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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 officialsall 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."
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 (www.medicalcannabis.com), an organization McMahon helped found.
Additional reporting: Taron Flood