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?

The legal setback didn't stem the groundswell of popular support for making marijuana available to seriously ill patients. Thousands of patients across the country were medicating themselves with a weed that grows wild just about anywhere and seemed good for what ailed them. A 1990 survey of oncologists found that 44 percent had already broken the law by suggesting to at least one patient that he obtain marijuana illegally. Public opinion polls in the early '90s repeatedly showed that between 60 to 80 percent of Americans supported making marijuana available for medicinal purposes.

By 1997, Day had cut his hair, become a successful barbecue caterer, and joined the drug-reform movement. He began the North Texas chapter of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, a Houston-based reform group, which sought to discuss alternatives to current drug policy including "regulation" of all drugs. Seeking to redefine the debate, the organization wanted drugs treated as a medical issue, not a criminal one.

"In the drug-reform movement, we rarely use the word 'legalize,'" Day says. "We call it the dreaded 'L' word because to be branded a 'legalizer' by the other side is to be dismissed as just another '60s pothead."

Longtime San Marcos activist Joe Ptak believes he may be the first defendant in Texas to raise the defense of medical necessity in a pot case, and win.
John Anderson
Longtime San Marcos activist Joe Ptak believes he may be the first defendant in Texas to raise the defense of medical necessity in a pot case, and win.

For Day, it seemed as though all of his years of repressed anti-drug war fervor could no longer be contained. In November 1998, he and a handful of protesters crashed an Arlington high school drug forum and engaged in a shouting match with a DEA agent and parents. In September 1999, when he marched on the capitol in Austin, it was Day at the bullhorn, taunting former Gov. Bush outside his mansion: "George! Twenty-five years ago you were just like us. We haven't changed; why have you? Why do you want to put our children in prison for things you did yourself?" The more academic Drug Policy Forum of Texas didn't embrace his confrontational tactics, and he became less involved with the organization. "I got tired of going on radio shows and hearing little old ladies ask me if I wanted to legalize crack," he says.

By August 2000, after Day became the executive director of the Texas chapter of NORML, he had stopped smoking pot. He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, and his doctors say it is slowly killing him. He has lost his appetite and more than 25 pounds. He thinks "cannabis therapy" might help, but as long as he is the head of an organization, he wants to speak from a position of strength, rather than be branded one of those hippie "legalizers."

Day says that as an activist, his "bottom line" focus has always been on the millions of people who get busted in this country "for choosing marijuana over alcohol or tobacco." For him, medical marijuana was just a side issue.

Not so much anymore.

Dr. Al Robison, the executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, is at once a drug warrior's worst nightmare and best weapon. His credentials are impeccable: distinguished professor of pharmacology at the University of Texas Heath Science Center in Houston and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, former chairman of the medical school's prestigious pharmacology department for two decades, first recipient of the National Academy of Science's award for scientific reviewing. Yet the executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas refuses to content himself with a possible drug-reform victory for medical marijuana in Texas. This tweedy academic is anything but an aging stoner. He is, however, one of those "legalizers" who drug warriors like to rail against.

Like many drug reformers, Robison came to the issue through marijuana. At Vanderbilt University in the late '60s, he participated in one of the first government studies to determine the toxicity of the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana (tetrahydrocannabinol). "THC is the only drug I have ever studied that no matter how much of it you inject into a mouse, you can't kill the mouse," Robison says. "It's now well-known to scientists that you can't kill anything with THC--it's one of the least toxic substances there is."

Of course, that doesn't mean that marijuana is a harmless herb. Apart from altering perception, "it can impair short-term memory, which is why it's not good for kids," Robison says. "Grades can suffer and everything seems funny--a big joke. And that's not a good attitude to have toward life."

Cannabis, however, is no more addictive than coffee or tea, he says. Because THC affects your psychomotor skills, it's a dangerous idea to drive a car or operate heavy machinery while stoned. The most well-documented harm that comes from smoking pot is lung damage--a possible increase in respiratory disorders and changes in cells that are potentially pre-cancerous. Recent clinical reports have raised concern about a higher incidence of throat and neck cancer in young marijuana users. "Any burning leaf is going to have these toxic carcinogens in it," Robison says. "No drug is completely safe. But there hasn't been a single reported case in the medical literature that attributes lung cancer to smoking marijuana."

The real harm from marijuana--or so the drug-reform mantra goes--is that it causes people to get arrested. Since 1970, there have been more than 12 million marijuana arrests (including sale, manufacture, and possession) in the United States.

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