Drug-reform activist, cannabis horticulturist, amateur research scientist, cancer survivor and accused pot farmer Todd McCormick, 27, was jailed on Friday, April 3, for failing a urine test. Federal Magistrate Judge James W. McMahon ruled that McCormick had violated conditions of his bail by testing positive for THC, the most psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
McCormick, who founded a medical marijuana club in San Diego at age 25, is one of the state’s leading advocates of medicinal marijuana use, and his defenders view him as a political prisoner in California’s ongoing drug wars. McCormick’s current trial stems from his arrest last July 29 in a splashy raid by dozens of officers from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration at a turreted, five-story home in the tony Bel Air section of Los Angeles. According to the cop count, 4,116 pot plants were seized at what the media dubbed the “Marijuana Mansion.” McCormick was charged with manufacture of a large quantity and faces life imprisonment because of federal mandatory-minimum drug laws.
The case received extensive media coverage as McCormick remained in jail for two weeks until a friend, movie star and hemp activist Woody Harrelson, posted $500,000 bail. “I am helping Todd because he is a friend but more importantly because he is working to help others in a way that California voters have declared perfectly legal, in spite of the fact that the DEA considers this legislation a threat to their somewhat questionable reason for being,” Harrelson told the press at the time.
McCormick, who says marijuana is the most effective treatment for chronic pain he suffers as a result of childhood cancer, was forbidden to use marijuana while his case was pending. In early March of this year, he procured a prescription for a form of synthetic THC, a legal mass-market pill known as Marinol. McCormick immediately informed the feds of his prescription, and on March 17, Judge McMahon, despite California law allowing for medical use of marijuana, forbade him to use “hemp-seed oil, Marinol or any other product containing cannabinoid derivatives, either with or without prescription.”
David Michael, McCormick’s lead attorney, reacted strongly. “That was an unfair and cruel decision by a court,” Michael said at the time. “It’s inappropriate for any judge to believe that they have the power to interfere with a doctor-patient relationship. The judge made this ruling merely to preserve the right of the government to continue to test Todd for drugs and to deny him medicine to serve that irrelevant purpose.” McMahon also refused to hear any argument over medical evidence, said Michael. “In a case like this, it’s unheard-of for a judge not to allow evidentiary hearing regarding these potential issues.”
McCormick says he acceded to the judge’s orders to cease his marijuana use, but he piss-tested positive six times between March 7 and 18. When he tested dirty last week, seven U.S. marshals went to McCormick’s home with a warrant for his arrest. McCormick wasn’t at home but arranged through his local counsel, Eric Shevin, to turn himself in at 9 a.m. the next morning.
McCormick says the positive test results reflect his Marinol use, and the fact that THC is known to stay in one’s system for up to a month or longer. In addition, Marinol is an oil-based preparation that tends to reside in the body’s fat tissues even longer than smoked marijuana. Prosecutors admitted in court Friday that they were not prepared to call any experts in urinalysis to confirm or disprove McCormick’s claim that the dirty test was a result of residual Marinol and, therefore, simply weren’t ready to proceed. But instead of releasing McCormick pending a formal hearing, Judge McMahon jailed him until April 22, at which time the government is expected to present evidence.
Neither Judge McMahon nor Assistant U.S. Attorney Fernando Aenlle-Rocha would comment on the case, but Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in L.A., says his office didn’t
request that any action be taken against
McCormick. He says the move was prompted by communication between a pretrial-services officer and the judge.
Physically, McCormick hardly seems a threat to anybody, standing in at 5 feet 6 inches and weighing 120 pounds. His diminutive stature is the result of having had histiocytosis-X, a rare form of childhood cancer that afflicted him continuously between the ages of 2 and 15. When he was 9, Ann McCormick, a self-described hippie who’d given birth to Todd when she was 19, read a magazine article that reported studies maintaining that pot could control the pain and nausea of the chemotherapy and radiation sessions as well as restoring the boy’s appetite.
So one day Anne gave Todd a joint. “It immediately removed my dizziness, my nausea, and gave me an appetite,” remembers McCormick. “I got home, wanted to play, eat some food — which was amazing — and my overall health increased.”
But to this day McCormick says he continues to suffer from chronic pain, in part because his left hip failed to develop normally due to repeated radiation treatments, and in part due to nine surgeries doctors performed to remove tumors, one of which required that the first five vertebrae in his neck be fused. McCormick found early on that pot eased these conditions, so instead of becoming infatuated with the usual preteen hobbies, by the age of 12 he began a lifelong interest in researching and advocating marijuana.
McCormick never embraced the identity of the drug outlaw, however, and has for years sought legal avenues to his treatment regimen. In 1994, McCormick, then 24, went to the Netherlands and was thoroughly examined by a doctor and given an international prescription for pot. “My prescription is for 10 grams a day, equivalent to seven to 12 joints, depending how fat you roll them.” This scrip was tested in February of ’95, when, after purposely notifying a DEA agent, he flew into Colorado from Amsterdam with his medicine. He declared his pot, showed his prescription and was allowed, based on an obscure agreement in the U.N.’s Single Convention Treaty of 1961 that honors scrips from any U.N. member, to leave the airport — reefer in pocket.
In 1995, McCormick opened up the San Diego Compassion Club, lobbied successfully for a declaration from the local City Council endorsing medical marijuana, and worked with hempster Jack Herer on his Hemp and Health Initiative, which failed to make the ’96 ballot and was pre-empted by Proposition 215. In July of ’95, McCormick was arrested by an Ohio State Police five-car interdiction team with over 30 pounds of grass in his car that he was transporting to Rhode Island to start a club. He was released when a judge ruled the search and seizure was illegal. Then, three days after the Ohio bust, the DEA raided the San Diego club, seizing literature, software, initiative petitions and a small stash. No charges were filed, but it was apparent that McCormick was a marked man.
In November of ’95, he split again for Amsterdam, the Shangri-la of enlightened attitude and over-the-counter hashish in coffee shops. Over the next year, McCormick experimented with different strains to determine which were most efficacious for individual illnesses. Ironically, he found that marijuana low in THC and high in a less psychoactive cannabinoid called CBD was most effective in controlling his neck pain. When Proposition 215 passed, he was contacted by author/medical-marijuana patient Peter McWilliams, and returned to California.
With medical marijuana technically legal, many pot activists believed they had the drug war won and set out to build on their triumph. McWilliams promised six-figure payments to McCormick for whatever he might produce — a book or video or research project or magazine or all of the above. The pair leased “the mansion” in Bel Air as a base of operations and began raising plants; there was even a plan to grow product for cannabis clubs around the state, though no deals were ever struck. Porn publisher Larry Flynt dropped by to discuss a magazine on hemp and marijuana.
It wasn’t long before someone started singing to the cops about the mansion loaded with weed — not that McCormick went to any lengths to hide it. Most of it was growing outside on a porch, clearly visible to anybody at a higher elevation, such as, say, a snooping copper chopper.
Some in the grassroots medical marijuana movement who believe in a strict interpretation of 215 felt that McCormick was being reckless by growing in such quantity and expecting to be shielded by the new law, which states that a patient or caregiver can grow for personal use. McCormick counters that he was growing for personal use, that the amount he was growing, which he’d yet to harvest, was going to be stored for future consumption. He disputes the official plant count, contending that the narcs counted seedlings and cuttings as full-grown plants.
Because he’d neither harvested nor distributed, the feds could only charge him with manufacturing. Whether McCormick is protected under Proposition 215 is a moot point according to the Clinton administration, which continues to claim sovereignty over state law.
Since his arrest last week, friends say that McCormick is in severe pain, suffers from insomnia, has lost weight, and has been diagnosed with acute depression and put on antidepressants by a prison doctor. “They’re torturing Todd,” says Peter McWilliams. “They’re keeping him from what recent studies have shown is the safest, most powerful pain-relieving medication on Earth. Meanwhile, the government announces that 40 percent of all violent crime is alcohol-induced. Where are our priorities?”
The seven “recent studies” McWilliams refers to were presented to the Society for Neuroscience at a conference in New Orleans last year in a summary report which stated that “substances similar to or derived from marijuana, known as cannabinoids, could benefit more than 97 million Americans who experience some form of pain each year.”
A march to demonstrate support for McCormick is planned for Monday, April 13, beginning at the old Federal Courthouse on Main Street at 6:30 p.m. Organizers intend to pass by the Metropolitan Detention Center, where McCormick is incarcerated. A vigil is scheduled, and Ann McCormick and Republican gubernatorial candidate and medical marijuana activist Dennis Peron are scheduled to speak.