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Island tale of love and caring turns bittersweet

Paul Jackson with all that’s left of a marijuana plant seized from the garden of his home on Martha’s Vineyard.Kevin Cullen/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

EDGARTOWN — There is another Martha’s Vineyard.

It is an island inhabited not by the rich and the famous. It is a place that people like Paul and Mary Jackson call home, where they grow and harvest from the land and the sea everything they eat.

The Jacksons lived off the land for the more than half-century they were married. The only meat they ate came from the deer Paul shot with a crossbow. They went to the supermarket for bread, paper towels, toilet paper, and the occasional six-pack.

Everything else came from the sea and the gardens that surround their house, two acres of fertile land tucked off Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.


Mary made hooked rugs. Carly Simon bought one for $3,000 and, after paying for it, she came by to pick it up. Mary said she didn’t know where it was but she had another one she was willing to sell.

“Mary was kidding,” Paul Jackson said. “Carly laughed.”

When her son-in-law was diagnosed with cancer almost 40 years ago, Mary took care of him. He had to go to the mainland for his chemo, and when he came back on the ferry, Mary would tend to him while Paul was busy in the garden.

“Mary had to keep changing the sheets because he was sweating so much,” Paul Jackson recalled, sitting on his couch. “All those chemicals swimming around in him, it wasn’t good.”

Paul Jackson doesn’t like chemicals. He’s an organic farmer, and when his son-in-law got sick from chemicals, they decided to try something more natural. Mary gave their son-in-law marijuana, and his sweats, his nausea, his overall miserable existence disappeared.

Ever since then, Paul has kept a small number of marijuana plants on his land, just in case.

When Mary was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer seven years ago, Paul Jackson put aside the morphine that a doctor had prescribed. He didn’t want a zombie. He wanted Mary. He brewed a tea infused with the organic marijuana he grew and gave it to Mary.


Mary lived only six more months, but they were good months.

“She was never in pain,” Paul Jackson said. “She had good days. She could eat. We could talk. We’d sit there and have meals together and we’d talk and we’d laugh. I was with that woman for 60 years, and there was no way I was going to let her be in pain.”

The Jacksons and Martha’s Vineyard go back centuries. Long before it became a vacation spot for presidents and the great and the good, the Vineyard was home to Jacksons.

Paul’s grandfather Levi Jackson was a legend. When, in 1910, a six-masted schooner, the Mertie B. Crowley, broke apart on the Wasque shoals off Chappaquiddick, Levi Jackson managed to steer his fishing boat close enough so that his crewmen could rescue the 15 people on board. Jackson and his crew received Carnegie Medals for their heroism, one of the great maritime rescues of all time.

Islanders, people who live on the Vineyard year-round, especially those whose families go back generations, look out for one another. After Mary died, news about the marijuana tea that Paul gave her spread on a network that has nothing to do with the Internet or social media.

“People have come to me,” Paul Jackson said. “There’s a fellow down the road, his daughter came to me while I was walking the dog. She says, ‘Can you help my dad like you did Mary?’ He had cancer in the stomach. I gave him the tea, and it worked. I gave it to a guy I know whose wife had cancer. Her pain went away.”


Jackson kept just a handful of plants. He fed them with the juice from the shells of the scallops he and Mary harvested together. He got one plant up to 14 feet. He perfected a method of sealing the marijuana in a bag so it would last for years. He wanted to keep some around just in case he needed it, and he did, when he developed cancer in his ears. More often, he handed it out to other islanders who got sick.

“I never smoked it,” Jackson said. “I never sold it. I gave it to people who were sick. All I ever wanted to do is alleviate people’s pain.”

A few weeks ago, Jackson heard the dull thumping of a helicopter overhead. The airport’s not that far away, so it wasn’t unusual. But this helicopter hovered too long. Not long after that, a group of stern men emerged from the woods surrounding his land.

His friend, Ellen O’Brien, could tell just by looking at them they were cops. She didn’t go outside.

“I didn’t want to say the wrong thing,” she said.

Paul Jackson did go outside.

“They wouldn’t say who they were,” he said. “They just started cutting down the plants.”


Paul Jackson hurried inside and pulled a framed article off his bedroom wall. It was a story published in the Martha’s Vineyard Times three years ago, about him and Mary. The headline read, “Love, Life and Death: A Martha’s Vineyard Marijuana Story.”

Paul Jackson waved the framed story at the cops, begging them to read it.

“I figured if they read the story, if they knew about Mary, they’d understand and they’d leave me alone,” he said. “But they wouldn’t read it.”

David Procopio, a spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, said 392 marijuana plants were seized from properties across Martha’s Vineyard, including Jackson’s, during a two-day operation. He said it’s illegal to grow marijuana outside.

“Of course we are sympathetic to people who use medical marijuana responsibly, or whose loved ones do, to ease pain brought on by illness or disease,” he said. “Mr. Jackson’s love and care for his wife and his compassion to his fellow islanders is worthy of admiration. But whatever discretion we have is in the decision whether to charge. The law makes no distinction about the illegality of growing your own marijuana, whatever the purpose, and we have no choice but to take the plants.”

Paul Jackson will turn 82 next month, but as long as he lives, he will never understand what was accomplished by cutting down his four marijuana plants.

The other day, he was staring out his window, about to go back into the blazing sun to tend to his vegetables, when Ellen O’Brien lamented something lost.


“It was always live and let live on the island,” she said. “Not anymore.”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.