September 28, 2004
Michael Serazio, Houston PressOn an average day -- with good weed -- Clayton Jones smokes eight grams. If he needs to, he can make an ounce last a week.
It's a few hours after his 5 a.m. wake-and-bake on a mid-August weekday when Jones props open the back door to his porch and wheels himself out. In his lap, he cradles a chewed-up purple Frisbee that contains a scattering of low-grade marijuana.
Jones, 56, lives alone in his Spring Branch house. His only roommates are two skinny, yappy Italian greyhounds named John and Chubs.
'They both love pot.They always eat it,' he says with a touch of his native New England in his accent. 'The worst that can ever happen to 'em is they'll get a little paranoid and they fall asleep.'
He's slumped slightly in his chair, wearing a black T-shirt underneath red, white and blue suspenders clipped onto jean shorts that cloak the stumps that remain of his legs. His tattoos have not weathered well. The once-crisp lines of a Marine Corps insignia have bled and blended into a muddy pool of green and blue. His jaw sags a bit, and his spectacles ride low on the brim of his nose as he inhales gently from a small, clean bong.
This is how Jones medicates.
The photographs tell his story in ghastly detail: They show a black 1984 Nissan 300ZX, the roof crumpled into the front seat like a ball of wadded-up paper, the driver's-side door twisted and wrung out like corkscrew pasta. Clay Jones doesn't know exactly how he got thrown from his car on August 10, 1985, but it broke his neck in three places and his back in seven, and he had 31 other broken bones to show for it.
When he emerged from 13 straight months in the hospital and rehab, Jones choked back a steady diet of assorted pills: Demerol, Vistaril, Valium, Halcion and Lioresal, among others. He describes the feeling in his back 'like somebody's got an ice pick and they just keep jabbing it in and out of that same damn spot, constantly.' The pills, he found, didn't work well enough.
'I was at the point that I was taking 280 milligrams of baclofen,' or generic Lioresal. 'And the maximum dosage on that is 80 milligrams a day,' he says. 'Just to try to control spasticity. I'd be sitting in my wheelchair. I would get a spasm out of nowhere. Next thing I knew, I was trying to block my head from hitting the ground. It just threw me right out of my chair. Threw me over backwards.' A sticky but comfortable breeze pushes across Jones's lush backyard and massages the wind chimes on his porch.
He says that in the early '90s his doctor recommended, unofficially, trying marijuana for the pain. Nowadays, Jones needs only a strong aspirin, a Benadryl for his sinuses and most critically -- he points to the table -- cannabis.
Some believe this is the front line of the battle to legalize marijuana. If so, the movement's poster boy isn't some stoned teenager vegging out in front of Half Baked. No, try an amputee-turned-activist fighting against a politics so full of paradox you might need to spark a joint just to get your mind around it.
When asked if he could've gotten by without weed since the accident, Clay Jones responds sternly: 'I would've blown my brains out years ago.'
To federal drug warriors, Clay Jones is both a front for hidden agendas and a criminal. Some scientists and doctors would disagree. Like the abortion debate, the marijuana issue is highly politicized and emotionally charged, which can quickly muddy the waters of policy.
Even a single report can be claimed as a victory by both sides. Case in point: In 1997, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy requested that the Institute of Medicine analyze medical marijuana's risks and benefits. A key conclusion of the two-year study was seized upon by both camps: 'scientific data indicate the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoid drugs, primarily THC, for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation' -- however, 'smoked marijuana…is a crude THC delivery system that also delivers harmful substances.'
NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, often points to the report's first conclusion. The DEA, which credited the report as 'the most comprehensive, scientifically rigorous review of studies,' used the second half of the statement in its own report, Speaking Out Against Drug Legalization.
Pot advocates say the drug (or plant, depending on your orientation) can be used for patients suffering from AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, migraine headaches, glaucoma, spinal cord injuries and other illnesses. In their corner, they line up heavyweight groups like the American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association, in addition to prestigious medical publications such as The New England Journal of Medicine and Britain's Lancet, both of which have said toke up. The Texas Medical Association recently called for more research on the issue and supports a doctor's right to discuss medical marijuana treatment with a patient, though it didn't outright endorse its use.
Dr. Alan Robison, who chaired the pharmacology department at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston before retiring, conducted some of the earliest research on marijuana's toxicity level.
'That was the first and only drug I ever studied in my career that was so nontoxic that no matter how much of it you gave to a mouse or a rat, you couldn't kill the damn thing,' says Robison, the founder of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas. 'As an industrial chemical, it's a real loser, because you can't even kill a cockroach with it.'
Which is not to say that marijuana is risk-free or that smoking anything would be particularly good for a roach or a human. Robison acknowledges this: 'It's admittedly true that nobody really prescribes smoking drugs anymore…Even physicians who recognize that this is a useful drug, they're reticent about prescribing it' because it's smoked.
To that end, drug warriors, perhaps acting in the wake of the Institute of Medicine's findings, shifted tactics and embraced Marinol, the FDA-sanctioned pill version of medical marijuana that has synthetic THC as its active ingredient. Patients and doctors reportedly have criticized Marinol, however, saying the onset of relief is delayed, and that when it eventually takes hold, you're too high to function. It's an ironic critique, given that for most recreational users, the stronger the pot, the better. Still, several state studies have confirmed that patients prefer inhaled marijuana over oral THC for the more measured, immediate relief it provides.
Clay Jones uses Marinol when he can't get home and smoke, but he has a hard time holding it down and finds that he can't control the dosage as precisely.
Katie, another local medical marijuana smoker, who asked that her real name not be used, says that her doctor didn't even suggest Marinol, because he had heard complaints about it in the past. The 22-year-old Katie was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a pediatric form of bone cancer, at age 16.
'When I first got sick, I threw up 72 times in 24 hours. And lost my voice. I couldn't talk; I couldn't walk. I weighed about 70 pounds. I'm five-eight,' says Katie, who now weighs about 100 pounds. 'And my 60-year-old grandfather comes into the hospital with a bag of pot -- begs me to smoke it. And I was just, like, 'This is too weird -- get out of here. I am not smoking any pot.' '
The self-described 'straight-edge' teen had seen cocaine wreck her mother's life and initially shied away from medicating with cannabis. When her cancer returned, though, in the midst of a painful chemotherapy run, she gave it a shot. It worked, at least for her depression and nausea.
'Without smoking pot, I don't eat. At all.' She pauses. 'Just, I don't eat at all.' She later adds, 'The marijuana works with the pain. It actually, like, relaxes -- like, when you're in pain for so long, your body gets so on edge and you get so tense and it just makes the pain worse. And usually it results, when you're in that kind of pain, you have to go to the ER and get IV pain medication.'
She recalls getting hooked up to a morphine pump after surgery as a teen and deciding to strip-dance in the playroom. 'You're as out there as any heroin addict,' she says of the stronger 'legal' remedies. Still, she worries that one day she'll get stuck with something off the street that contains more than marijuana.
'God forbid it was laced,' she says. 'I would have a heart attack, and that would be the end of my life.' As it stands, her health outlook remains worrisome. In March, the cancer came back again. This time, doctors told her it was terminal.
For many in Houston, the face -- or voice, at least -- of the drug reform movement is 55-year-old Dean Becker. On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Becker sits in the back of the Houston City Council chamber downtown, waiting for his three minutes to speak during the session's public forum. It takes about an hour and a half before his name is called and he approaches the microphone.
'Good afternoon to the council. I'm going to start with a bit of a history lesson,' he says, taking a breath before launching into didactic-radio-host mode. 'In the early 1920s and culminating in 1937, the federal government's propaganda war…' For three minutes, Becker rattles through an accelerated Drug War for Dummies curriculum -- highlights culled from his KPFT/90.1 FM radio show. Councilmembers shuffle papers and slip in and out the back door. If they're listening, they look like they're listening to white noise. Becker finishes up, drawing loud applause from two young guys in sarongs in the back, and Councilwoman Ada Edwards fumbles for a question. 'So, what is the status of this whole thing called marijuana as it relates to -- what are you asking for us to be done?'
'Well, as y'all are aware, I've been here several times. I've come here to speak on behalf of what I call Project Housterdam,' says Becker.
'My question to you, sir, is what are you asking from us as a city council?'
This is progress, Becker explains later. The first four or five times he spoke at the open sessions, councilmembers just looked at him 'like they were looking at a car accident' or 'like a cow looking at a combine,' as Becker describes it. Now, they've budged an inch. One actually asked him a question.
To answer it: The goal of his Project Housterdam is to get the city to lower the priority of marijuana law enforcement to somewhere around fireworks law enforcement, and particularly not to police so vigorously for those using it as medicine.
Two days later, he's sitting in his helter-skelter home office in west Houston. Even though it's a bright day out, Becker has the shades drawn in the downstairs room so that only a trickle of milky light slips in. There's a tray spilling over with papers, dusty shelves of newspapers and binders and, in one corner, near a stack of The Nation magazines and a bag of 'Cannabis Odyssey' buttons, a two-foot-high glass bong.
This is where Becker spends most of his days -- doing research and activism for his Drug Truth Network, which airs on more than a dozen stations nationwide. He's been out of work since July 2002. He says he scrapes by on donations, with help from his family, and with unemployment benefits -- although those ran out earlier this year. He also makes a few dollars selling George W. Bush voodoo dolls.
'Any potential employer does a search on Dean Becker -- wham! No job available,' the former auditor says of his 'Google search from hell.' As a marijuana activist, his political pedigree seems almost too familiar: He traces his activism back to his antiwar days during the Vietnam era.
The connection between that counterculture and marijuana has lasted until today, to the movement's detriment. Keith Stroup, an attorney in Washington who founded NORML in 1970 and serves on its board of directors, understands the consequences of that stereotype. 'I think it all goes back to the late '60s, early '70s, the anti-Vietnam War period when the country was so divided on these social issues. The picture when you mention marijuana, whether it's for medical use or recreational use…what they see in their mind is a longhaired hippie burning his draft card and burning the American flag while he smokes a joint in the public park. Those images linger, and so we continue today to pay the political price.'
Which is why it's important that Dean Becker reach out to people you wouldn't expect. In the summer of 2003, Becker hosted on his show a local congressman, Representative Ron Paul from the 14th District of Texas. He's been one of the strongest backers of the medical marijuana movement in Washington; he also describes himself as one of the most conservative politicians in Congress.
Becker's radio show is called Cultural Baggage, which is fitting. Dean Becker needs Ron Paul. He needs Ron Paul not in spite of the fact that he's a Republican, but precisely because of it. He needs Ron Paul because of his other political tendencies -- the same tendencies that would make a Naderite shudder. For medical marijuana to make headway, opposites must attract.
Becker certainly seems to have found at least some middle ground in the medical debate -- the part that concerns itself with the harmful exposure to smoke. Sitting in his office, he pulls out a stash and brings down the 'Volcano' vaporizer, a small steel unit made by a German company. He turns the dial to seven and the machine starts buzzing. Becker puts in a pinch of marijuana, and the plastic bag inflates. Inside, it's almost perfectly clear.
Becker pushes in the mouth valve and inhales.
'I don't know if you saw,' he says, the effluvia hissing out of his mouth, 'it's a faint vapor.'
Representative Ron Paul's office in Clute looks quite different from Dean Becker's. Propped up against one wall -- underneath a bumper sticker ('Guns Save Lives') and a certificate of appreciation from the NRA -- Paul has a stack of signs that read, 'The taxpayer's best friend.' The Republican's nickname in Congress is Dr. No, and in the past session alone, he's demurred on bills for child nutrition, increased FCC fines, federal highways, obesity lawsuits and regulations for future space tourism.
This year, Paul got a free pass from Democrats; he has no opponent come November. His philosophical matrix dictates his position on medical marijuana. In truth, he's a Libertarian in GOP pajamas; he even ran for president in 1988 as that party's candidate.
'The issue of freedom of choice is more important to me than marijuana as medicine,' says the OB-GYN doctor. 'As a physician, I know the frustrations that patients and doctors have in really treating some of the problems of nausea with cancer and other problems. And there's some pretty good evidence that marijuana helps.'
A tall, thin fellow who just passed his 69th birthday, Paul looks very much the elderly country doctor, swiveling in his office chair with Velcro-strap sneakers and dark socks hiked halfway up his shins. It's a cultivated, if not calculated, political impression -- and one that may have saved his ass on the drug issue. Paul was a congressman in the late '70s and early '80s and in 1996 ran again for a seat in the 14th District, a mostly rural stretch south of Austin and southwest of Houston. In the time in between, he'd called for the repeal of antidrug laws. To no one's surprise, his opponents targeted the issue, believing it was his political Achilles heel.
'To tell you the truth, this was one of the reasons I was sort of challenged to run again,' he says. 'The very first question was 'Are you for legalization of drugs?' I mean, that was the very first question, so I knew and then it went on and on.'
Dr. Ken Bryan served as a political consultant in the primary campaign against Paul and in a general campaign against him a few years later. He says the drug stuff 'never stuck.'
'Part of the deal was that people thought the charges were so outrageous that they wouldn't believe it,' says Bryan. 'Most people saw him as the old-time doctor. He delivered lots of people's babies.'
To parry his opponents' thrusts, and to burnish that image, Paul countered with ads that showed him in his doctor's office with the white coat, delivering babies and such.
The strategy worked again and again. As Paul himself points out, 'I'm in a conservative Bible Belt district, who I'm sure aren't very happy with drugs. It's not like San Francisco or something.' Yet the parable of Ron Paul bears enormous significance for the issue of medical marijuana as a whole, particularly if supporters hope to break the political gridlock that has formed.
'We're kind of in an interesting phase on this issue,' says NORML's Stroup. 'We have won the hearts and minds of a large majority of the American public.'
Several polls validate this contention. A 2001 Pew Research Center study found the public supports prescription marijuana by a more than three-to-one ratio, and a Time/CNN survey one year later had it at 80 percent. But despite the fact that marijuana's medical use enjoys widespread and consistent public support, it's a source of a paralysis on the part of elected officials -- perhaps the strangest paradox in politics. Both conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr.'s writings and the NORML Web site, odd bedfellows in the fight to legalize, lament this pervasive fear of looking 'soft on drugs.'
'You know why it's not legal,' says Paul. 'It's because people are afraid to vote that way. You know, people get hysterical' -- he fakes a shrieky voice -- 'Oh, I can't do that. I agree with you, but the people'll think I'm pro-drugs…The whole thing is just carried away. So Congress is way behind what the people are thinking. If this were a really, really bad position, I couldn't be in office, because it's been used against me continuously.' The point is salient not only to Paul, but it speaks to a second, perhaps stranger paradox: Despite the issue's volatility, no one can think of a single case of someone significant losing their seat because of a stance on medical marijuana.
'Ron Paul should've been gone 20 years ago if that were the case,' says Alan Bock, author of Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana. 'I think partly what this is, most people, early in their political careers, some consultant told them: 'Don't touch that. Your career's over.' And they've never rethought it. Even if they've had fairly serious questions about it.'
Adding to the strangeness is the fact that Ron Paul makes for such an unlikely 'legalize it' poster boy. 'The real irony of all this,' Paul explains, 'is because I'm -- if not the most -- almost the most outspoken proponent of legalizing the use for medical purposes. And I can honestly say I have never seen a person smoke marijuana. And I've never been in a room with it. And I hesitate to ever say that at Libertarian conventions, because I'm afraid that someone'll come up and break my record.'
That alleged insularity doesn't necessarily go for his staff as a whole, though. In April, a 19-year-old intern got busted trying to smuggle weed and a pipe into the Republican's Capitol office. The young man promptly resigned.
At last count, nearly a dozen states from Alaska to Maine had passed initiatives regarding the medical use of marijuana. In Texas, the most recent action was in February 2001, when Terry Keel, a state representative from Austin, introduced House Bill 513, which would have provided for 'affirmative defense' -- a chance for those being prosecuted for marijuana to present evidence of medical illness as a means of defense. That Keel would be the one bringing this proposed legislation forward came as a surprise. The Republican had been a former assistant district attorney and sheriff in Travis County.
'I'm not saying that someone without those credentials couldn't have gotten it to the same point,' says Shyra Darr, Keel's chief of staff, 'but I think that got the attention of a lot of people who might not have taken it even remotely seriously otherwise.'
Even so, whatever momentum Keel was hoping for dissipated quickly. The bill, which many believed wouldn't be carried by a sponsor in the Senate anyway, never even made it off the floor to a vote in the House. It's languishing in a committee to this day.
Efforts at the state level matter less, of course, because pot remains illegal at the federal level. For the past few years, Ron Paul has annually co-sponsored a 'States Rights to Medical Marijuana' bill that would move the drug from schedule I (no accepted medical use) to schedule II (prescription only) of the Controlled Substance Act and would allow states to make the decision about legalization without federal interference. This proposal, along with a 'Truth in Trials' affirmative defense bill, died in committee. The only vote that Congress has recently had on the issue has been for an appropriations amendment to withhold funds from federal agents going after patients who use marijuana legally under state law. This summer, for the second July in a row, the measure failed.
'I absolutely think that whenever one has the opportunity to have a recognized conservative lead the charge, you should always do it. It gives credibility; it gives cover,' says Stroup.
Only the hard-liners' capitulating will likely bring progress. And while relying on the GOP to think straight on medical pot might be 'kinda frightening,' as one cannabis activist put it, it's probably the only chance they have.
'The fact that we are now getting a [California Republican] Dana Rohrbacher out front and a Ron Paul out front and a handful of others suggests to me that it's getting easier for Republicans to buck their party leadership,' says Stroup. 'And one of these days, the party leadership is going to decide this doesn't make sense.'
On the sleepy side of morning rush hour, with the sunrise carving deep, cool shadows from the downtown skyline, Clay Jones stations himself in front of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center and begins shouting.
'Call your representatives! Call your state senators! Call these people! End the madness! Make cannabis available medical -- we need it!' he yells, waving a stack of blue flyers at the crowds that walk past. 'Ten states can't be crazy! Ten states have legalized it! Ten states say they have compassion for their people! They don't want 'em to suffer! If your mother had cancer -- if this was available for you, dammit, you'd break the law! You'd get it! We're not asking for carte blanche! We just want medicine!'
Only a cynic would deny Clay Jones his or her sympathies.
Tom Riley, spokesman for the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, recognizes that. He says the issue has been 'clouded by a lot of the emotion involved.'
'I think a lot of people who follow this closely can recognize that there are a small group of very wealthy people who have been trying to get marijuana legalized for a long time unsuccessfully,' says Riley, citing liberal billionaire philanthropist George Soros. 'They made a strategic decision a number of years ago that rather than continue to, you know, beat their head against the wall in the face of popular disapproval of marijuana, to use this medical angle and to find people who are genuinely sick, who are genuinely suffering, who will genuinely say that marijuana made them feel better and then use those people as, if you will, a human battering ram to get their agenda across.'
From Riley's perspective, Clay Jones is a tool of larger forces, whose stated main goal is the legalization of all drugs. 'The medical marijuana issue is largely hiding that debate behind sick people,' says Riley. Although some say that's a red-herring spin move by drug warriors, Keith Stroup of NORML acknowledges that the more radical agenda -- pushing for over-the-counter heroin and such -- hurts the more moderate one.
Before cannabis, Clay Jones spent most of his limited energy agitating on behalf of the disabled community. As an 'angry young man,' he says, he was arrested dozens of times for civil disobedience, though he never spent much more than a week in jail. He sees parallels to that cause now.
'Because what you're doing, you know it's right.' He quickly resumes the yelling: 'There's a madness going on!' By 9 a.m. his voice is faltering. He says he'll need to spend the next 16 hours in bed. A man in a suit grabs a leaflet and says to Jones, 'If you want to have medical cannabis, you'd better move, because you live in Texas and the Republicans will never vote for it.'
'Well, if they call themselves compassionate--' begins Jones.
'I agree with you, but you're in the wrong state. Come on!' The man disappears inside the courthouse. As it happens, Jones has been thinking about picking up and setting off for Canada. He'll give it time, though, and see if the issue can't make headway in Texas or in Washington.
The crowds filing past him on Franklin have thinned. Jones waits a while longer, handing out a few last brochures and flyers, and then he sets off for home. Monday morning is zipping along in downtown Houston, but Clay Jones needs to rest.