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?

That's what caused Robison to question drug policy when he was on the admissions committee at UT. "Marijuana was still a felony here in 1972," he says. "Students couldn't get into medical school and were being given long prison sentences for something I knew was relatively safe."

In 1995, Robison, now retired, and Houston businessman Jerry Epstein began the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, which currently numbers more than 1,000 members statewide. The stated mission of the forum is a high-minded one: to spark intellectual debate for the reform of our current drug policy. Although Robison and his members speak at meetings and conferences across the state, they have been unsuccessful at finding anyone willing to defend our current drug policies in a debate. "The feds don't want to discuss it. They have refused to debate us," Robison says. "That way, they can stifle all meaningful discourse."

Last year, as something of a publicity stunt, the forum offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who would "argue in favor of punishing possession of small amounts of drugs." No one has yet to collect the reward.

George McMahon is one of eight medical marijuana patients who get their pot straight from the federal government. He is also an honorary member of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, the California marijuana pharmacy that is being sued by the federal government for distributing pot to its card-carrying patients. (The co-op misspelled McMahon's name.)
Stephen P. Karlisch
George McMahon is one of eight medical marijuana patients who get their pot straight from the federal government. He is also an honorary member of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, the California marijuana pharmacy that is being sued by the federal government for distributing pot to its card-carrying patients. (The co-op misspelled McMahon's name.)

Of course, that hasn't stopped Robison from pushing his organization to advocate an end to all drug prohibition.

"Our drug war has created the biggest black market in the history of man," he explains. He blames untaxed black market billions, not drugs, for spawning violence and corrupting everything it touches--users, businessmen, cops. "The drug war fills our jails, and drugs are easier to get, cheaper, and purer than ever. There is no way to win this goddamn war."

Perhaps naïvely, Robison envisions a world where marijuana would be taxed and government-regulated in an adults-only quality-controlled marketplace, something akin to the wine industry. In this world, he wouldn't legalize heroin, he would "medicalize" it, treating addicts by sending them through needle exchange, methadone, or heroin maintenance programs (the government supplying the heroin). The enormous savings from failed interdiction and law enforcement efforts would be diverted to meaningful drug treatment and education. "Once you reduce the harm the drug war has caused, " he says. "You can focus on the harm the drugs themselves cause."

That kind of talk makes drug warriors like retired army Lt. Col. Bob Maginnis salivate. An adviser to the conservative Family Research Council, Maginnis says he is on a short list for the position of "drug czar" in the Bush administration. "We have never fought a serious drug war in this country," he argues. "If we want to get serious about drugs, we must enforce the laws that are on the books." He believes that drug use among teen-agers is on the rise, in part, because of a trend in many states toward more "liberal drug laws."

Ironically, Maginnis also has to battle a cadre of Reagan Republicans that has shocked the conservative movement by voicing their own objections to the drug war. National Review editor-at-large William F. Buckley Jr., economist Milton Friedman, and former Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz have publicly branded the drug war as an abysmal failure: Too costly (nearly $17.7 billion in 1999), too oppressive (our civil liberties--privacy, due process--have been sacrificed, 400,000 prisoners were behind bars for drug offenses in 1998), and too ineffective (a 1999 survey reported that 87.7 million Americans age 12 or over have used an illicit drug at least once).

In 1993, 50 senior federal judges (from both political parties) refused to take new drug cases, a protest against the mandatory-minimum sentences, which has helped ignite a prison population explosion. Wealthy businessmen such as global financier George Soros, Peter Lewis, CEO of Progressive Insurance, and several Microsoft millionaires began pouring money into what appeared to be the beginnings of a bona fide drug-reform movement. They have helped fund some of the 40 drug-reform organizations across the nation (including the Drug Policy Forum of Texas), most with their own Web site and e-mail following, which makes activism less costly and more immediate.

Much of this activism has been centered on medical marijuana--which until recently, Robison had considered a peripheral issue. "No doubt it would be a terrific boon to those patients who need it," he says. "But it would be a setback to the drug-reform movement in general." Robison fears that legalizing medical marijuana would remove much of the support that the drug-reform movement has received of late. Lose the sympathy vote, and that leaves you with those who want to legalize drugs for recreational use and those who want to medicalize them for addicts. Either one is a much harder sell. At the same time, Robison realizes that the medical marijuana issue is a baby step that permits people to comfortably debate current drug policy.

"It's become a major flash point," says Dr. Harvey Ginsburg, a psychology professor at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos and medical marijuana activist. "It brings home so profoundly the intolerance of zero tolerance."

Which may be exactly why drug warriors are fighting it so hard.


Joe Ptak has good reason to fear the San Marcos police department. Busted twice for possession of marijuana, he continues to smoke pot when necessary for a birth defect that leaves him lethargic and short of breath. He has been the informal spokesman for a helter-skelter group of marijuana activists who once turned this sleepy Hill Country town into a hotbed of civil disobedience. In 1991, he was one of the "San Marcos 7": a protest in which one person a day for seven days walked into the Hays County Jail smoking a joint and asking to be arrested.

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