By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"The constitutionality of the California initiative is not an issue," argues Robert Raich, one of the cooperative's attorneys. "The Supreme Court will only be ruling on whether medical necessity is a valid defense to the distribution of marijuana under federal law." Either way, Raich says, individual patients will still be able to possess under state law. If the federal courts shut down the cannabis clubs, patients will just be relegated to the black market to make their purchases.
The threat of an adverse legal ruling has in no way chilled public enthusiasm for medical marijuana. Eight states have now adopted medical marijuana laws--all but Hawaii by public initiative. Numerous states are now debating the issue.
In 1997, Ptak and his feisty band of San Marcos activists, attempted to pass their own local initiative but were soundly thrashed at the polls. Undaunted, Ptak and friends have lobbied the Texas legislature in each of the last three sessions "trying to get people talking about medical marijuana without giggling," Ptak says. Last session, legislators said that nothing substantive would happen on medical marijuana--not with Bush running for president. But on the campaign trail, Bush told a California audience that the issue was a matter best left to each individual state. In this legislative session, however, something is different: A state rep is sponsoring a bill on medical marijuana and hasn't committed political suicide in the process.
On February 27, in a cramped chamber room of the Capitol building, the House Criminal Jurisprudence committee meets to consider a bill to establish a statutory defense of medical necessity in cases of marijuana possession. All the usual suspects are there: McMahon, Day, Robison, Stefanoff, Ginsburg--each eager to testify when called upon. It's a deceptive crowd, because only a few plan to speak against the bill: a Texas Department of Public Safety Narcotics chief who believes marijuana is a gateway drug, and the Texas Eagle Forum, a conservative organization that believes, according to spokesman Ryan Bangert, that marijuana is not medicine and those who claim otherwise are really "holdovers from the '60s making an ideological statement."
Because the bill's author, Austin state Rep. Keel, is a conservative Republican with a strong law enforcement résumé, he gives the legislation credibility it might not otherwise have. "We have had a blanket prohibition on the use of the medicinal qualities of marijuana in its form as a green leafy substance," he tells those assembled. "Now it is time to revisit this. We need to have at our disposal a full arsenal of every medicine available for ameliorating the pain of people who are suffering illness."
Some of those sufferers and their families begin to tell their stories: a woman infected with HIV who had wasted away to practically nothing before she started smoking marijuana; a mother whose paraplegic son smokes to relieve his unbearable spasms; a student who got his grandmother pot for the nausea caused by her chemo; an old stoner who calls himself "Professor Hemp" has treated himself for glaucoma and says he runs the "Medical Hemp University from my post office box in Buda, Texas."
Each marijuana activist or patient makes his or her plea before the committee, which seems generally receptive, although some members express concerns, including one who says simply, "Let's call a spade a spade here...what you want is to completely legalize this stuff."
But even if the bill makes it out of committee and dies on the floor of the House or Senate, for these Texas drug-reform activists, the day is worth it. The debate they have long been gunning for has finally begun--and they don't even have to ante up $1,000.