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A Prescription For Pot Peace

Afflicted with a rare form of cancer at age two, Todd McCormick spent most of his early childhood in and out of hospitals and operating rooms. At nine, with his doctor's approval, he began smoking marijuana to relieve the pain and nausea of radiation treatments. In December 1994, while in Amsterdam for the Cannabis Cup, a friend suggested he get a prescription for medical marijuana, which he uses for his chronic pain. He did, and subsequently discovered that the preamble to the United Nations' Single Convention Treaty, which outlawed cannabis around the world, made a special provision to allow people to carry and use prescription drugs internationally that were illegal in some countries but legal in the country they were prescribed in. In March of this year McCormick tested his prescription when he brought 900 grams of cannabis through Customs in Denver.

In July, while en route from San Diego to Rhode Island to help launch a cannabis buyers' club, he, along with his companion, Natalie Byrd, was arrested in Ohio and spent 52 days in jail. Now out on bond, McCormick faces 30 years for trying to deliver medicine to sick people.

HIGH TIMES: Before we get into your prescription for marijuana and the charges you're facing, tell us something about your cancer and how you discovered using marijuana as medicine in the first place.

TODD McCORMICK: When I was two years old I was diagnosed with a cancer called histiocytosis-X. It's pretty rare. I've had nine operations for it. I had it in my spine, and from there it went to my skull, from my skull to my right ear and from my right ear to my left hip twice. I was in a wheelchair for a year when I was about eight, and then it went from my hip to between my lung and my heart, which was the first time with soft tissue.

The cancers were coming machine-gun style. I was in the hospital every week, all the time, constantly. And I was in a lot of pain. My first five vertebrae and my spine were fused together when I was two, and they were giving me painkillers and all sorts of different drugs since I was a little kid. You wouldn't believe the fucking plethora of drugs I was on as a child.

Were you bedridden?

Actually, I was a very active child. I started taking judo at age ten and had my first motorcycle at age eight, my second at age 12. My stepfather was a biker, so I was hitting Sturgis and all the rendezvous, camping in Keene, New Hampshire, all those things. Very biker lifestyle. And bikers are really good people when you're one of 'em. So I was taken care of rather well.

How did you start using cannabis for your disease?

I got it from my mom when I was nine. We were in our car going home one day after a radiation treatment. She put up the windows, turned on the AC and lit a joint, and the secondhand smoke just took my dizziness and nausea away.

When we got home she didn't know what she had done to me, because I felt fine, I wanted to go out and play, and usually when we got home I was sick, just lying down, half dead. So she thought maybe the dope had done something bad, and called my doctor. He told her my reaction was typical, and that she should let me smoke. So she did, then called him back and told him I was hungry. My doctor approved, so they kept it up during my radiation sessions.

Radiation sucks. But at least with pot it was a lot less painful. Being able to smoke before and after radiation was an incredible relief.

And you've been smoking ever since?

I stopped smoking for maybe a year because I got over the cancer and I was feeling OK. But when I was 12 years old I needed something for the pain in my neck. What was happening, and is still happening, is that my spinal fusion is eroding the base of my skull, and it was causing me a lot of pain and anguish. I couldn't even sleep.

Anyway, my doctor told me it was an irreversible condition and that I was going to have to learn how to deal with it. He said he wouldn't prescribe anything that would make me psychologically or physically dependent or compromise my health. He told me to smoke pot. Well, I didn't want to be a pothead. I had a lot of preconceived ideas, I believed a lot of myths about marijuana and so forth. But he just said pot was not my worst option. So I've been using cannabis regularly since then.

Have you had any cancers since you were nine?

I went into a kind of spontaneous remission from age 10 to 15. And then right around 15-and-a-half, I got it in my left arm, in my bone. That was the quickest I ever went through treatment. I was constantly smoking and going to radiation, and it healed really fast. Of course, the cancer can come back at any time.

Have you had any negative effects from cannabis?

Getting busted. My lungs are still clean, if that's what you mean. I've been doing deep-breathing exercises and studying karate and everything, so I don't have any trouble breathing.

Where did you get the ingenious idea to get a prescription for marijuana in Holland?

My companion, Natalie Byrd, and I were in Amsterdam for last year's Cannabis Cup, and we stayed on after it for a few weeks. The whole time we were there Dion Montgraff, who used to be a partner in Cannabis in Amsterdam, kept urging me to get a prescription. I kept asking what good it would do me but he'd say, "What good wouldn't it do you? You'd have it. Just having it could be really useful."

While I was there I also met with James Burton of the Stichting Institute of Medical Marijuana. He told me about Dr. Trussell, the head of the Preventative Medicine Center in Rotterdam, who was the doctor who'd prescribed his cannabis medication. So I gave him a call and explained my medical history and told him I use cannabis for my pain. He was sympathetic, but he didn't know what he could do for me. But when he found out I was in Holland, he asked if I could come in for a visit. So I went to Rotterdam the next morning and he looked me over, injected novocaine in my back to make certain it was nerve and structural damage I was dealing with and not just muscle pain, then he wrote me out a prescription for 10 grams of medical cannabis daily. He told me the script would be good in any country that had signed onto the United Nations' Single Convention Treaty.

Did you bring any cannabis back with you at that time?

No, I wasn't sure if it was legal. I did ship myself 300 grams, and it made it. But then I did it with another package and that got stopped at Dutch Customs. It had my full legal address and my prescription in it, but they said they couldn't ship it to America.

How did you determine that it was legal to actually carry it back with you?

Well, I came back after the Cup on December 15, and three days later I was heading up to L.A. to see Jack Herer when I got stopped at the checkpoint between San Diego and L.A. by federal agents. They were doing their little immigration drug thing. I showed them my passport, and then one of the agents asked if there was anything else I'd like to show them before the searched my car. So I showed him my prescription.

He was like, "What the hell is this? What's it for?" So I showed him my neck, I explained my medical history, and he asked what it meant. I told him it means that I can carry my prescription anywhere in the United Nations, including America and California. And he said "OK, where's this medication?" I told him, and he said "I want you to take it out and put it down."

And I looked at him and I just went "Listen, I know my rights, and unless you're willing to arrest me, I will not be willfully emptying my pockets, consenting to search, waiving any of my rights." And he just looked at me and said "Right on."

The chief was eventually called over and he looked at my prescription, then looked at my passport and shook his head. Then they allowed me to get back in my car and drive away.

How did you feel?

I went up to Jack's tripping out! I couldn't believe it. Then I went to the Sacramento Law Library, did some research, then reviewed it with Chris Conrad. We were particularly interested in the Single Convention Treaty and the legalities surrounding the prescription, and we both came to the conclusion that it was legal. The preamble of the Single Convention Treaty says that no country shall prohibit legitimate use of narcotics. And because cannabis is scheduled as a Schedule I narcotic drug in this country, that makes it a narcotic. And then the treaty talks about cannabis and its use as medicine. And I've since learned that international human-rights laws established by the United Nations, as well as the Food and Drug Administration's ruling on personal use of foreign-prescribed drugs, both stipulate that Americans who go to Europe, or Europeans that come to America with prescriptions, will not be harassed. On an individual basis, they will not stop you from utilizing foreign-prescribed drugs.

So when did you actually come into the United States with your prescription medicine?

In March 1995. I brought back about 900 grams, two pounds. The airline even let me smoke on the airplane.

It did?

When I was making arrangements for my flight, the lady said smoking or nonsmoking? And I was like, "Oh, it's a smoking flight?" I told her I had a prescription for cannabis and she acted as if, well, if you have a prescription I'm sure it's not a problem at all. So she put me in the smoking section and they let me smoke my cannabis there.

Coming back on that flight, did you think you were going to have a problem?

I felt really like I was in the right. I wasn't trying to hide it. Everybody on the plane could smell it. They were all talking about it, busting my balls, asking me if they should bring me extra food.

So I wasn't scared so much as I was wondering how I was going to deal with things. But I'd been through so much as a child, I've been a prisoner in my own body for so very long, what could they really frighten me with? Imprisonment, taking away my cannabis, what could they really do? I was willing to see what they were willing to do. And nothing was what they were basically willing to do. So that was that.

What happened at Customs?

I noted on my Customs declaration that I'd been in Holland for a doctor's visit. The agent asked me why I didn't go to an American doctor. I said I'd had cancer nine times in eight years and doctors here can't prescribe cannabis.

So you walked into Customs in March with 900 grams of pot and nothing happened?

I walked into Customs and as soon as they punched my name into the computer, the agent just looked at me, punched up more information, read the screen, wrote PC, personal check, on my little slip, and said, "You have to go over there." I was the only person off the flight that had to go to secondary inspection. Of course, I was the only person on the flight smoking cannabis, and I did smell like it. But the Customs agent was really nice to me. He X-rayed my things, went through one of my bags, and that was pretty much the end of my interrogation. They let me leave.

What did you do to the cannabis to keep it from being stopped at customs as vegetation?

I didn't really know anything about that the first time. I just brought through raw cannabis. But I was speaking to someone at the International Hemp Association who said what they could do was gamma-irradiate it, which is what they do to food. What that does is kill all biological forms of life. The IHA has just done an experiment with that and they found that while it killed all the microorganisms in the plant, they found no loss in THC, CBN, CBDs. It was just as potent, just as useful. And actually it was better in a way, because it was dead.

The whole scenario is fascinating, using the Single Convention Treaty, which the US government is always touting as superseding local laws, to your advantage.

It's great. Dr. John Morgan, when he talked to my mother while I was in jail recently, was really wowed by the whole idea. He said that this had been done with other drugs, but no one had ever thought about doing it with cannabis. He said he thinks this could be the key to really unlock a lot of cannabis research.

Have you thought about helping others to get scripts in Holland?

Some of us were planning a "flight to freedom," as we were calling it. We were thinking we'd try to get a charter flight and group going. Imagine if we had 100 patients on a plane, and I had national coverage--I mean, CNN and the major networks would want to cover something like that. We'd come through and they're waiting on the other side. Either they would see 100 patients get cuffed as they attempted to bring their foreign-prescribed drugs back into America, or 100 patients would make it through with their cannabis prescriptions. I think that sort of action covered by the media would make a huge impact in the Berlin Wall of medical-pot prohibition here in America.

Do you have to keep returning to get your prescription filled?

Yes. That's the one drawback to this. Natalie and I were planning to go back in August, but then August got taken away from us with the bust.

How much can you pick up at once?

That's debatable. My prescription is for 10 grams a day, and people bring back up to six months' prescription from a foreign country rather commonly. That's nearly two kilos.

Is the pharmacy you get your medicine from licensed to hand over cannabis?

There is only one active pharmacy doing it.

Is anyone here asking where you filled your prescription?

Yeah, the Ohio state troopers, after my bust. I told them it was from Amsterdam, that I brought it back through Colorado Customs. They thought that was the most preposterous thing I was telling them.

Tell us about the bust. When, where and how did it happen?

Natalie and I were arrested by Ohio state troopers on July 18, around 2:30 in the afternoon at mile marker 11 on Interstate 80, Ohio. We were headed to Rhode Island, to help launch a cannabis buyers' club there, so we had 30 pounds of buds with us.

Why Rhode Island?

That's where I grew up. That's where the majority of my friends died, and where I spent most of my life in Rhode Island Hospital. The club is going to open up in a church there and I wanted to help get it going by bringing them some medicine.

Why were you pulled over?

They said it was because my hemp curtains on my 1987 van were closed. Actually, at first I thought it was just a general stop, but Natalie thinks they were waiting for us because there were three cars that pulled us over for our curtains being closed. She may be right, and it might have been the San Diego DEA who tipped them off, since they knew we were traveling with marijuana.

At first they just asked who was smoking the pot? I showed them my prescription, and I gave them my passport. Then a female trooper started questioning me about my prescription, and then this Officer Stevens came along, telling me his father had cancer and he didn't give a shit about my condition. We got into a little debate about things, and then he went over to Natalie and asked to see the prescription. She showed him the vial I brought back from Europe, which had about 80 grams in it, and as soon as that happened, they just opened up the vehicle and started going through our groceries, looking for whatever. They arrested us for my prescription, before they even found the 30 pounds, which was in a trash bag, with stickers on it that said "Not For Sale: Cannabis provided free by members of the Cannabis Buyers Club." It was all buds, all very good quality.

What happened next?

They had Natalie drive the vehicle to a municipality's place up the highway, where they handcuffed us and just started ripping our van apart. They started making all sorts of comments like, "Oh, look at this personal computer!" "I got a cellular phone!" "Who needs a camcorder?" It was ridiculous, their whole focus was on forfeiture.

We were held there for about two hours, and then I was brought to the Correctional Center for Northwest Ohio, a regional prison. Our bond was set at $150,000 each.

What did they charge you with?

We're both charged with a first-degree felony of corrupt activity (a racketeering charge), a third-degree felony of drug trafficking, two fourth-degree felony drug-abuse charges and one other felony. One of them relates to some mushrooms they found that they said contained psilocybin--we bought them at a health-food store--and they also found hashish. The prosecutor, William Bish, says we're facing 30 years if convicted.

At my arraignment the judge, Anthony Gretick, was phenomenal. He let me speak for about 20 minutes, and I discussed my health situation, the San Diego medical-marijuana resolutions that have passed, the San Diego buyers' club that I run. The prosecutor was trying to say that I had "elaborate growing operations" in San Diego, and I was telling him that San Diego police knew about the club, and had no interest in prosecuting medical patients. That's when the judge made a comment saying that he would not be responsible for my health while I was in jail, and ordered the prosecutor to secure my cannabis from the state police, and also my electronic muscle-stimulation machine. The prosecutor was dumbfounded.

The judge said he would even consider letting me have my prescription in jail if I could get one American doctor to validate it. As soon as he said that, Don Wirtshafter of the Ohio Hempery, who's helped out a lot, got on the horn and called Drs. Lester Grinspoon, Tod Mikuriya and John Morgan, and three letters of validation were on the judge's desk within 18 hours.

Was the issue of giving you your medicine inside a prison simply too hot for the system to handle?

I had a feeling the judge would be more willing to release me on a low bond than let me smoke in jail. I don't think he expected me to get validating doctors so quickly. So they lowered my bond and I raised the money and left.

I also now believe my prescription is more valid than I even thought. Five felonies and I'm out on $2,000? They must have checked the prescription, found out it was valid and realized they'd have to let me smoke in jail. Which they didn't want. So they lowered the bond. But they're still holding my passport and my medicine, so they're forcing me to go to the illegal market.

Of course they're still a lot of other things as well: My personal computer, a cell phone that's not even mine and my video camera.

How did Natalie take to being busted with you?

We share the same conviction. To say we're like-minded would be an understatement. She was more than willing to do whatever it takes. All the time she was in jail, not one whimper. She was just like, let's get by it, the truth will set us free.

How many days were you inside?

Natalie was in for 28 days before her bail was lowered to $100,000 and the judge agreed to accept a 10 percent cash bond, which her father posted. I was in for 52 days before my bail was lowered. And without my medicine it got really painful. I could hardly move my head. They tried to give me Motrin, double the safe dose, but I wouldn't take it. I'm not a lab animal. I've already got a prescription that works.

Any date been set for trial?

No. My lawyer, John Schaefer, a court-appointed attorney, feels that this isn't going to make it to trial. Since the very beginning he's said this was a blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment on search and seizure.

What about the raid on your house in San Diego three days after the bust? How did that go down?

The DEA, with no assistance from the city police, who know about the buyers' club, went and raided my house on August 21st. I wasn't even told it had happened, I just found out by accident when I called from jail and the Feds answered the phone.

They talked with me for about 15 minutes, trying to get me to implicate the four people that were at my house in criminal activity. I told them everything was mine, that the others were just answering the phone and taking care of things while I was away.

But as soon as I hung up, I called my mother and had her call my friend Diane in San Diego, who called the press. And within 20 minutes of me calling, Channel 10, the most conservative news station in San Diego, was there with cameras rolling, covering the "raid." The DEA promptly uncuffed the people that were there and tried to close the blinds. But the blinds wouldn't close, the cameras were in the windows; I mean, it got really ugly for them. They had no comment for the press at that time.

Was anyone arrested?

No, and the DEA got a massive amount of bad press out of it. All they found in the house was less than two ounces of pot, some seeds, lots of books.

Did they find growing equipment? Plants?

They didn't find anything, because there wasn't anything to find.

What have they done with the house?

Nothing. In fact, within six days of the raid they returned 90 percent of what they took. They're still holding my mortgage and some paperwork which they're saying is "evidence," but they haven't filed any charges or initiated any proceedings at all.

And after the media attention the whole thing got, they suddenly went from "No comment on this case" to "We didn't know it was a compassion club, and we didn't know there were medical-marijuana resolutions passed in San Diego. We didn't know what we were into."

Can they go back on that and file charges if they want?

I've been wondering if there are any secret indictments floating around, or what they've got up their sleeve. It's obvious to me why they didn't want to get me into a federal court. If I were to go into a federal court and show my prescription, that would set precedents from sea to sea. And I don't think they want to deal with that.

How many people were you seeing at the club?

Under 20. It only opened this year. But my house is right next to a house for HIV-positive and AIDS men, and they were going to be my main focus.

Do you plan to continue with the club?

Oh yeah, full balls. I couldn`t imagine not doing it. I would not want to die not having tried to change things. And there's no way anything the police can do will stop me from continuing.

You know, when I was a teenager, I was afraid to mention the word marijuana. I was afraid to fuckin' draw a little pot leaf on my pad in high school, because I didn't want to be charged with it. We live in such a state of fear, what good is that? So yeah, I plan on going home.

What's about the Rhode Island club that you were bringing the 30 pounds to? Is that still going to open?

Yeah, my mother's been working on it. She's turned into quite the little activist since I got arrested. She's always been feisty and adamant, but in the past year that I've been running around publicly, she's been saying I'm going to get busted, and I've been saying, so be it. I'm already busted, Mom. I'm already livin' in the fuckin' society that considers itself free when it isn't. I do not want to embrace these lies. And it's going to end, so let it end now.

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