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 winds are changing, and George McMahon can feel it in his bones. His ashen face takes on a pained expression as he peers out the window of his Lake Palestine home, watching the tops of the tall pines bend to the bluster of an approaching rainstorm. It's not as though he needs confirmation this February morning. His body is a barometer of pain, a crippled marker of a lifetime of missteps by a medical establishment that was trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with him.

"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.

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.)
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.
Dr. Al Robison, the executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, favors an end to the drug war and the "medicalization" and "regulation" of all street drugs.
Robert Allred
Dr. Al Robison, the executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, favors an end to the drug war and the "medicalization" and "regulation" of all street drugs.
Drug policy reformers didn't know if they could trust former prosecutor and Texas state Rep. Terry Keel, a Republican from Austin, when he sponsored legislation to allow the defense of medical necessity in marijuana cases.
John Anderson
Drug policy reformers didn't know if they could trust former prosecutor and Texas state Rep. Terry Keel, a Republican from Austin, when he sponsored legislation to allow the defense of medical necessity in marijuana cases.
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.

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.

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.

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.

The original drug warrior himself, President Richard Nixon, must have felt betrayed after he impaneled a hard-line commission to study marijuana and what he supposed were its tendencies to make college kids rabidly anti-establishment. What the 1972 Shafer Commission reported instead was that marijuana smoking was less harmful than alcohol and its personal use should no longer be a crime. Although Nixon rejected the report, 11 states would reduce the punishment for marijuana possession to traffic-ticket status; in the mid-'70s, even Texas had decriminalized possession of less than 4 ounces from a felony to a misdemeanor. Carter himself did nothing to change the law, in part, because prominent members of his administration became ensnared in their own drug scandals.

Day, like many of the millions of Americans who smoked pot by the late '70s, didn't care about marijuana politics. What he cared about was the high. "At that point, marijuana was just the thing to do. I got up, smoked a joint so I could put up with my day. I thought life was just more enjoyable on pot."

The Mesquite police couldn't have disagreed with him more. In 1978, a loud party brought the cops to his door. They searched his home, his guests, his person--and charged him with felony possession: over 4 ounces. But the police didn't have a warrant, and the case was thrown out of court.

By the time the case was over, so was his marriage. He began a downward spiral, entering the "gray world of the black market," he says, which took him to cocaine, speed, prescription drug abuse. However, he didn't like the way they made him feel, "So I always came back to pot."

When it became Ronald Reagan's turn to set drug policy, he launched a full-scale frontal assault against drugs. He enlisted the army for interdiction, Congress to stiffen drug penalties with mandatory-minimum sentences, and law enforcement with cash incentives to forfeit the assets of those who had, even unwittingly, allowed their property--cars, planes, houses, farms--to be involved in drug trafficking or possession. A burgeoning parents' movement gained political muscle with Congress. The War on Drugs took on a moral crusade as the nation's youth were encouraged to turn to their drug-peddling peers and "Just Say No."

"I guess I have Nancy Reagan to thank for getting me started," Day says. "The government cranked up its propaganda machine telling us any use was abuse, that marijuana was addictive, that you will never meet your potential on pot. The more lies I heard, the more I realized I needed to be part of the solution."

The federal government tried to prove that it was pot smokers like Day who were wrong. "The National Institute on Drug Abuse funds 80 percent of the studies on marijuana, and it is only interested in funding those that show the harm of the drug," says Dr. John P. Morgan, professor of pharmacology at the City of New York Medical School and co-author of Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts."It doesn't like to fund studies that seek to demonstrate the drug's benefits." Beginning in the late '70s, government reports claimed that marijuana, among other things, killed brain cells, damaged chromosomes, caused infertility, destroyed motivation, and caused men to grow breasts--though these conclusions were often based on "bad science or animal studies that had never been replicated with humans," Morgan says. Not surprisingly, use among teen-agers declined during the Reagan-Bush years.

At the same time, marijuana was gaining at least a modicum of legitimacy in legal circles. In the mid-'70s, Bob Randall, a former Washington, D.C., cab driver was diagnosed with glaucoma and was going blind from the disease. None of the traditional glaucoma drugs reduced the tremendous pressure within his eyes. He noticed, however, that by smoking marijuana almost daily, his eye pain was alleviated and his eyesight stopped deteriorating. When he was busted for marijuana cultivation, his lawyers pleaded that his use was a necessary choice between evils: violating the law or going blind. Although this may have been the first time the defense of medical necessity was pleaded in a marijuana case, Randall was acquitted anyway. The result forced the federal government to provide him with marijuana, and it set up the compassionate use program, with Randall as its first patient (McMahon was the fifth).

NORML filed a lawsuit in 1972, hoping to convince the DEA to reclassify marijuana under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Cannabis had been placed in Schedule I (drugs having no currently acceptable medical use, a high potential for abuse, unsafe: heroin, LSD). NORML fought to make it a Schedule II drug (available by prescription only: morphine, cocaine). The argument seemed to have merit: If marijuana were made legal for medical purposes, it would simply be elevated to the status of morphine and cocaine. It took 16 years of court battles, but in 1988, Francis Young, the DEA's chief administrative law judge, held the following: "Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest, therapeutically active substances known to man." Although he ordered the DEA to reschedule the drug, the agency refused, and NORML lost a subsequent lawsuit to force the DEA to abide by Young's decision.

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."

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.

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.

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.

The local sheriff was happy to oblige, telling the New York Times this was just a bunch of "old hippies going through a change of life." Ptak thought he missed the point. "Recreational use wasn't the issue," he says. "This was an educational campaign to inform the public that marijuana has medicinal and economic uses." (Meaning industrial hemp, a nonpsychoactive strain of marijuana used to make paper and other products.)

As punishment, Ptak received probation and a fine. Zeal Stefanoff, a medical marijuana user who had initiated the protest, was sentenced to six months in jail. He went on a hunger strike that lasted more than a month and stirred his sympathizers to camp out in front of the jail in what became known as Hemp Town. Ptak won High Times magazine's "Freedom Fighter of the Month Award" for his organizing efforts.

This dubious distinction didn't help his standing with local law enforcement types, who busted him again in 1996 for possessing "1.5 grams of marijuana," he says. Although there was no Texas statute on the books covering medical necessity, he pleaded that people have a common law right to medicate themselves as necessary. A jury acquitted him of all charges in what he believes is the first successful defense in Texas based on medical necessity.

Stefanoff wouldn't be so fortunate. Last year, as a defense to a marijuana charge, Stefanoff claimed he had been growing pot to alleviate the symptoms of the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered in the Vietnam War. His psychiatrist as well as Robison testified on his behalf. However, Stefanoff was convicted, and his case is now on appeal. For medical marijuana activists, his conviction illustrated the need for the legislature to speak to the issue, rather than rely on common law precedent.

Patients in other states, however, were having more luck, particularly in California, which in 1996 passed Proposition 215, a vaguely worded initiative that called for lifting drug penalties on doctors who "recommend" marijuana and their patients who need it. Underground pharmacies, however, such as the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, had been supplying patients with marijuana illegally for several years. With Proposition 215, more cannabis clubs began sprouting up in California--though their legality remained in doubt.

Even after the passage of the California initiative, Clinton drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey was unwilling to give up the fight. Calling marijuana a "gateway" to harder drugs, he maintained, "there is not a shred of scientific evidence that shows that marijuana is useful or needed. This is not medical. It's a cruel hoax." To prove his point, he threatened to revoke the license and even arrest doctors who prescribed marijuana to their patients. He also commissioned a study by the Institute of Medicine, a division of the National Academy of Sciences, to settle the matter of marijuana's medical efficacy. After an 18-month investigation, a panel of 36 scientific experts issued a report in March 1999 that seemed to have something for everyone.

It found that marijuana was neither addictive nor a gateway drug and concluded that, "There are some limited circumstances in which we recommend smoking marijuana for medical uses"--primarily for the terminally ill, "who suffer from severe pain, nausea, and appetite loss."

The report did not call for the legalization of medical marijuana. Rather it recommended that clinical trials be allowed to study its safety and effectiveness. It indicated that the future of marijuana was not in its smoked form because users may face an increased risk of lung damage and cancer. What was needed instead was the development of "a nonsmoked rapid onset cannabinoid drug delivery system"--an inhaler or patch or suppository.

Some medical marijuana opponents feel that delivery system is already available in the form of the FDA-approved pill Marinol, which contains synthetic THC. But patients claim that Marinol takes too long to work, and when it does, it comes on too strong. With 60 different cannabinoids (including THC) in the marijuana plant, there may be some combination of elements that is causing whatever good patients derive from smoking it.

"Marijuana advocates have dismissed the most damaging conclusion in the report," Lt. Col. Maginnis says. "That marijuana's future as medicine does not require smoking. It's just bad medicine and bad policy...a red herring for those whose agenda is legalization."

Pharmacology professor Morgan finds the debate over delivery systems more about policy than medicine. "It's like the government is saying, 'You may take synthetic Vitamin C to prevent scurvy, but you may not drink orange juice because it's against the law.'"

With the medical debate raging, the legal battle wasn't far behind. In 1998, the California U.S. Attorney's Office sued the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative and convinced a federal judge to order it closed, finding it violated the federal law prohibiting the sale and distribution of the drug. The cooperative raised the defense of medical necessity on the part of its members, and at one point, a federal appeals court agreed with its position. After all, patients who could legally possess pot under California law had to have some way of legally obtaining it. Not if it violates federal law, argued the government, which succeeded in convincing the Supreme Court to hear the case.

"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.

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