ATLANTIC CITY - It was always just weed, grass or pot. No one ever called it marijuana when he was growing up in South Philly, and as far as Jeffrey Matteo knew, all it ever did was get you high, hungry and tired.
But decades later, as his mother, Josephine, fought and beat a round of lymphoma only to see it come back and ravage her some more, Matteo learned more about the plant and its medicinal powers. He persuaded his mother to try it, for the second time in her life, dipping a toothpick in hemp oil and putting it on her tongue, and it began to pry her and constant pain apart.
"I watched the chemo just bury her. It was making her sick," Matteo, 39, said yesterday in a hallway at Bally's Hotel & Casino. "She had nausea. She was bleeding out her nose. It took all that away."
Matteo, a painter who lives with his mother in the Packer Park section of South Philly, kept detailed logs of her hemp dosage and her progress, her seemingly implausible weight gain while fighting cancer.
Now a full believer, Matteo paid $1,000 to attend Oaksterdam University's four-day "cannabis grow seminar" at Bally's, and he spent most of yesterday in a windowless conference room away from the slot machines and poker tables and the sun-soaked Boardwalk and beach.
He heard detailed discussion of irrigation and ductwork, the proper pH to produce the most bountiful buds, and the most state-of-the-art lighting systems available to soak burgeoning marijuana plants with artificial sunlight.
It was perhaps a tad more than Matteo needed to know, he admitted, but he sat in the front row, jotting down notes and trying to keep an Oaksterdam instructor's words from going too far over his head. "I'm up there in the first row 'cause I don't want to miss a thing," he said during a break. "I'm blown away."
Oaksterdam, based in Oakland, Calif., maintained a legitimate college feel despite being in a casino, and Joey Ereneta was a seasoned professor, moving on when time ran short and answering dozens of questions from eager students.
"Any other questions about clay pellets?" Ereneta asked before discussing soil.
None of what the 75 students were learning yesterday could be put to use, legally, in Pennsylvania. In New Jersey, growing cannabis is allowed at a few licensed medical-marijuana operations.
Pennsylvania recently began to discuss medical-marijuana legislation, advocates say. Meanwhile, New Jersey's medical marijuana is supposed to be available.
"The medical-marijuana industry in New Jersey fluctuates between dysfunction and total failure to meet the needs of the vast majority of patients in the state who could benefit from marijuana therapy," said Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey.
Matteo said he used to buy a product called "Rick Simpson's Oil" for his mother, often getting ripped off on the Internet by shady websites. Sometimes he makes his own oil, and that's why he didn't want a photo of himself to appear with this story.
"The doctor said, 'Whatever you're doing, keep doing it. She gained 30 pounds and none of the other patients have gained any weight,' " he said.
Matteo said other family members also have used marijuana to ease their pain. He's turning the corner on a personal struggle thanks to it, too.
He inched closer as he talked, his voice growing more hushed as he walked farther from a classroom of like-minded individuals and into a world where people may think he's breaking the law.
"I mean, they make you feel like a criminal for this. We're not getting high. My mother doesn't get high. She's deathly afraid of getting high and having a bad trip," he said. "I won't get my mother high."