Metropolis: Wednesday, October 22, 2003
Fear of Flying

Pot for pain cuts no ice at DFW Airport.


A federal marijuana patient’s planned trip to Tarrant County went up in smoke this week for fear he would be jailed if he came to town and fired up his medicinal weed. George McMahon was scheduled to speak as a panelist at a drug forum on Thursday at Tarrant County College’s northeast campus, but he backed down after being told by another legal pot smoker that the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office would prosecute those arrested, even federal patients who are legal smokers.

“We can’t get it cleared, and we haven’t heard back from the assistant district attorney,” McMahon said. “Until we do that, I’m not setting foot in Tarrant County.”

The problem apparently is the result of miscommunication between a duty-bound police officer and some gun-shy pot smokers.

The forum will go on, but McMahon will participate only by speakerphone. His friend and co-author of the book Prescription Pot, Denton resident Christopher Largen, will attend the forum. He plans to place McMahon’s photo on an empty chair, along with one of the round metal cans that the government packs with 300 pre-rolled and federally grown marijuana cigarettes and mails to McMahon’s doctor several times a year.

The empty chair and photo — perhaps with a piece of duct tape covering McMahon’s mouth — might be more effective than having him there in person, Largen said. “It certainly sends a message as to how convoluted our laws are on this issue.”

A Food and Drug Administration program allows a tiny handful of Americans to receive the weed that they need to control serious and painful symptoms of several diseases. This “medical marijuana” is grown legally in Mississippi and distributed by Uncle Sam. But the government despises its role as drug dealer. Marijuana as medicine disputes almost everything federal officials have claimed for seven decades, ever since the 1930s when they claimed smoking pot could turn people into axe-murderers. The feds established the Investigational New Drug Program only after being sued by Florida resident Robert Randall, a medical marijuana figurehead in the 1970s.

Randall developed glaucoma during his teens and was told he would go blind in a few years. Dissatisfied with pharmaceutical drugs, he grew and smoked his own marijuana to relieve ocular pressure. After he was arrested, he underwent extensive tests to show that no other glaucoma drug was as effective for his condition. Randall proved in federal district court that marijuana was a medical necessity, and in 1976 he became the first person in modern U.S. history to gain legal, medically based access to government pot.

The feds cut off his supply two years later, but he sued again. His court victory led to creation of the federally funded program, which provided marijuana to a small number of patients willing to file reams of paperwork, fight endless bureaucratic battles, and find doctors willing to risk their careers to prescribe marijuana in obvious defiance of federal law. In the first dozen years, only four people were approved. McMahon became the fifth in 1990. The number grew to 13, but the government stopped accepting applications after thousands of AIDS patients heard of the program and applied for acceptance. The feds grandfathered those who were already on the program, and only seven remain alive. When those patients die, the program is expected to die along with them.

For 13 years, McMahon has been willing to travel to spread the word about the benefits of medicinal marijuana despite his painful complications from nail patella syndrome. An arrest could cause his drugs to be taken away, and his body would quickly become wracked with pain, he said.

“Anytime I’m away from marijuana, my health suffers,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to stop, even for eight hours, and I can’t imagine both of my arms being handcuffed behind my back.”

Tarrant County College’s forum, “Head, Fed, and Med: Views on Marijuana Legalization,” is being sponsored by Phi Theta Kappa, the campus honors society. “We thought this was an opportunity to educate everybody on the issue as well as hearing different viewpoints,” chapter President Lori Dickinson said.

Phi Theta Kappa had little trouble finding proponents of medical marijuana, including Dallas resident and former police officer Howard Wooldridge, who recently rode his horse, Misty, across the country to publicize his endorsement of outright legalization. He plans to write a book about his trek. “I was like Paul Revere, spreading the word that we need to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana,” he said. “The thing that stood out the most is that people in America are hungry for a fresh idea about the drug war. Polls show that about 75 percent of Americans think it doesn’t work. My approach is based on personal responsibility.”

Local law enforcement officials are less willing to debate the issue. For two months, Dickinson called Metroplex police agencies in vain until, just a few days before the forum, a Hurst Police Department officer agreed to attend, she said. “What I found is that most of them just didn’t have the background knowledge to come into a forum for discussion,” she said.

McMahon’s decision to participate by speakerphone was prompted by a recent conversation with Florida resident Irvin Rosenfeld, another federal marijuana patient. In late September Rosenfeld was planning a cross-country trip that included a three-hour layover at DFW International Airport. He called ahead to let airport officials know he would need to smoke his medicine while there and requested an isolated area so that he would not bother others. He said Captain Rick Smith of the airport’s police force threatened him with arrest and prosecution, despite his federal status as a legal smoker. “He said ... I would have to bail out, get an attorney, and go to court, and I would win, but I would still have to go through all this, so please do not smoke marijuana while I was at DFW,” he said.

Rosenfeld, who suffers from bone tumors and has been on the federal pot program for 21 years, was traveling with relatives and didn’t want to create a burden for them, so he refrained from smoking. “I had a lot more pain, more difficulty in moving,” he said.

He typically smokes a joint every two hours, or 12 a day.

Rosenfeld said he explained that the federal government had granted him legal permission to smoke, but Smith was unmoved. “Since when did Texas secede from the union?” Rosenfeld said. “I haven’t been too happy with DFW, needless to say.”

Smith said he is only doing his job. “You’ve got a state versus federal rights issue,” he said. “We can’t give him permission to violate state law. We have to do what we are sworn to uphold and do. That’s the situation in Texas. He asked me if I could provide a room (to smoke marijuana) and I said, ‘No, I’d be breaking the law if I do that.’ When I raise my hand and swear an oath, you pretty much have to follow it.”

Ironically, in the eight states where smoking medical marijuana is legal under state law, federal agents have arrested patients.

Had Rosenfeld been at DFW for a longer amount of time, he would have smoked and risked arrest, he said. “I’m a stockbroker. I can’t be arrested; I’d lose my job,” he said. “But I’ve got huge law firms at my disposal, and I would file a lawsuit against Tarrant County or Dallas County. I’m not going to let people who don’t understand the situation push me around. If they were to hassle and arrest George, he would proceed against that county. We fought for our medicine and we’re allowed to take it.”

Rosenfeld called McMahon to describe his problems at DFW and lament the D.A.’s stance. McMahon cancelled his forum appearance. “It’s in the newspaper I’m going to be there,” he said. “I don’t want a fight with those guys. I’m right and they’re wrong, so why should I fight them under their rules?”

Most law enforcement officials are open-minded when federal pot patients call ahead to let them know they are coming, Largen said. “George is a Texas resident, and he’s never run into any problems with Texas authorities before,” he said. “He’s brought his medicine to the state capitol in Austin on several occasions.”

If Tarrant County wants a fight, they’ll get one, he said. “We want a formal retraction from Tarrant County,” Largen said. “We’ll go to court to give him the right to travel and speak freely in Tarrant County. If we allow them to shut us down here, they can do it anywhere. We’re hoping to send a message to other county officials that federal law needs to be respected.”

There’s only one problem — the Tarrant County D.A.’s office claims it has never said it would prosecute federal patients. Smith, the airport police captain, told Rosenfeld and Fort Worth Weekly that the D.A.’s offices in Tarrant and Dallas counties will prosecute anyone smoking marijuana at the airport.

However, Tarrant County Assistant D.A. Mike Parrish disputed that claim. A couple of years ago, Rosenfeld had a stopover at DFW, called ahead to ask permission to smoke, and was told by airport police that he would be arrested. Rosenfeld’s attorney called Parrish. “I looked at some documentation and paperwork. ... I made a call or two ... and this guy was legit,” Parrish said. “I can’t stop them from arresting somebody. I just put them on notice that this guy lawfully will have marijuana in his possession.”

The D.A.’s office doesn’t typically give legal advice about hypothetical arrests, but Parrish said the same hands-off principle that applies to Rosenfeld would apply to any federal pot patient. “He has that product legally and he’s using it for medical purposes, so anybody that knows that in advance [and arrests such a person] is acting at their own peril about the ramifications of possible false arrest,” Parrish said. “They could arrest him, but as soon as we found out it was all righteous it would be dismissed. Legally he has a right to be doing what he’s doing.”

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