Feature: Wednesday, December 12, 2002
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Reefer Sadness Part 2

By Jeff Prince

During a long hospital stay, McMahon hadn’t eaten solid food in a month and was mostly skin and bone. A doctor told him he had about six months to live.

A cancer patient in a nearby room was having a nicotine fit. The patient, who was using marijuana for relief from the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, had noticed two things about McMahon: He smoked cigarettes and he sported a Zig-Zag tattoo. The patient offered McMahon a deal. “He wanted to trade me one of his joints for one of my cigarettes,” McMahon said.

The trade was made, and McMahon smoked the joint in his hospital bed. Within 15 minutes, his pain was gone, and his hunger had returned with a fury. He went to the hospital commissary and shoveled food into his mouth. From that point on, McMahon was convinced that marijuana was a lifesaver. He was about to embark on a life-altering mission to seek legal marijuana for himself and other patients.

Almost 20 years later, he is surprised that advancements have been so few and patients are still getting hassled and arrested for using medical marijuana despite widespread approval. “We’re still probably 10 years away,” from needed changes in federal law, he said.

His prediction on marijuana’s future is based on its rocky past.

Illegal or not, marijuana is used by a staggering number of people in this country. About 83 million Americans ages 12 and older have tried it at least once, according to a 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. That’s one in three Americans. Some reformers say the correct number is higher, since people won’t always admit to using an illegal substance, especially during a phone survey with a stranger. Numerous public leaders have admitted to smoking marijuana, including former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Those numbers don’t seem likely to shrink any time soon. A 2001 “Monitoring the Future” study showed that 20 percent of eighth-graders had tried pot and 9 percent were current users, and almost 20 percent of tenth-graders were current users. Among high school seniors, 22 percent were current users, and almost half admitted to experimenting with marijuana.

Teens say they can more easily obtain marijuana than alcohol or beer, according to a 2002 survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. An independent study by the nonprofit RAND Drug Policy Research Center, released this month, showed that marijuana use does not lead teens to experiment with hard drugs such as heroin or cocaine, information that contradicts a basic principle of the U.S. anti-drug policy.

Research and the public’s overall relaxation of attitudes regarding marijuana have helped ease the approval of state laws permitting medical uses of marijuana. A recent Time/CNN poll showed that 80 percent of Americans approve of allowing marijuana to be used for terminally ill patients.

The federal government is not only unconvinced, it has increased efforts to portray marijuana as a killer drug. Bush drug czar John Walters has threatened doctors who recommend pot to patients, cut off student loans for youngsters with pot convictions, and spent millions on tv commercials that label pot smokers — all 70 or 80 million of them — as supporting terrorists. In one ad, a young boy lists all the people he has killed, including “mothers, fathers, grandmas, grandpas, sons, daughters, firemen, and policemen.” In other words, he bought a joint and the money went to terrorists, who blew up the World Trade Center. The feds, whose prohibition of marijuana creates the black market that makes it so financially attractive to organized criminals, lay the blame at little Timmy’s feet.

Not since the civil rights era of the 1960s has the difference in opinion between state and federal governments been so pronounced over an issue. The conflict began in 1996 when California became the first state to remove criminal penalties for qualified patients who grow, possess, or use marijuana. The law said doctors need only to “recommend” marijuana. Omitting the word “prescribe” gave doctors an out — they wouldn’t need to defy federal law to allow patients access to marijuana. Other states would follow, and currently nine have medical marijuana provisions (Texas is not among them).

States quickly learned that the feds hold a trump card and aren’t afraid to use it. Federal laws prevent people from growing, using, possessing, or distributing marijuana, and federal agents have been aggressive in enforcement. “California is the place where the battle is really going on,” Stepnoski said. “That’s where the public co-ops are getting raided by the DEA, and they’re taking files and destroying marijuana.” U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents also recently confiscated medical marijuana from an Oregon quadriplegic’s state-licensed stash.

A vivid example of the dispute between state and federal laws — and the human fallout — is reflected in the life and death of Peter McWilliams. The California author of self-help books grew marijuana and used doctor-recommended cannabis to treat his cancer and AIDS-related symptoms. Federal drug agents arrested McWilliams in 1998 and accused him of cultivating the crop for profit. McWilliams said he merely smoked marijuana to relieve nausea and to help him keep his medicine down without vomiting. A federal judge refused to allow into evidence the state’s marijuana laws or the fact that McWilliams used marijuana as medicine. McWilliams was found guilty and forbidden to use marijuana while the federal judge determined his sentence. He was subjected to urine tests and threatened with prison if he bucked the judge’s orders.

While awaiting sentencing, McWilliams choked to death on his own vomit in June 2000. Libertarian Party chairman Steve Dasbach issued a statement blasting the feds’ marijuana stance. “What the federal government did to Peter McWilliams is nothing less than cold-blooded premeditated murder,” he said. “A good, decent, talented man is dead because of the bipartisan public policy disaster known as the war on drugs.”

Another blow came when the federal government sued six California pot cooperatives to prevent them from distributing marijuana for medicinal use. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in 2001 that marijuana is not excluded from the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and has no medical value as determined by Congress. “All of a sudden you had newspapers all over the United States quoting (Supreme Court Justice) Clarence Thomas saying that marijuana has no medical value,” Largen said. “He’s not a doctor. Medical marijuana is not prohibited because of any risk to public health. People already know it is medicine. We have city governments that are blatantly and publicly disregarding federal policy.”

The genesis of that federal policy became clearer with the 1998 publication of The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer, which describes how big business and media manipulation caused the United States to ban a promising agricultural crop. In the 1930s, the Department of Agriculture developed a new technique for using hemp in making paper. Hemp is an industrial cousin of marijuana, with too low a THC content to make it interesting to smoke. The hemp process proved to be cheaper and more environmentally friendly than pulping trees. According to Herer, wealthy business owners such as media mogul William Randolph Hearst owned vast holdings of timberland and paper mills and worried that a move to hemp could bring them financial ruin.

Hearst’s many news outlets spread outrageous propaganda about marijuana that still affects people’s perceptions today. Other propagandists included DuPont, a chemical manufacturer that also faced possible financial ruin by hemp’s emergence, since hemp oil can substitute for petroleum. Harry J. Anslinger, a relative of DuPont banker Andrew Mellon, was appointed commissioner of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and led a venomous attack on marijuana and, therefore, hemp. Also, federal jobs and funding were at stake with the demise of alcohol prohibition, and the government shifted its money and manpower to fighting marijuana, with Anslinger leading the way. “You had a bureaucracy that was looking for something to prohibit, and it was natural for marijuana to overtake alcohol in the bureaucracy,” said Rick Day, the former Texas NORML executive director.

Congress effectively banned marijuana and industrial hemp with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Prohibition, which failed so drastically with alcohol, would now apply to a plant that had been used for thousands of years as medicine and has been proven time and again to be safer than booze and to cause fewer societal problems. Industrial hemp was also forbidden, even though hemp fibers had been used for centuries to make material such as rope and sails.

The financial fortunes of Hearst, DuPont, and Mellon, Herer wrote, were saved.

In the 1950s, as more people began to realize that marijuana didn’t make axe-murderers out of smokers, Anslinger found another new fear-based tack — Communism. He described to Congress a communist plot to use marijuana to make Americans pacifists. “Bad science, lies, and propaganda were the main tools of education for the American public until the ’60s came along,” Day said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many people began to openly mock the government’s marijuana stance, and that credibility gap has grown over the years. Yet prohibition continues to stymie states that allow medical marijuana. Federal courts defer to the DEA, which has worked aggressively for years to keep marijuana illegal. Marijuana is listed as a Schedule I drug, meaning the federal government considers it an addictive substance with no medical use. Reformers have proposed that marijuana at least be changed to a Schedule II drug, which would mean it is considered to have some accepted medical use and would make it easier for patients to get access.

The DEA has rejected reclassification, even after a DEA chief administrative law judge ruled in 1988 that marijuana is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known and should be transferred to Schedule II. “It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance,” the judge wrote. Top DEA bureaucrats rejected the ruling. In 1994, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the DEA could reject its own administrative judge’s ruling and set its own criteria. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug.

Since then, the DEA has stepped up efforts to crack down on marijuana. “Clinton responded to criticism by the Republican Party that he was soft on drugs by setting records for marijuana arrests and then turned around a week before he left office and said marijuana should be decriminalized and legalized,” Day said.

The DEA classifies marijuana as Schedule I based on scientific research and enforces laws based on the will of Congress, said DEA spokesman Will Glaspy of Washington, D.C. “We work with the medical and scientific community, who have determined there is no medical value, which is why it has remained a Schedule I drug,” he said. “Congress could change it if they were so inclined. Congress expects us to carry out our duties as it relates to the drug laws, which is what we have been doing.”

When George W. Bush was Texas governor in 1998, he called marijuana a state issue, but he changed his tune after being elected president. Under his administration, the DEA has repeatedly interfered with states such as California that allow public medical co-ops to grow marijuana. In Santa Cruz, Calif., city officials joined activists in defying federal law by passing out medical marijuana in front of City Hall during a rally. “This has historical import that goes beyond the medical marijuana issue,” Largen said. “This is the first time since the civil rights issues that state and federal laws are in direct conflict, where you have government officials who are defying federal law. We have 80 percent of the people in this nation supporting medical marijuana, but you won’t see that sentiment reflected in the federal legislation.”

Reformers say that big business, once again, is unfairly influencing policy. Pharmaceutical companies can’t patent marijuana because it is a plant, a natural herb. These companies stand to lose billions of dollars if an adult can legally grow and ingest a plant that is a proven pain reliever. If people’s arthritic joints are hurting and they smoke joints rather than buy a bottle of aspirin or prescription painkillers, that’s money pulled from the pharmaceutical industry’s pockets. “It’s all about the money,” Largen said.

Alcohol manufacturers and their lobbyists have also exerted influence. “If it were legal and regulated, marijuana use would go up, and, according to surveys, alcohol use would go down,” said former Michigan police officer Howard Wooldridge, who is vice director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP. “The result would be a tremendous benefit to society because you would have fewer problems generated by alcohol — drunk driving, spousal abuse — because of the different effects of marijuana versus alcohol. In 15 years as a cop, I never had a call generated by the use of marijuana. Alcohol was an every-night thing.”

Still, marijuana arrests in the United States are at a near all-time high. FBI figures show that 723,627 Americans were arrested on marijuana charges in 2001, with 88 percent of those arrests for simple possession rather than sale or cultivation. An estimated 77,000 people are currently jailed for marijuana offenses.

The fight to legalize medical marijuana pushes McMahon to his physical limits, but he is willing to exhaust himself for the cause. However, he backs off when it comes to lobbying for recreational usage. “At this point they should be kept separate,” he said. He doesn’t have a problem with adults smoking marijuana, but he doesn’t want to hurt the medical marijuana movement by linking the two at this stage.

Other reformers are demanding decriminalization or outright legalization. Texas NORML is planning a four-month lobbying effort, beginning in January, at the state legislative session in Austin, looking for lawmakers to sponsor a bill that would make possession of a small amount of marijuana a Class C misdemeanor, rather than a Class B, and result in fines rather than arrests. “Our main goal is to get the law changed so people are no longer thrown in jail for possession of small amounts of marijuana,” said Stepnoski, who has smoked marijuana recreationally since high school, yet was a college academic All-American and played football at the highest level for 13 years. After retirement, he chose to go public with his views on marijuana.

Approval of medical marijuana shouldn’t overshadow the issue of decriminalization, Day said. “Over 700,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession last year,” he said. “If Texas passed medical marijuana laws, it might impact .05 percent of the population. A decriminalization bill would impact at least 30 percent of the adult population.”

Other countries are farther along in decriminalizing or reducing penalties for marijuana possession. Even tough-on-drugs Great Britain in 2002 announced it would soften enforcement nationwide — effectively allowing citizens to possess and use small amounts of marijuana without fear of arrest. Similar laws were implemented recently in Spain and Italy.

In 2001, Canada adopted a system to make medical marijuana available, and half of Canadians surveyed that year favored complete decriminalization of recreational marijuana use, a move supported by the Canadian Medical Association Journal and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. “Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public health issue,” said Canadian Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin, who headed a special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs. Canada appears poised to decriminalize, and, not surprisingly, United States officials are critical. Bush’s tough anti-marijuana stance reflects hard-line opinions espoused by previous administrations in their unbending war against drugs. “We have great respect for Canada and Britain,” Asa Hutchinson, head of the DEA, was quoted as saying in Canada’s National Post. “If they start shifting policies with regards to marijuana, it simply increases the rumblings in this country that we ought to re-examine our policy. It is a distraction from a firm policy on drug use.”

Largen and McMahon say that concentrating efforts on medical marijuana will eventually pave the way for decriminalization. “If you get medical marijuana decriminalized, we’ll start getting some very solid clinical research data, and we can find out the long-term effects,” Largen said. “We can find out if it’s worth all the money we’re spending prosecuting simple marijuana cases.”

The chicken-fried steak, baked potatoes, and bread pudding are finished, and McMahon, his longtime wife, Margaret, and his mother, June Baker, are enjoying after-dinner coffee. McMahon moved to Texas from Iowa to be close to his mother. She has some health problems of her own but said she doesn’t think she would smoke marijuana for relief. Baker, 84, was a teenager when William Randolph Hearst and the federal government began their campaign of hysteria, and she believed many of the myths. She worried when her son got his first batch of federal pot.

Twelve years later, she supports him and others who seek cannabis as medicine. “He’s doing right to fight for it,” she said. “He’s on it, it’s controlled, and he doesn’t have a problem with it. I’m like a lot of people; I don’t like kids to get it. But as medication, it should be allowed so people can use it.”

Every day, Margaret McMahon sees the difference marijuana has made. “It would bother me worse if he was on the other medications,” she said. “At one point he was on 10 Percodans a day and vomiting a lot. He was always sick from the reaction to the pills.”

McMahon, still chipper and relaxed, pulls a fake million-dollar bill out of his wallet. “Dinner is on me, Mom,” he says. Everyone laughs. Later, they drive home, where McMahon will smoke another joint or two, go to bed, and get ready to survive another day.



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