George McMahon knows he hasn't got much time to live. On this fall day he sits in his truck beside an empty windswept beach and opens a shiny metal canister filled with tightly rolled marijuana cigarettes. McMahon presses a large joint between his wrinkled lips, then lights it. He inhales deeply, holds his breath for a few moments, and then exhales. He grins and mutters, "Seize the day."
He's not in Amsterdam but in rural Texas, home to a prison system renowned for zero-tolerance sentences and assembly-line executions. Even so, he's not concerned about legal repercussions. He can smoke his pot in any state of the union without being prosecuted.
Afflicted with a rare neurological condition, George McMahon, age 51, is the fifth United States citizen to receive legal medical marijuana from the United States Government. He receives 300 joints a month, courtesy of the little-known Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program, run since 1978 by the Food and Drug Administration.
The U.S. has a long history of allowing the use of experimental pharmaceuticals, whether an unproven root bought in a health food store or the once-shunned thalidomide recently given to blood cancer patients like former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. Medical marijuana patients suffered a major legal setback in 2001, however, when the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that "marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception" from the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The nine justices made no mention of Uncle Sam's own pot farm at the University of Mississippi, nor of the machine-rolled joints sent free of charge to sick people like George.
Despite last year's ruling, ballot-mandated cooperatives continue to provide marijuana to sick and dying citizens in nine states including California, where DEA agents have recently focused efforts to seize records, close clinics, and destroy medical cannabis plants, violating the express will of the citizenry. Public outrage over these intrusive enforcement tactics has been so overwhelming that Santa Cruz officials recently joined local activists to pass out medical marijuana in front of city hall, in direct defiance of federal law. This is the first time in nearly forty years (since the civil rights movement in the 1960s) that federal and state laws are in direct conflict.
George McMahon has strong emotions about the recent headlines from California. "It's like some absurd cosmic joke. I have safe, legal access to my medicine, but my fellow patients are being threatened and jailed. Where's the justice in that?"
For now, George continues to receive marijuana from the federal program because, officially at least, it's considered a research project. In theory, officials are supposed to be collecting data on the therapeutic effectiveness of marijuana, but George says the government agencies have never conducted longitudinal case studies on the legal patients. "I'm just so pleased to be able to use what they send me legally," McMahon says. "To be relieved of some of the pain and still be within the law means so much."
The FDA's "compassionate" approach hasn't been available to many. The agency originally implemented the program under Jimmy Carter, following a lawsuit by Robert Randall, a glaucoma patient who demanded that the government acknowledge the medical necessity of his marijuana use. Randall was soon joined by cancer patients and people with multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injuries, who smoked federal pot for relief from nausea, pain, and muscle spasms.
But as the AIDS epidemic swelled, so did the number of applicants. Overwhelmed officials in the Bush administration stopped accepting applications in 1992, throwing hundreds of requests in the garbage and forcing chronically and terminally ill patients to break the law by seeking their medicine on the black market.
The government agreed, however, to continue supplying the 15 patients, like George, who had already been accepted. Today, only a half-dozen remain.
His pain momentarily quieted, George steps onto the green grass and limps toward the rickety wooden dock that reaches into glistening water. He suffers from a poorly understood genetic condition known as Nail Patella Syndrome. NPS can attack major organs, including the kidney and liver, disrupt the immune system in ways that are difficult to comprehend, and cause bones to be deformed, become brittle, and easily break. It affects the joints, limits mobility, and causes chronic pain, muscle cramps, and spasms. Some NPS patients also have serious immune system complications from the anomalous genetic condition.
George winces slightly as a cool breeze carries a cloud of marijuana smoke toward the lake. Although he's well acquainted with pain, he lived without a concrete diagnosis for many years. As a child George contracted colds and the flu frequently. Muscles in his arms didn't develop normally, and lifting weights didn't 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 felt exhausted and could stand for only 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 constant - whether he was walking, lying down, or sitting up.
Although marijuana does not directly treat Nail Patella Syndrome, the herb has brought McMahon symptomatic relief that he couldn't find in traditional pills, and with fewer side effects. "Before I was accepted to the federal marijuana program, I was taking 17 different pharmaceutical substances. My children remember me sprawled on the living room couch, virtually comatose for days on end. I was in and out of the hospital, sometimes receiving intensive inpatient treatment for months at a time. Since I started smoking marijuana, I've come off of every single prescription drug I was taking. Nowadays most people don't even know that I'm sick unless I tell them," McMahon says. "The marijuana has really been that effective in controlling my pain, spasms, and nausea. I don't need empirical statistics and clinical research. I'm living proof that marijuana works as medicine."
For people like McMahon, the true goal-to relieve suffering-seems obvious, as does the need to grant relief to all who need it. His medical history includes 19 major surgeries, seven of them performed in one week. Throughout his life, he has been prescribed morphine, Demerol, Codeine, Valium, and other sedating medications. He has been rushed to hospital emergency rooms on at least six occasions with severe drug-induced conditions, including respiratory and renal failure and hallucinations. The medications did little for his chronic pain and spasms, and he was both mentally and physically incapacitated.
Convinced that using small amounts of pot daily helped ease his discomfort without life-threatening side effects, McMahon smoked marijuana illegally for several years. Finally, he tracked down a doctor at the University of Iowa, who took a special interest in helping him get marijuana legally. He put McMahon through an investigation protocol and a spastic pain evaluation. A native Iowan, George then contacted assistants at Senator Charles Grassley's office, and was pleased at their willingness to help.
After yet more tests and stacks of legal paperwork, George received his first shipment of marijuana from the National Institute on Drug Abuse in March 1990. These days, he goes to a designated pharmacy, where he picks up the medicine in the form of joints, stored in a silver tin with a prescription tag. "I've been smoking ten joints a day for twelve years, and during that time I haven't had one surgery or hospitalization. Marijuana literally saved my life."
McMahon keeps his monthly supply with him at all times. As a general rule, he tries to be discreet, in hopes of not offending people or appearing to kids as a recreational pothead. "I cope with the pain," he says. "Some days are better than others, but if I go more than a few hours without my medicine, I can get myself in trouble."
Sometimes, however, he lands in a jam by taking it. McMahon says few cops seem to be aware of the program. On one occasion George and Margaret, his wife of 30 years, were attending a Virginia conference sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, where he intended to contradict the agency's specious claim that marijuana was addictive. George had meandered away from the main crowd to smoke his medicine, when he was approached by two police officers, one of whom began hitting his fingers, trying to knock the joint out of his hand, yelling at him to put it out.
"He called me a mother fucker, called my wife a fucking bitch, and told me to shut my fucking mouth," he says. "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, McMahon describes himself as a "regular family man who has had to make wide adjustments." His voice and appearance are rugged, the heavy toll of years spent at manual labor, for mining companies and large farming operations. Today, he lives quietly on disability insurance at his modest home in an East Texas gated community, and enjoys spending time with his three adult children and seven grandchildren.
George was given a certificate of heroism for participating in the President's Drug Awareness Program in 1990. The prestigious parchment is signed by former first lady and prohibition advocate Nancy Reagan, and hangs in his home office next to an American flag woven from hemp cloth. McMahon chuckles as he thinks about the dubious honor, saying, "I don't even know if Nancy knew what she was signing. Maybe she got a little too tipsy during one of those White House cocktail parties."
McMahon is a reluctant hero, and he expresses gratitude to his family, particularly his wife, who has seen firsthand the difference cannabis makes. "If he didn't receive the marijuana," Margaret says, "George would probably be dead by now from all the pharmaceutical drugs he'd be taking."
In addition to struggling for survival, McMahon is fighting for th e decriminalization of medical marijuana. McMahon remains lucid and eloquent as he travels the country, speaking with university students and faculty, legislators, physicians, and law enforcement officials - all while smoking 10 joints a day.
The Supreme Court decision to ban state-authorized clinics from distributing medical pot exposes blatant hypocrisy on the part of the federal government. If the Drug Enforcement Administration is correct when they claim that marijuana is a dangerous, addictive drug with no medical value, then why has the US Government been growing and giving it to sick and dying people for 24 years? On the other hand, if cannabis has medical applications, why is the government closing marijuana clinics, criminalizing patients, and overriding the legal autonomy of the states?
At the time of the Supreme Court ruling, few officials expected the federal government to start zealously enforcing the law. Consider the ramifications if officials begin arresting and incarcerating tens of thousands of patients, breaking apart the families of sick and dying people, and using our tax dollars to prosecute and imprison these patients. Politicians want to avoid front-page photos of MS patients with spasmodic arms handcuffed to wheelchairs while relatives sob in the background. Nevertheless, political concerns did not prevent federal agents from recently storm-trooping the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana cooperative, chain sawing 130 cannabis plants, and handcuffing a paraplegic patient at the state-sanctioned garden.
Recent national polls indicate 70 to 80 percent of the public approves of patients having legal access to medical marijuana. Yet when decriminalization advocates push for reform, the government counters that there simply isn't enough research to warrant the reclassification of a potentially dangerous drug. This call for evidence operates in a circular fashion, as the drug laws themselves have prevented the accumulation of much data. Legitimate scientists who seek to perform controlled studies on cannabis face a daunting bureaucratic gauntlet. Additionally, officials have repeatedly ignored the findings of their own commissioned research panels, which argue that marijuana is a relatively safe substance with numerous medical applications.
Meanwhile, as attorneys and pharmaceutical executives play politics and debate where to draw the line, sick and dying people like George McMahon continue to be arrested, and medical marijuana cooperatives are being trampled by federal agents armed with shackles and chainsaws.
George extinguishes his government roach as a blazing marmalade sun descends behind him on the lake. It seems unreasonable to him that our nation 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 that has no fatal side effects, was used medically for thousands of years, and is less harmful and addictive than tobacco or alcohol. "I want people to know that I am just a normal guy," he says. "I'm not an activist, but I do believe that every sick patient in America should be able to make these personal choices without going to jail."