LAKE PALESTINE, TEXAS - George McMahon knows he hasn't got much time to
live. On this spring day, he sits in his car beside a crowded beach and
opens a shiny metal canister filled with marijuana cigarettes. McMahon
casually presses a large joint between his wrinkled lips, then lights it.

He's not in Amsterdam or Greenwich Village, but in rural Texas, home to
Bible thumpers, Bush whackers, and a prison system renowned for
zero-tolerance sentences and assembly-line executions. Even so, he's not
concerned about legal repercussions. He can smoke pot in any state of the
union without being arrested or prosecuted.

Afflicted with a rare neurological disease, George McMahon, age 50, is the
fifth United States citizen to receive legal medical marijuana from our
federal government. He gets 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
Geraldine Ferraro. But progress toward legitimizing the palliative power of
pot stopped cold last month, when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that
"marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception" from the
Controlled Substances Act. In their ruling, the 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.

For now, the program continues because, officially at least, it's
considered a research project. In theory, the feds are supposed to be
collecting data on the therapeutic effectiveness of marijuana, but George
says the agencies supplying him have never sought much information on that.
"I am 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 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. He 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

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 the chronically or terminally ill to break the law by seeking their
medicine on the black market.

The government agreed, however, to continue supplying the 34 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 an obscure disease known as Nail Patella Syndrome, a poorly
understood genetic condition. 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 disease, which is incurable.

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 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 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 just constant--whether
he was walking, lying down, or sitting up.

The herb has brought McMahon the relief he couldn't find in traditional
pills, and with fewer side effects. "Most people don't know that I'm sick
unless I tell them," he says. "The marijuana has really been that effective
in controlling my symptoms. I don't need statistics and research. I am
living proof that marijuana works as medicine."

Efforts to get data gathered in the "investigational" pot project proved
fruitless. Various FDA representatives promised to answer questions and
look up reports, but none did.

Paul Armentano, spokesperson for the National Organization for the Reform
of Marijuana Laws, says that's not unusual. "If you ask the officials
involved in the program to see the research they've collected over the last
20 years, they'll claim they don't have any," says Armentano. "They'll
claim that they're keeping these people in the program out of compassion."

For people like McMahon, the true goal--to relieve suffering--seems
obvious, as does the need to grant the relief to all who need it. His own
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
better and without life-threatening side effects, McMahon smoked marijuana
illegally for 20 years. Finally, he found a doctor in Iowa, where he lived
at the time, who took a special interest in helping him get marijuana
legally. He put McMahon through an investigation protocol and a spastic
pain evaluation. Then McMahon contacted the people in Iowa 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.

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, though, 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 motherfucker, 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.

He has a certificate of heroism for participating in the President's Drug
Awareness Program in 1990, signed by former first lady and prohibition
advocate Nancy Reagan. McMahon is a reluctant hero, and he expresses
gratitude to his family, particularly his wife, who has seen the difference
cannabis makes. "If he did not receive the marijuana," Margaret says,
"George would probably be dead by now from all the other narcotics he would
be taking for pain."

In addition to struggling for survival, McMahon is fighting for the
decriminalization of medical marijuana. Since government weed contains only
a moderate level of the intoxicant THC, McMahon remains lucid and eloquent.
He has traveled the country, speaking with university students and faculty,
legislators, physicians, and law enforcement officials--all while smoking
10 joints a day.

The recent Supreme Court decision to ban the Oakland (California) Cannabis
Buyers' Cooperative from distributing medical pot set the campaign back,
even as it exposed the government's hypocrisy. According to legal
documents, the compassionate program that helps George McMahon was a
cornerstone of the cooperative's cause.

NORML's Armentano says the ruling shows the limits of a state-by-state
approach toward legalizing marijuana. "The Supreme Court's decision shows
that there are no shortcuts in the game, so efforts should be directed
toward Congress," he says. "While the decision is unexpected, it is
definitely no shock."

Few expect the federal government to start zealously enforcing the law.
Consider the ramifications if officials began arresting and incarcerating
tens of thousands of patients, breaking apart the families of sick and
dying people, and using our tax dollars to prosecute, imprison, and provide
medical services to these patients. Politicians want to avoid front-page
photos of MS patients with spasmodic arms handcuffed to wheelchairs while
relatives sob in the background.

Recent polls indicate 70 to 80 percent of the public approves of medical
marijuana being used by the general population. 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 and has 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.

George extinguishes his government roach as a blazing 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."

Pubdate: Tue, 26 Jun 2001
Source: Village Voice (NY)
Issue: 27 June - 3 July 2001
Copyright: 2001 Village Voice Media, Inc
Author: Christopher Largen
Note: The writer is George McMahon's longtime friend and a fellow advocate
for medical marijuana. The two plan to put a portion of the proceeds from
this article toward promoting the cause through Patients Out of Time
(, an organization McMahon helped found.
Note: Additional reporting: Taron Flood