladybud, not as a competitor to High Times  or SKUNK (where she was the managing editor), but as a complimentary publication (like Jezebel is to Gawker).

With the support of her loving husband and many activists she has befriended over the years, Diane is determined to make her voice, and the collective voice of countless other women and mothers who use cannabis, heard. She refuses to let issues such as sexual abuse, PTSD, and parental rights take a back seat in the fight against prohibition.

Diane’s story is important for many reasons. It shows how a person can rise above the most horrific, impossible situations and become someone  willing to fight to save the world while retaining her compassion. It shows how cannabis prohibition hurts the most disadvantaged and broken members of our country. And it shows us all how a woman we have all come to know and respect rose from the ashes to become a real-life cannabis culture warrior. Diane is an activist whose passion for justice and compassion was born of her own suffering and struggles. It is her hope that others who have suffered the way she has will come to find relief, like she has found with cannabis. With people like Diane leading the charge to change the broken laws in this country, those countless others may someday have that chance.