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"Today is a bad day because of the weather," he says, his voice resounding with sandpaper huskiness. "I am having spasms on my left side, and I am feeling a little nauseous."
McMahon remains cheery but grows uncomfortable in his chair, repositioning himself as he reaches for his medicine. "Do you mind if I smoke?" he asks, hanging a rolled joint between his lips and bringing a lighter to his face. He waits for the go-ahead and then proceeds to inhale, but not the deep-in-your-lungs, hold-it-till-your-eyes-bug toke of a recreational pot user. He draws in short, shallow drags, more akin to a tobacco smoker. To do otherwise might increase the risk of lung damage, particularly since he smokes 10 joints a day.
As the cloyingly sweet smell of marijuana permeates his living room, McMahon can feel the pot's effects--a tingling rush, a mild euphoria, though he doesn't turn giddy or profound or race to the refrigerator, a victim of a compulsive case of the munchies. He also has none of the paranoia of some long-term users, no fear that the feds are going to bust down his door and cart him off to jail for simple possession. That's because the United States government has been his supplier--his dealer, as strange as it sounds--for the past 11 years.
McMahon is one of eight remaining patients in the federal government's "compassionate use" program, which provides marijuana for medicinal purposes, free of charge. The cannabis comes from the government's pot farm at the University of Mississippi, which at one time supplied as many as 15 patients for ailments ranging from glaucoma to multiple sclerosis to rare genetic disorders like McMahon's. Some found it eased the nausea from chemotherapy, some used it to enhance their appetite when wasting away from AIDS, and others discovered it reduced muscular spasms or intractable pain. But the Bush administration closed the program in 1992, fearful in part that AIDS patients would overrun the program. The government, however, was compassionate enough to continue to supply those like McMahon who had already been approved.
On the table beside him sits a large tin can freshly packed with 300 cigarettes of the government's low-grade red Mexican sativa. Typed across the can is his IND (investigational new drug) number and what essentially amounts to prescription for his illness: "Smoke up to 10 cigarettes a day."
It's only lunchtime and McMahon is smoking his fourth dose of the day. He holds the joint between his fingers, which offer the first indication of his rare genetic disorder: Nail Patella Syndrome. He has few nail beds, and those nails that he can grow are fractured and chipped. His elbows and knees are deformed, his bones a brittle bag of pain. His illness went undiagnosed until he was 38, and before that, he overcompensated physically--digging ditches, riding motorcycles, breaking horses and bones, often with twig-snapping ease. It took 19 surgeries, a battle with tuberculosis, and near-death reactions to numerous prescription drugs before he realized that only smoked marijuana made him comfortable in his own skin. In 1988, an Iowa doctor agreed with him, and after two years of dealing with the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, McMahon was finally approved for medical marijuana.
Although the life expectancy for those afflicted with Nail Patella Syndrome is around 40 (McMahon turned 50 in July), he couldn't content himself to live in relative seclusion, ameliorating his anguish with his chosen drug. "I never decided that I was going to be a spokesman for this issue," he says, "but I never had any choice."
In 1991, he and his wife, Margaret, began traveling the country in a motor home, speaking at colleges and statehouses, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, any place where they could gather a crowd. McMahon presented himself as living proof: Not only did marijuana have therapeutic value, but the federal government essentially admitted as much by supplying him with the very pot it so railed against in its virulent drug war.
He became part of a grassroots movement for medical marijuana, a proposal that gained legitimacy in 1996 after voters in California passed a medical marijuana ballot initiative despite continuing federal intransigence and litigation. Armed with a 5,000-year history of medicinal use, strong scientific evidence showing the therapeutic benefits of marijuana, and more than 60 years of government distortion regarding its harm, the movement began as a ragtag rebellion of patients and doctors, stoners and straights, academics and libertarians. Political operatives and wealthy businessmen have since taken up the cause, organizing support in the eight states that have adopted medical marijuana laws.