Reefer Madness

The government says Clayton Jones shouldn't smoke marijuana. He says it's the only thing that keeps him from blowing his brains out.

"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.

Representative Ron Paul of Clute is a conservative 
who supports medical marijuana.
Representative Ron Paul of Clute is a conservative who supports medical marijuana.

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.

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