Tuesday, October 25, 2005

I'm the Youngest Marijuana User on Record in the U.S.

The nightmare is always the same. I see the Attorney General of the United States standing behind a tall podium, hovering over me as his voice booms with the authority of a man with a satellite linkup to God.

“In response to an obesity epidemic killing hundreds of thousands of Americans annually, our newly formed Food Enforcement Administration has outlawed junk food. Local police will conduct searches of residential refrigerators. Candy wrappers and barbeque grills are now considered paraphernalia. To dissuade the lucrative black-market activities of street gangs like the Ice Cream Crew and the Praline Posse, neighborhood weight-watch signs will be erected in your area. Pre-employment urine screenings will test for traces of illicit food substances. Fast food felons will no longer be allowed to vote, carry a handgun, or receive a Pell Grant. Our military forces will be dispatched to destroy African cocoa fields used in chocolate production. Police smuggling donuts will face corruption charges. And
insulin-dependent diabetics will just have to suffer and die, because we don’t want to send the wrong message to children about sugar abuse. Can you pinch more than an inch? If so, you aren’t simply unhealthy, you’re a criminal. So just say NO to Cracker Jacks!”

I wake up sweating, but then I take a deep breath, still happy to be walking down the green path. Come walk a mile in my shoes…

I am the youngest therapeutic cannabis user on record in the United States. I smoked my first joint in 1971, when I was two years old.

I was deprived of oxygen during birth, and my mother and I both nearly died. I grew into a severely hyperactive toddler (even then, I was a hellion). I was constantly screaming and crying, destroying property, and aggressing toward other people. When I bit my
preschool teacher on the leg and smashed my fist through the living room window, my parents became desperate.

Few people understood medical marijuana (or hyperactivity, for that matter) back then, but my parents had smoked cannabis for years. In fact, my father had graduated Magna Cum Laude from TCU, smoking every day, and was a communications professor at Drake in Iowa – again, smoking daily. My parents were Southerners. They knew about folk remedies, like rubbing sweet rum on the swollen gums of teething babies. They thought cannabis wouldn’t harm me, and they suspected it might relax me. They held the joint to my lips, telling me to suck it like a straw.

I'm sure that at the age of two, I was unable to get a full inhalation, but it was enough to work. Mom and Dad were amazed by the results. The marijuana curbed my aggression, reduced my tantrums, elevated my mood, increased my appetite, and helped me sleep.

My parents provided marijuana to me for the next three years, until I entered kindergarten. Once President Nixon stepped up the "war on drugs", my parents became afraid of the legal ramifications, so they stopped giving it to me. My behaviors went through the roof, so I graduated to a harder drug, Ritalin, which was considered a cutting-edge amphetamine at the time, with serious side effects (including addiction, heart palpitations, and nervous tics, to name just a few). Ten years later, Ritalin would become one of the most over-prescribed substances in the nation. Parents enjoyed the sanitized convenience of behavior intervention in a pill, while their children often sold the pills in the school playground.

My parents kept my childhood marijuana use a secret from me until 29 years later, when I was writing about the federal marijuana program.

In 1990, I had no idea I would become a professional writer. I was sweating my way through college. My mind was full, if not my stomach. I dined cerebrally, devouring books and vegetarian gruel. Still, someone had to bring home the tofu.

I accepted a job as personal attendant for a quadriplegic veteran whose pain specialist secretly recommended marijuana for his agonizing and debilitating spasms. The unfortunate price of his relief was the terror of being thrown in jail. Every time he used medical marijuana, he went through an elaborate ritual of pulling the blinds, spraying air freshener, and dropping a towel under his door.

One night after smoking his medicine he asked me, “Do you really think they would take care of a guy like me if I was behind bars? Give me physical therapy? Wipe my ass? Would they know how to change out my catheter? I wouldn't even be able to defendmyself. I could die in there.”

While the veteran lived in fear, other patients were legally smoking marijuana grown and supplied by Uncle Sam. I met the fifth federal patient,
George McMahon, when he first spoke at UNT in 1998. George receives 300 pre-rolled joints each month, to treat severe symptoms of pain, spasms, and nausea related to years of surgical and pharmaceutical maltreatment, repeated injuries, and a rare genetic condition called Nail Patella Syndrome, which can cause bone deformities, kidney failure, and immune system dysfunction. George and his wife Margaret were traveling the world speaking to legislators, police officials, educators, health care professionals, and patients about the medical value of cannabis.

Prior to being accepted to the government program, George had survived 19 major surgeries, took 17 pharmaceutical drugs daily, and depended on a wheelchair. For the past fifteen years, George has smoked ten government joints each day. During this time, George hasn’t had a single surgery or hospitalization, he no longer takes pharmaceuticals (aside from the occasional antibiotic), and he rides a bike. He is living proof that marijuana is medicine.

George was an inspiration. He could easily have been complacent, enjoying the benefits of consistent access to his medicine. Instead he was fighting for other patients. George told me that helping others gave him courage and strength to get up every morning. He struck me as a humble man with a strength that belied his illness.

I paused to consider the potential ramifications of writing a book with a federal marijuana patient. I already had firsthand knowledge of the dangerous and unintended repercussions of speaking out. People had tried to hurt me on numerous occasions. I had once been physically assaulted by skinheads while protesting a Ku Klux Klan rally on the steps of the State Capitol in Austin, on Martin Luther “Coon” day (as the KKK called it). My car had been repeatedly vandalized, once by fire. In response to my writings on drug policy reform, I’d received veiled, threatening letters from disturbed strangers. I knew how difficult it could be to have a rational dialogue with hysterical people, especially when the First Amendment is often treated like toilet paper. But I couldn't turn away from the opportunity.

We began with George pouring out a lifetime of memories into an old-school Dictaphone. Before we finished, the project blossomed into a major road trip documented on video, including stops at the State Capitol of Arkansas, Elvis Presley’s Graceland, and the
federal cannabis garden at Ole Miss.

Over the past four years, I’ve had the honor of serving as George’s co-author, caregiver, biographer, historian, devil’s advocate, and publicity consultant. We’ve traveled through 11 states together, speaking at law schools, junior colleges, legislative gatherings, and music festivals. We’ve occasionally been followed, videotaped, and harassed by misguided police officers and attorney generals. But we’ve also been welcomed by legislators, church librarians, and DEA agents. And we’ve generated news articles in five countries with an aggregate circulation of approximately 20 million readers. Not bad for a couple of guys with no degrees, a couple of antiquated home computers, several kamikaze editors, and a stubborn desire to dig ditches and help change the laws.

The federal marijuana program lies at the heart of a conundrum that demands resolution. If the DEA is correct in claiming that marijuana is a dangerously addictive drug with no medical benefit, then why has the government been giving it to sick and dying people for the last 23 years? On the other hand, if marijuana has medical applications, why is the federal government criminalizing patients, closing clinics, and denying states the legal autonomy to resolve the issue independently? Until these questions are answered, George’s story needs to be told, again and again.

Politics are intensely personal. Making no distinction between individual circumstances of use, the war on drugs has become a war on suffering people. Legislators aren’t health care professionals, and patients aren’t criminals. Yet health and law become entwined in a cruel and sometimes deadly dance.

After thirty years of perpetually escalating sentences and draconian prohibition policies, we've lost more of our citizens (and more of our civil liberties) than we did on September 11th. Despite this devastating human carnage, illegal drugs are still readily available on any given street corner in America. This is the terrible result of attempting to treat a public health problem as a criminal justice issue. It’s like trying to outlaw junk food. It will never work. It will only exacerbate the health problem while compounding it with a host of legal, economic, and public safety issues.

How long will it take before our legislators implement drug policies that heal people rather than destroying lives? I’m no soothsayer, but I think we hold the answer in the voices we raise and the ballots we cast. Something tells me our journey down the green path has not yet ended.

Oh, yeah…and to all you fired-up activists, I’d like to offer some unsolicited knowledge (at the risk of sounding like Margaret Mead). Never let yourself believe you can’t make a difference. Indeed, you are the only one who can. And you don’t have to be absorbed in some homogenized collective “movement” to change things, either. An organization is only as strong as its weakest link, but you are a majority of one. Act like it. Enough said.


Blogger David Wiley said...

Dude....you're psycho....keep writing...

9:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'd have to say that i'm pretty much like your dad. i smoke everyday and maintain a normal life without anyone suspecting otherwise. (i smoke b/c my brain is constantly thinking. always. it gives me a way to relax and not think about anything). i'm so glad you're writing something like this :)

2:28 PM  
Anonymous Blue Cross of California said...

Great blog I hope we can work to build a better health care system as we are in a major crisis and health insurance is a major aspect to many.

9:43 PM  
Anonymous Barton said...

I wish I had the courage to give marijuana to my daughter, or to my wife for that matter. They are both overweight, and could use a little energizing to get back on a healthy track. My wife also suffers from migraine headaches. Dr. William Osler, one of the most important figures in American medicine, wrote in 1913 that marijuana was “probably the most satisfactory remedy” for migraine headaches.

Keep up the good work, helping and writing about George McMahon and the other IND patients. The Compassionate Investigational New Drug program, as you well know, was launched during the Carter administration under the FDA. How dare the FDA come out with their blanket rejection of medicinal marijuana just recently, when they have been supplying pot to medpot patients (seven of whom still receive it) for as long as 23 years!

Until 1937, marijuana was widely administered by American doctors. In fact, when the prohibitionists (yes, the same folks who forbade Americans to drink alcohol from 1920 to 1933) were successful in selling the idea of the Reefer Madness scare, to a largely racist population (“what would happen if a Negro, high on marijuana, raped your daughter?”), it was the American Medical Association that became the chief opponent of the Marihuana Tax Act, as it was known.

Then in 1970 Richard Nixon had his flunkies pass the Controlled Substances Act, which classified cannabis as a Schedule One drug, purportedly more dangerous than cocaine. He was just afraid of the millions of young people smoking pot and getting anti-war ideas.

I think it’s important for us to know the history, otherwise we’ll let this government deception go on forever. The legacy of the constipated prohibitionists and the paranoid Richard Nixon lives on. It is up to sane thinking individuals to put a stop to it.

My tiny contribution as a medpot patient is that I am able to grow my own. I live in one of eleven states that allows medicinal marijuana and luckily I have an enlightened doctor, who is willing to write prescriptions for it. I used to obtain the pot from a compassion club, but these clubs are constantly hassled by the law (what did Martin Luther King say about unjust laws?), since the feds do not respect state law, only the federal kind. It’s about time we did major housekeeping in Washington! Sweep the bums out!

We own a house in a wooded area, so I’m able to set aside a patch on our property for my pot growing. Growing outdoors, I have to be conscious of insects and pests, but I found a great website that helps me with identifying and rectifying these problems.

They also supply me with nutritional information and offer an array of products designed to maximize the size of my harvest. My favorite new product of theirs is Wet Betty, which is applied after the sun goes down and makes for stronger plants and roots.

My wife and daughter have decided to ignore my pot growing, even though they know damn well that it is the only medicine that helps to control my epilepsy. My daughter is nine and a half and she has a low opinion of pot and hippies. I guess she picked this up watching television.

2:19 AM  
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