July 9, 2001
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I nervously glance out the car window and survey the crowded lake as my friend George McMahon sits next to me and opens a metal container filled with marijuana cigarettes. He casually presses a large joint between his wrinkled lips and lights it. We aren't in Amsterdam but rural Texas, home of Bible-thumpers, Bush-whackers, and a prison system renowned for zero-tolerance sentences and assembly-line executions. Even so, George is not concerned about legal repercussions. In fact, he can smoke in any state of the union without being arrested or prosecuted.
George McMahon, age 50, is the fifth United States citizen to receive legal medical marijuana from our federal government, courtesy of the Compassionate IND (Investigational New Drug) program, administered by the National Institutes of Health with the approval of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA implemented the cannabis program under Jimmy Carter, following a successful 1978 lawsuit filed by Robert Randall, a glaucoma patient who demanded that the government acknowledge the medical necessity of his marijuana use. Randall smoked government cannabis for 23 years before dying from AIDS-related complications on June 2 of this year. The program stopped accepting new applicants in 1992, when the government was overwhelmed with applicants. Officials threw hundreds of applications in the garbage, and large numbers of patients, now relegated to criminal status, turned to the black market for their medicine. The government agreed, however, to continue supplying the few patients, like George, who were already accepted to the program, and currently there are six patients smoking government-grown marijuana.
George steps onto the green crabgrass, and limps toward a rickety wooden dock which protrudes into glistening water. He suffers from an extremely rare neurological disease known as Nail Patella Syndrome (NPS). NPS is poorly understood, but it is a genetic condition that affects major organs including the kidney and liver, disrupts the immune system in ways that are difficult to comprehend, and causes bones to be deformed, become brittle, and break easily. It also affects the joints, limits mobility, and causes chronic pain, muscle cramps, and spasms. Eight percent of patients are afflicted with organ and immune system complications which kill most of them by age 40. Only 200 people have been diagnosed with NPS, which is incurable, progressive, and fatal.
George winces slightly as a cool breeze carries a cloud of marijuana smoke across the sandy beach. Although George is well acquainted with pain, he lived many years without a concrete diagnosis. As a child, George contracted colds and the flu frequently. Muscles in his arms didn't develop normally, and lifting weights did not help. He was constantly breaking bones, especially in his hands and wrists, and he lost all of his teeth by the time he was 21. He was extremely lethargic and could only stand for a few minutes without experiencing unbearable pain. Spells of nausea, fever, chills, and night sweats were common for him. He suffered from Hepatitis A and B, and Tuberculosis, and there were times when his pain was so unbearable that he couldn't lie down, sit up, walk, or have his body in any comfortable position. George has dealt with immediately life-threatening conditions on numerous occasions, due to kidney failure or medication reactions. His medical history includes 19 major surgeries, seven of them performed in one week. During one unsuccessful surgery, he had 11 tubes or cables attached to his body. George's doctors were initially baffled by his symptoms. Throughout his life he has been prescribed morphine, Demerol, Motrin, Codeine, Valium, and other anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory, sedating, and mood-altering medications. He has been rushed to hospital emergency rooms on at least six occasions suffering from severe drug-induced conditions caused by these powerful medications, including respiratory and renal failure and hallucinations. The medications had little effect on his chronic pain and spasms, and he was both mentally and physically incapacitated. He felt so drugged that he couldn't function normally, and reactions to the drugs damaged his stomach, making it impossible for him to eat without extreme nausea.
George smoked marijuana illegally for 20 years before he began to receive his legal government supply. On numerous occasions, his doctors were convinced that cannabis was helping him cope with nausea, pain, and spasms, but felt they were not in the position to help him obtain the drug legally. By 1988, George was convinced that using small amounts of marijuana daily helped ease his discomfort better than any prescribed drugs, without the life-threatening side effects. George finally discovered a doctor in Iowa who took a special interest in his plight to use marijuana legally for his intense symptoms. He went through investigation protocol and spastic pain evaluation. He then contacted Iowa Senator Charles Grassley's office, and was pleased at their willingness to help. He also contacted the Alliance for Cannabis Therapy (ACT), a non-profit organization in Washington DC, founded in 1981, which seeks to end the federal prohibition of cannabis in medicine. ACT is focused solely on the question of marijuana's medical utility and adopts no policy regarding the non-medical use of cannabis. It assists individuals with glaucoma, several different cancers, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), AIDS, epilepsy, chronic pain and other ailments.
After numerous tests, evaluations, and stacks of legal paperwork, George received his first shipment of marijuana (grown at the University of Mississippi) from the government's National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) in March of 1990. He receives 300 cigarettes each month, in a shiny silver tin with a prescription tag, at no cost to him. According to printed material provided, the cost for the government to produce the marijuana is minimal. He goes to a designated pharmacy, through two sets of locked doors, to receive his allotment of cannabis, which is then stored in a locked safe, closer to his residence. He keeps his current monthly supply on his person at all times, asserting that he never leaves home without it.
George is familiar with paternalistic law enforcement officials intervening in his consumption of cannabis. Few officers are aware of the IND program, and there have been several incidents of police detaining George while they confirm via telephone that he has the legal right to smoke pot. Not all officers have been courteous or respectful of his legal rights. On one occasion George and Margaret, his wife of 30 years, were attending a Virginia conference sponsored by NIDA. He intended to contradict NIDA's specious claim that marijuana was addictive. George had meandered away from the main crowd to smoke his medicine, when he was targeted by two police officers, one of whom began hitting his marijuana cigarette, trying to knock it out of his hand, yelling at him to put it out. George's raspy voice becomes tense as he describes the altercation. "He called me a motherfucker, called my wife a fucking bitch, and told me to shut my fucking mouth. They tried to get us to leave by intimidating us. They treated me like a criminal. I am not a criminal. It was one of the worst feelings I've ever had."
Despite the intensity of his daily struggles, George describes himself as a "regular family man who has had to make wide adjustments because of the propensity for illness." He lives quietly at his modest home in a gated community in East Texas, and enjoys spending time with his 3 adult children and 7 grandchildren. His voice and appearance are rugged, indicative of a time when George worked for farm machinery operators and mining companies. Heavy manual labor took its toll on George, as he often worked with broken bones while suffering incredible pain. He eventually began to receive disability insurance due his disease which was declared advanced, progressive, and terminal.
Today, in addition to struggling for survival, he is fighting for the decriminalization of medical marijuana. Although George smokes 10 joints a day, he remains lucid and eloquent, and has spoken with university students and faculty, legislators, physicians, and law enforcement officials throughout the country. Government marijuana contains a moderate level of THC, and George derives benefits from numerous other cannabinoid chemicals present in the herb. Unfortunately, many other patients must resort to illegal supplies which are unregulated and far more unpredictable. "Why are patients being jailed for their medical consumption? If one ill individual can legally use the drug and get some relief from their pain, I feel I have succeeded with my mission," says George. Many of those who receive their marijuana from the government have had their supply disrupted, but he feels very fortunate that this has not happened to him. "I am just so pleased to be able to use what they send me legally. To be relieved of some of the pain and still be within the law means so much." George has a certificate of heroism for participating in the President's Drug Awareness Program in 1990, which was, ironically, signed by former first lady and prohibition advocate Nancy Reagan. He is a reluctant hero, and he expresses gratitude to his family, particularly his wife Margaret. She emphatically states, "If he did not receive the marijuana, George would probably be dead by now from all the other narcotics he would be taking for pain."
The Drug Enforcement Administration evidently disagrees, as they currently persist in classifying marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, stating that cannabis is addictive and has no medical value. The recent unanimous Supreme Court ruling, which prohibited the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative (OCBC) from distributing medical marijuana, concurs with that opinion, and reflects blatant hypocritical inconsistency on the part of the federal government. According to court transcripts, the federal Compassionate IND program was a cornerstone of the cooperative's case. Attorneys for OCBC argued that the federal government has already implicitly acknowledged marijuana's medical efficacy, since federal executive agencies are actively producing and distributing it to patients like George McMahon. The Supreme Court chose to avoid the issue altogether, and did not even mention the Compassionate IND program in their ruling against the coop.
In George's opinion, the Supreme Court ruling is merely symbolic, changing nothing for patients in the states that acknowledge medical necessity. Admittedly, few people actually expect the federal government to start zealously imposing the law it supports in principle and legal oratory. Consider the ramifications if government officials actually started arresting and incarcerating tens of thousands of patients, breaking apart the families of sick and dying people, using our tax dollars to prosecute, imprison, and provide medical services to these patients, and demonstrating the tragic result of a fundamentally flawed policy. The government wants to avoid published photos of MS patients with spasming arms handcuffed with chains to wheelchairs while relatives sob in the background. Many citizens would not accept this totalitarian infringement on their most basic of liberties, as recent polls indicate between 70 and 80 percent approval for medical marijuana among the general population.
When decriminalization advocates push for reform of current drug laws, government officials often respond by stating that there is simply not enough research to warrant the reclassification of a potentially dangerous drug. This call for research operates in a circular fashion, as the drug laws themselves have prevented the accumulation of much research. Legitimate scientists who seek to perform empirical controlled studies on cannabis face a daunting gauntlet of bureaucratic hurdles, often having their requests for approval rejected in the final stages of the process. Additionally, officials have repeatedly ignored the findings of their own commissioned research panels which claim that marijuana is a relatively safe substance with medical applications. In the meantime, while legislators, attorneys, and pharmaceutical executives play politics and debate over where to draw the line in the sand, sick and dying people like George McMahon continue to be arrested.
George extinguishes his government roach as a blazing sun descends behind him on the lake. It seems unreasonable that our government locks patients in prison, strips them of their voting rights, confiscates their property, and destroys their families, all because it seeks to eradicate a natural herb which has no fatal side effects, was used medically for thousands of years, and is less harmful and addictive than tobacco or alcohol. Legislators and police officers are not doctors or scientists, and they should not politicize pharmacology. Our descendants may one day mock this folly.
Christopher Largen is an issue-based activist committed to a wide spectrum of causes including drug-policy reform, civil liberties, social justice, and free thought. His articles and essays have been published in many news outlets including Dallas Morning News, Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, El-Paso Courier, Galveston Daily, Austin Chronicle, Counterpunch, Ace Magazine, Progressive Populist, etc., and have been featured on Harry Browne's radio program on the Talk America network. Largen has served people with physical and mental disabilities for over a decade. He has known George McMahon for three years and they have developed a friendship and working partnership.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Christopher Largen 2001. All rights reserved.
Related External Links
George McMahon's Home Page
Patients Out of Time - Cannabis as Medicine
Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative (OCBC)
Medical Marijuana - Report to the Director, National Institutes of Health
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