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More MS news articles for September 2003

Pot Power

Two local authors converge on one book that makes the case for medical marijuana

September 24, 2003
Jeff Prince
New Times

Prescription Pot: A Leading Advocate's Heroic Battle to Legalize Medical Marijuana
By Christopher Largen and George McMahon, New Horizon Press, 224 pp, $14.95

For a guy who smokes 10 joints a day, George McMahon is surprisingly lucid, energetic, and productive. Hell, he's even written a book, something I've tried to do for years without success -- and I only smoke nine joints a day. Plus, I don't have an incurable disease, unless you count terminal laziness.

McMahon, a crusty coot with a leathery face, oozes sincerity about his favorite cause, legalizing medical marijuana. He is one of seven people in the country who can legally smoke marijuana, and he has experienced the marijuana debate from the inside out and the topside down. Since 1990, the government-funded Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program has supplied him with 300 pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes a month. To keep you math-deficient folks from passing a brain stone, this means he has inhaled more than 43,000 joints since 1990. I spent an entire day with McMahon last November in East Texas and found him to be engaging and well spoken, if a bit scattered in his thoughts. Our meeting led to a Fort Worth Weekly cover story ("Reefer Sadness," Dec. 12, 2002).

Despite his impressive ability to hold an interesting conversation while smoking marijuana all day, he didn't strike me as somebody who could organize his thoughts enough to write a book. At the time our cover story appeared, he had been collaborating for more than a year with an unpublished writer named Christopher Largen, who has Fort Worth roots but was living in a small and sparsely decorated Dallas apartment, trying to contour McMahon's thoughts into a readable story, scraping by on little money, and relying on a bust of Elvis Presley as a muse. Largen is a tall guy in his mid-30s, laid back, with sleepy eyes, a shock of black curly hair, and an endearing habit of ending e-mails with the phrase, "Your Iconoclast, Christopher." Those attributes, while charming, didn't create an air of confidence or achievement.

So it was a pleasant surprise to receive in the mail several months later an advance copy of Prescription Pot: A Leading Advocate's Heroic Battle to Legalize Medical Marijuana, one of the most interesting non-fiction books I've read in a while. Both men are gentle souls, and their Zen view of the world colors almost every page. Largen supplied enthusiasm tempered by an understated writing style, wisely avoiding the shrill tone employed by many activist authors. Combined with McMahon's passionate views, that relaxed style does a better job than preachiness would, to present their case convincingly. Readers are more likely to be angered by the hypocrisy of U.S. policy simply because no one in the book is telling them to get angry.

Anyone upset by the corruption and evil (not a word to be used lightly) found in Washington D.C. will appreciate this book and the courage it took to tackle the subject. The story features medical marijuana smokers, nurses, physicians, activists, and a few politicians who risk careers and reputations to buck a government that is using Gestapo-like tactics in its quest to stamp out a natural plant that was used as a medicine for thousands of years before being outlawed in the 1930s for reasons that had more to do with economics than with protecting the populace. Many people in this book are philosophical soldiers, as brave as the heroic men and women currently serving in the Middle East.

The U.S. government has been growing marijuana since 1976 and giving it to a handful of medical patients, while at the same time arresting thousands upon thousands of citizens for smoking pot. The government claims marijuana lacks medicinal powers yet doesn't study the patients it supplies with marijuana, who say pot is their most effective medicine at battling the effects of many illnesses. Medical researchers have found that marijuana can reduce nausea, pain, and muscle spasms; slow the advance of glaucoma; and treat symptoms related to cancer, AIDS, and multiple sclerosis.

The federal war on marijuana is so unbending that presidents, drug czars, and federal agents for years have denied sick people a cheap, effective, and relatively safe medicine -- but a medicine that grows naturally and can't be patented, thus cutting into the profits of pharmaceutical companies, lobbyists, and politicians. Two-thirds of the U.S. population has tried pot, and eight of 10 of those surveyed have said they believe sick people should have access, yet the government continues to classify marijuana as a dangerous drug with no medicinal applications -- on the same level as heroin and crack cocaine.

McMahon and Largen make a convincing case that this approach is nonsensical. Largen's introduction alone makes for fascinating reading, but the real accomplishment is in how he helped McMahon tell this maddening, complicated tale in such a simple, loving, and forthright manner. Along the way, they meet people who help or hurt them, and sometimes it's surprising to see those who come across as empathetic and gallant, including police officers and people such as Edwin Meese III (former attorney general under Ronald Reagan) and former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.

The book follows McMahon through his early life, traumatized by a rare and horrifically painful disease called nail patella syndrome and years of bad reactions to prescribed drugs, his discovery of marijuana's medicinal superiority over pharmaceuticals in fighting the disease, his quest to gain legal access to pot, and his willingness to bring trouble on himself while fighting for the rights of other sick patients. This inspiring and important tale challenges the government's stance as McMahon tries to understand a country where "drug lords, pharmaceutical executives, and government officials get rich, while suffering patients trying to get relief go to jail and die."

Copyright © 2003, New Times