Joint Effort

"Aging hippies" team with the desperately ill and one lawmaker to fight for medical marijuana in Texas. Is that just a smoke screen?

When McMahon moved to Lake Palestine in 1998 to be closer to his elderly mother, he immediately joined the campaign for medical marijuana in Texas, such as it was. In this legislative session, Republican State Rep. Terry Keel, a former prosecutor and sheriff in Travis County, has surprisingly sponsored a bill that recognizes medical necessity as a legal defense to a charge of marijuana possession.

The most ardent supporters of medical marijuana insist theirs is a one-issue cause, which must not be confused with marijuana legalization. Their appeal is one of compassion: To deny the seriously ill medicine, which might alleviate their pain, seems as hypocritical as it does inhumane.

Yet the federal government, many social and religious conservatives, and those who think the drug war is worth waging are mounting a backlash. These drug warriors--the soldiers in the war on drugs--dispute the medical efficacy of marijuana; they claim it is harmful, even addictive. They worry that legalizing marijuana, even for medical purposes, is sending a mixed message to teen-agers. They call on parents once again to rise up in defense of their children, just like they did in the Nixon and Reagan years. Theirs is a moral crusade, the same cultural war they have been fighting since the '60s. Scratch below the surface of a medical marijuana activist, they say, and you'll find an aging hippie. Someone who is anti-establishment and anti-government, someone who considers the drug war as unwinnable as the Vietnam War, someone who has found himself a sympathetic issue to get across his hidden agenda: legalization of some or all street drugs.

George McMahon's prescription for pot calls for him to smoke up to 10 marijuana cigarettes a day.
Stephen P. Karlisch
George McMahon's prescription for pot calls for him to smoke up to 10 marijuana cigarettes a day.
By 1997, Rick Day had cut his hair and lost his status as an aging hippie. He is currently the executive director of Texas NORML.
Stephen P. Karlisch
By 1997, Rick Day had cut his hair and lost his status as an aging hippie. He is currently the executive director of Texas NORML.

The truth is, these drug warriors are dead wrong: The agenda for many drug reformers isn't that hidden at all.


It may just be a coincidence that the February meeting of the Texas NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) is being held at a North Dallas all-you-can-eat pizza joint, but it's a humorous bit of chance that is lost on Rick Day, the state chapter's executive director. Day is just too damn busy getting his chapter jump-started again after decades of having no presence in this state. He needs marchers and letter-writers, boycotters and Web designers, those who are willing to put themselves in harm's way if necessary.

Marijuana activists were caught by surprise when Keel introduced his medical marijuana bill in January. "It's one of the few times I can remember when the politicians were ahead of the people," says Day, a genial guy who towers at 6 feet 8 inches. "We didn't expect a sudden burst of sanity coming from the Texas Legislature, at least not in this session." Activists didn't even know if they could trust Keel, much less support him--a "dedicated drug warrior" himself. Still, medical marijuana has been on the agenda of national NORML almost since its inception in 1971--along with legalization of marijuana for all pot consumers. Another bill before the Texas Legislature this session deals with decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana to a Class C misdemeanor--essentially a traffic ticket--and Day has no intention of neglecting one bill at the expense of the other.

He asks the 30 or so members who have heeded his call to arms to pretend they are holding a wooden match, and in the time it takes for the flame to go out, to explain just what motivated them to attend tonight.

Howard, a retired Michigan police detective wearing a T-shirt that says, "Ask Me Why Cops Say Legalize Pot," says, "I am sick and tired of wasting valuable police resources on something that shouldn't be a criminal problem in the first place."

Lisa, who wears her hair pink, which can't help but attract law enforcement attention, says, "I am tired of seeing my friends getting busted for what is essentially a lifestyle choice."

"My name is Ann, and I am bulimic, and the only way I can eat is with pot."

"My name is Jeff, and I am motivated by a hatred for the drug war. Also I want to be able to smoke a big fat one and not worry about the police."

A man in his mid-50s, Bob, seems to have trouble limiting his reasons. "The drug war is racist. Three-fourths of the people who go to jail are black...We need to get government off our backs.... Medical marijuana is a private matter between a doctor and his patient."

When the eclectic group turns its attention back to its leader, Day, his comments are brief: "I have a daughter 24, a son 17, and two grandchildren," he says. "I am in this war because of them."

No way he could tell his story in the length of time it took to burn a match. "Mine was a 25-year affair with marijuana," he says later. He was a tobacco smoker, a beer drinker, and "in 1976, I bought my first bag for $10." He felt disillusioned at the time, unhappy in marriage, living in Mesquite. Why not try it? "It was the Carter years, and everyone thought marijuana was about to be decriminalized anyway."

Gone were the days when marijuana was demonized as the "devil weed" by moralizing government types like Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger. Even though cannabis was widely used by doctors as medicine, his successful campaign to outlaw marijuana in the 1930s appealed strongly to racial prejudice. He told Congress that marijuana caused its users to murder and go insane; also it made "colored students" gain the sympathy of "female students [white]"--with pregnancy the result.

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