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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.