Feature: Wednesday, December 12, 2002
Reefer Sadness Part 1

Medicinal tokers praise the "demon weed," but the feds are bogarting the joints.

By Jeff Prince

Again, the reefer’s gone out. George McMahon is discussing medical marijuana while we’re on our way to a restaurant, and his opinions are delivered with such passion (and extemporaneous pontification) that small eternities pass between tokes. No problem. For the umpteenth time, he cups his hands, leans his head to one side, strikes his lighter, touches flame to cannabis, takes a short hit, exhales, and continues chasing his thoughts.

We drive past orange construction cones and enter an asphalt parking lot at a nondescript roadside steakhouse. McMahon continues talking as he steps out of the passenger seat. He is chirpy, alert, and glad to have a reporter along to hear his story and help spread the word about how marijuana saved his life and how the government is depriving sick citizens of a natural, nontoxic, and relatively harmless plant that makes them feel better.

The five o’clock hour draws a small dinner crowd. We linger outside a moment, awaiting McMahon’s wife and mother, who are following in another car. Patrons are mostly aging rural dwellers. Hairspray and big purses for the women, gimme caps and Dickies for the men. Accents thick as East Texas humidity in this small community outside of Tyler, about 135 miles southeast of Fort Worth.

McMahon was raised an Iowa farm boy, and he blends in well here. He wears a plaid shirt, slacks, and fashion-busting white socks with brown sandals. His hair is short and tousled, his face seasoned by 52 years and a lot of suffering at the hands of a rare and incurable genetic condition that causes an array of painful ailments.

In other ways, he stands out from the crowd. He’s clamping a half-smoked joint between his thumb and index finger, he wears hemp bracelets on a wrist, and he sports a Zig-Zag Man tattoo on his forearm. Before entering the restaurant, he sticks the government roach in a large prescription bottle and stashes it in his pocket. “They have great chicken-fried steak here,” he says. The marijuana has stirred his appetite. Munchies, a well-known side effect that inspires casual pot users to make midnight trips to Mini Mart for Snickers and microwave burritos, is a positive benefit for those suffering from wasting syndromes, chronic nausea, or diseases that have left them with no appetite.

Many doctors and at least 80 state and national health organizations advocate medical uses of marijuana regardless of the federal government’s sometimes fanatical campaign against it — an effort that pot supporters say was launched almost three-quarters of a century ago to benefit big business. A large majority of Americans — a recent survey says eight of 10 — approve of medical uses of marijuana, ranging from pain management to stemming the advance of glaucoma, yet the federal government still categorizes pot on the same level as crack cocaine and heroin, claims it has no medicinal value, intimidates doctors who recommend it, destroys marijuana crops at state-approved clinics, and refuses to adapt to the public’s will. Meanwhile, one of every three Americans has smoked marijuana, even though laws allow police to arrest and jail people who have so much as a roach in their pocket. “It’s very much a civil rights issue,” said former Dallas Cowboys All-Pro center Mark Stepnoski, who this year became president of Texas NORML, a group trying to reform marijuana laws. “One thing you hear all the time is that people are ahead of the politicians. It’s just a case of going through the political process and trying to get the law changed.”

Despite the government’s stance, a little-known federal program overseen by the Food and Drug Administration allows a tiny handful of Americans to receive legal medical marijuana grown in Mississippi and distributed by Uncle Sam. McMahon is one of only seven participants.

The pot’s quality is so-so. THC content (as in tetrahydrocannabinol, the ingredient that makes stoners grin and say, “hey dooooode”) is less than 4 percent, a little weaker than average street pot. The feds offset low quality with generous quantity and provide him a monthly allotment of 300 machine-rolled joints that resemble long unfiltered cigarettes. McMahon has smoked 10 government joints a day since 1990.

Round metal cans labeled “Marijuana Cigarettes” are sent to a pharmacy, and McMahon picks up his package every four months. Twelve hundred joints. That’s a lot of smoke to inhale and hold in his lungs each day, and McMahon would prefer that the government provide a mouth spray, like the ones being tested in Britain. He and others say the United States has fallen behind the international community when it comes to research and legislation on marijuana. “I’m tired of smoking, but I want to feel good,” McMahon said.

So he puffs his pot each day, and the compounds soak into his lungs and move through his blood and ease his pain, lift his spirits, stimulate his appetite, and allow him to live without the powerful prescription drugs that were worsening his health and pushing him to the brink of depression and death.

Marijuana has already extended his life at least 10 years, he said, and, until death comes, he is using his time, energy, and scant personal funds to try to change laws that prevent thousands of other sick people from growing and smoking marijuana. “I don’t benefit at all by changing things, but I’ve done my best to make sure others can get it, too,” he said.

The fight isn’t easy. Government propaganda, the recent conservative victories at the polls, a growing gap between federal and state laws, bitterly disputed research, and the powerful lobbying force of alcohol and pharmaceutical companies have draped this simple green plant in a complex shroud of smoke.

The King of Rock-n-Roll despised marijuana and other counterculture drugs, yet swallowed doctor-prescribed pills until his organs gave out and he died at 42, a bloated wreck. Elvis Presley’s death serves as inspirational parable to Fort Worth native Christopher Largen, who has spent the past year living in a small Dallas apartment and writing a book about McMahon and the odd federal program that provides ill patients with marijuana even though federal officials claim the herb is dangerous. “The federal government hasn’t kept it classified, but they’ve kept it very low profile,” Largen said of the Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program, or Compassionate IND, established in 1978. “For 24 years they have been growing marijuana and giving it to sick and dying people.”

The government doesn’t appear comfortable in its role. Marijuana as medicine disputes almost everything federal officials have claimed for six decades, ever since the 1930s when they released now-laughable information that claimed smoking pot could turn people into perverted, insane axe-murderers. The feds established the Compassionate IND program only after a legal dispute with Florida resident Robert Randall, who became the figurehead for the medical marijuana movement 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 drugs were 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 the federally funded program, which provided medical marijuana to a small number of patients willing to file reams of paperwork, fight endless bureaucratic battles, and find doctors willing to risk their livelihoods 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. He suffers from Nail Patella Syndrome, a poorly understood genetic condition that skews the immune system and causes painful problems such as brittle bones and weak organs. “It took me two years after I applied, to qualify,” he said.

Word of the program was beginning to spread by then, and more than 50 people had applied. Once AIDS patients discovered marijuana’s benefits in dealing with wasting syndromes, the rush was on for government weed. With more than 2,000 applications stacking up in its offices, the first Bush administration closed the program to new applicants in 1992. About 15 patients already receiving marijuana were grandfathered in, but everyone else was cut off. The Clinton administration refused to reopen the program in 1999. After all, federal law still banned marijuana as a dangerous and addictive drug.

Through the years, most of the federal pot patients have died, including Randall, who succumbed to AIDS complications in 2001 at age 53. Up until his death, he was smoking pot, and he still had his vision.

Medical researchers, including those at the prestigious National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, have said marijuana can relieve anxiety, pain, and spasms; stimulate appetite; reduce nausea and vomiting; and treat symptoms related to cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, and multiple sclerosis. However, the institute also said prolonged smoking of marijuana can cause respiratory problems, and suggested alternative methods of ingestion, such as inhalers. Regular marijuana use can also affect short-term memory, motor skills, and heart rates. Sick and pain-wracked people, of course, are more interested in pot’s benefits than in its relatively minor side effects.

The U.S. Congress has been slow to respond. “Congress originated this myth, and it’s going to take Congress to get us out of it,” said Rick Day, former Texas NORML executive director.

Patients such as McMahon publicize their medical nightmares and describe how marijuana improves their lives. With the public seemingly convinced, they are now focusing on members of Congress. Some are listening, such as Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who are seeking to lift the federal ban on medical marijuana and let states decide the issue. They received surprising support earlier this year from a former ally of anti-pot crusader Ronald Reagan. Lyn Nofziger, Reagan’s White House political director, said medicinal marijuana was the only drug that helped alleviate his daughter’s nausea and the other side effects of chemotherapy for cancer. New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson supports full legalization.

“I want to prove the validity of marijuana as much as I can,” McMahon said. “I want to justify my life. My grandchildren are going to be able to look me up in the history and medical books and see that everything I said is true. Nobody will be able to tell them that I was just a pothead.”

He is willing to become a martyr if necessary. Lobbying for legalization, going on speaking tours, and criticizing a government that provides him with essential medicine — such activities might come back to haunt him. Without pot, McMahon’s life would be hell, he said. He would have to rely on prescription chemicals, risk arrest to grow his own marijuana, or buy it on the street. Yet, he feels guilt-ridden. Thousands of other sick people can’t legally get the same medicine that McMahon and a half-dozen others get, so he’ll keep fighting despite the personal risk. He is set to speak at 1 p.m. Dec. 15 at the First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Worth.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse supplies the federally blessed marijuana, and agency spokesman Steve Gust seems irritated by the complaints of McMahon and others. The official’s tone grew impatient after Fort Worth Weekly asked him why the federal government continued to supply patients with marijuana after the government had classified it as a dangerous drug with no medicinal qualities. “That’s a good question,” he said. “It’s been 10 years. It’s probably time for another review.”

Informing the public, swaying lawmakers, and influencing policy are the reasons McMahon and Largen chose to collaborate on a book, for which Elvis Presley has become an unwitting muse. A plastic Elvis bust looks down from a bookshelf as Largen spends his days sitting at a computer and writing about McMahon and the federal pot program. “Elvis killed himself on pharmaceutical drugs,” Largen said. “He really was poisoned to death.”

McMahon spent years ingesting the same drugs that felled ol’ Swivel Hips. Doctors prescribed codeine, Demerol, Valium, and other sedatives and painkillers to control complications related to his neurological condition. Pharmaceutical drugs eased McMahon’s pain but put him in a stupor. He became chemically gorged and depressed, hallucinating at times.

On a recent trip to Mississippi to see the federal pot farm, Largen talked McMahon into a side trip to Graceland. Four days of traveling had been rough on McMahon, who was fatigued and urinating blood, but he reluctantly agreed. Largen convinced him that the trip would add an interesting element to their book and allow them to juxtapose the issue of marijuana versus pharmaceutical drugs. They called ahead to let Elvis Presley Enterprises know that they were coming and received free passes to Graceland and a discounted room at Heartbreak Hotel, where McMahon discreetly smoked his medicine. “It makes you wonder whether Elvis would still be alive if he had used marijuana instead of prescription drugs,” he said.

Largen and McMahon make an odd couple, coming from different eras and points of view. McMahon grew up in the freewheeling 1960s but didn’t wear long hair or smoke much marijuana. Largen, 30, is a child of the Just Say No era who rushed headlong into drug addiction.

They first met five years ago at North Texas State University in Denton, where Largen was taking college courses and working as a hospice caregiver. His work with a quadriplegic patient in 1991 had convinced him of marijuana’s medicinal benefits, and he studied the limited research information available.

Early experiences with marijuana also colored his views. He was a hyperactive child, and his parents treated him with pot beginning at the age of 2, he said. Once he reached school age, his parents switched him to Ritalin. Largen claims the daily Ritalin caused him to develop an addictive personality, which led to cocaine and amphetamine abuse. Largen gave up hard drugs in his early 20s, got married, and had two children.

In 1997, McMahon began a national speaking tour that included a stop at the Denton university. “I went to hear him speak and was really amazed by his level of cognitive functioning,” Largen said. “At that time he’d been smoking 10 joints a day for seven years. We hung out together after he gave a speech.” They wouldn’t see each other again for several years.

Impressed by McMahon’s devotion to the cause, Largen intensified his own efforts to promote medical marijuana. He wrote letters to newspaper editors and sent e-mails to publications across the country. In 2001, wondering how McMahon was faring, he tracked him down on the computer and sent him an e-mail. They corresponded for a while and then collaborated on an article about medical marijuana for The Village Voice. “I had never been paid to write before,” Largen said. The article would eventually appear in various forms in a dozen publications. ABC News saw it and called to discuss televising a segment on McMahon, but those plans were curtailed after the 9-11 tragedy.

By then, Largen and McMahon had decided to co-write a book, called Prescription Pot: One Man’s Personal Mission and Public Crusade to Legalize Medical Marijuana. The book is completed and scheduled for publication early next year. A book-signing tour and speaking engagements will follow, and Largen is working on a movie screenplay. “I’ve been chained to this keyboard,” he said.

McMahon’s life could make an interesting flick. He was a sickly kid and susceptible to injury. Determined not to be a runt, he threw himself into hard work, and by the time he was a young adult he had started a series of construction jobs that provided a livelihood but took a physical toll on a man with a bad immune system and brittle bones. He injured himself often and began an intimate relationship with doctors, surgeries, and pain-relieving drugs, both legal and illegal.

McMahon had smoked marijuana on occasion in the 1960s and noticed that it made him feel better, but he mostly relied on prescribed pills to deal with health problems. “By the time I was 13 or 14 I had had most of the prescription drugs and opiates,” he said. He was living in Arizona in the mid-1970s and working as a mine laborer when his landlady, an elderly Hispanic woman, noticed the swollen joints in his hands. She treated his knuckles and joints with a mixture of cannabis and cane alcohol, telling him that Mexican peasants had used the potion for centuries. The treatments relieved his pain and reduced the swelling.

He continued smoking marijuana periodically in the 1970s. Pot had fewer unwanted side effects than pills, but he disliked the process of buying illegal substances. A spinal injury in 1983 became a turning point in his life. He was in and out of hospitals for the next couple of years, receiving ultra-sound treatments, spinal adjustments, numerous surgeries, and heavy doses of morphine and other drugs. He underwent major surgery after renal failure. Doctors cut him open from navel to spleen, and inadvertently severed a major nerve.(Click here to continue...)

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