Todd McCormick is a survivor of childhood cancer, a lifelong advocate for medicinal cannabis and industrial hemp and one of the winners of the Cannabis Culture Award in 2012. In this interview he recounts some of his life's work.
Afflicted with a rare form of cancer for most of his childhood, Todd began using marijuana with his doctor’s approval at the age of 9 to relieve his suffering from regular exposure to radiation therapy. Todd survived his brave fight with cancer and would go on to dedicate his life to spreading the word on the many uses of medicinal cannabis and industrial hemp.
His tireless work in marijuana activism includes the authorship of numerous books, production of many successful activism campaigns as well as the fostering of online communities dedicated to educating others about medical marijuana.
Todd was also featured in the award winning Canadian documentary The Union: The Business Behind Getting High and is an executive producer on the follow-up film The Culture High, which is currently in-production.
Todd continues to travel around the world to participate in some of the largest events of the marijuana policy reform movement. Despite his busy schedule, Todd was more than willing to take the time to share with us the captivating story of his life as a world-renowned activist of the cannabis plant.
Q: What type of cancer were you diagnosed with and how did medicinal cannabis help to alleviate or reduce your suffering?
At the age of 2, I was diagnosed with Histiocytosis X. At the time, it was considered to be an aggressive type of cancer but later on, around 1986, science realized it had both misdiagnosed the disease as well as the treatment.
Unfortunately for me, I was diagnosed with nine tumors within an eight-year span, between ages 2 and 10, and I was treated with a combination of radiation therapy, chemotherapy and surgery. The first eight tumors were in bone but when I got a tumor between my left lung and my heart, in soft tissue for the first time, that was when my doctors thought it was the end.
That was also when my mother read in the magazine Good Housekeeping that marijuana was effectively alleviating side effects from chemotherapy in cancer patients, so she decided to give it a try. I was only nine years old when my mother first gave me a joint. It was directly after a radiation therapy session.
I was of course feeling nauseous and dizzy but smoking that one joint completely turned around my dismal feeling. That first joint not only took away my feelings of nausea and dizziness, but it also picked me up out of my depression and gave me an appetite.
I went on to use cannabis during both chemotherapy and radiation therapy with startling results. Considering all of the other medications they had put me on that were ineffective, finding something as instantaneously effective as cannabis was a godsend. I contracted one last tumor in my left arm when I was about 17 years old and I have been disease-free since.
Q: In the summer of 1997, your home in California was raided by the federal DEA. Could you give a detailed explanation of what occurred that day?
On July 23, 1997, my house was raided by about 100 officers from – what felt like – every department imaginable. I became one of the first federal arrests after California voters changed California law and passed proposition 215 in November 1996.
I had just moved back from Amsterdam only seven months earlier and took a book offer from a very prestigious publisher named Peter McWilliams. Peter was a five-time New York Times number one selling author and a publisher of over 35 books. He had contracted AIDS and cancer and was very interested in me writing a book about medical marijuana and how to grow it; that book is called How To Grow Medical Marijuana and has been available free on the Internet since 1998.
After receiving the generous book advance, I moved into a comical mansion in Bel Air that was fashioned after a castle and started setting up my dream research facility. Sadly, there was a marijuana club in town that was not looking for any potential competition, so they decided to turn me into the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Dept., which is what spawned the raid on my house in July.
Q: What happened after your arrest?
Fortunately for me, I had some very good friends in the neighborhood who were willing to post my bond and assist me with lawyers. Woody Harrelson posted my half million-dollar bond and Larry Flynt’s attorney stepped up to defend me. I went on to fight the case for three years until I was railroaded into a prosecution by being denied medical necessity defense at trial.
At the time, it was such a significant decision by a federal judge that the New York Times dedicated an entire page to explaining my case. During that time on bond, I became a very well-traveled activist, speaking at colleges from coast-to-coast and even opening up Woodstock in 1999 by talking about ending the drug war from the West stage.
While I would go on to serve five years in federal prison and my publisher would sadly die because he was denied the use of medical cannabis during his chemotherapy and AIDS treatment, the people that initially turned us in went on to run their club for over five years until the federal government had had enough of them and shut them down. But because of their cooperation in my prosecution, they were fortunate enough to only get 12 months of probation.
The judge actually credited the three men with the “cooperation in the prosecution of Todd McCormick” in open court and sentenced them to no-time in jail for running a pot club for over five years, growing tens of thousands of plants and making millions of dollars.
While I did five years in prison, I didn’t want it to break me. Upon release, I got back into activism by producing events and assisting in the making of the documentary The Union: The Business Behind Getting High. Then, from 2007-2009, I helped MPP produce fund raisers at the Playboy Mansion that were so successful that I launched the THC EXPO at the LA Convention Center in 2009 to an audience of over 50,000 through the weekend.
After Jack Herer passed away, I was given the job of editing his great book The Emperor Wears No Clothes for its 12th release, which we released with a memorial to him in August of 2010 at Seattle Hempfest (we dedicated that year’s entire event to Jack).
I was so impressed by Vivian McPeak and the entire Hempfest crew, that I helped its founder Vivian put together a beautiful book that is a 20 year retrospective called Protestival – a full color collage of what it took to build Hempfest into an event that now hosts over 300,000 people over the course of a weekend, every August, in protest of prohibition.
I am currently working on two books that will be completed shortly; my next grow book is titled GrowMedicine, which is accompanied by a web community dedicated to growing at: GrowMedicine.org. Shortly after that, I will be releasing Reefer Gladness; From Cancer to Cannabis, which will be my memoirs.
We will also be releasing a beautiful package of Jack Herer’s two books as well as the video about his life titled The Emperor of Hemp. Back in 94 when I got started in activism, it was Jack that I learned from and traveled with and worked on the Hemp & Health Initiatives with, so it is only natural I continue with his work, since it is really our work. Humanity needs cannabis prohibition to end and Jack was a great trumpeter of that message.
I am also honored to have been awarded the 2012 Cannabis Culture Prize by the Hash, Marihuana & Hemp Museum in Amsterdam and I am going to be over there when they open their new location in Barcelona. After I come home, we will be filming a follow up to The Union entitled The Culture High with the same crew of amazingly talented people. I also run HEMP.xxx, which is my site dedicated to education of all things cannabis.
Q: As former Director of San Diego Compassionate Use Club, what sorts of conditions are patients looking to have relieved through medicinal cannabis use?
Nothing has surprised me more than the variety of conditions people utilize cannabis for. When I initially got involved in this, I thought it would be mostly cancer patients and people with AIDS going through serious medical conditions, but more and more I realize that cannabis has a quality that helps people on a lot of subtle levels and I wonder how many people do not seek their doctors advice for stressful situations because they simply smoke a joint, relax and deal with their life without pills.
Q: As a medical marijuana patient, have you ever been prescribed any synthetic THC medications? If so, please describe these experiences in comparison to your use of natural marijuana.
I have been prescribed Marinol numerous times. While I have found it interesting, it does not contain the qualities of the whole raw cannabis plant so I would much rather self titrate by smoking a joint than commit myself to however many milligrams of THC by swallowing Marinol.
What a lot of people do not realize when they consume THC in either a brownie or a Marinol pill is that it turns into another drug entirely; when THC goes through the liver it’s called the “one pass effect” and it turns the THC into 11-Hydroxy-THC, which is 3 to 5 times more psychoactive and only present in our blood system when we eat cannabis. This increased psychoactive activity can be frightening to somebody who has no experience with THC so I tell everyone to eat a little at a time until they have experience with the product.
Q: As a child, you suffered ten times from cancer. Your mother provided you with cannabis, out of fear for your wellbeing, at age 9. What do you say to those who oppose giving medicinal cannabis (of any form) to seriously ill minors?
Well, I have never seen cancer check a kid’s ID before attacking. I am glad my mother was brave enough to worry more about my health than honoring the ignorant laws [regarding medical marijuana use]. I am surprised how many parents will blindly let their children take a bevy of pharmaceuticals prescribed by physicians who are only “practicing” medicine but are somehow inclined to think that this benign herb should be hidden away.
Q: If marijuana were to be legalized, it would mean the same for hemp. What industries would we see the greatest changes in?
I personally believe that cannabis needs to be re-legalized and come back as a commodity on par with cotton, lumber, petrochemicals and a whole host of natural resources. I believe that cannabis prohibition has nothing to do with the personal consumption of cannabis, but instead [represents] the economic manipulation of the world’s oldest commodity. Long before there was a commodities market, we traded hemp for our fundamental needs of paper, fiber, paints and medicines.
Paper was invented using cannabis in China and hemp was a highly valued crop because of it. Long before there was a cotton gin, we wore hemp as our main fabric. I laugh now to think that had America had its way back in 1492 when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and cannabis prohibition had been in effect, there would have been no sails to blow his ship across the Atlantic Ocean, there would have been no ropes to tie its anchor, there would have been no paints and varnish to seal its hulls, nor would there have been any flags waving.
Because when you stop and think about it, the cotton gin was not even invented until after 1790. So 300 years earlier when Columbus was sitting in Spain wondering how to get to India, for, I am sure, better cannabis, fabrics like cotton were not even an option.
Interestingly enough, the US government’s Department of Agriculture made a film during World War II called Hemp For Victory and they started off the film by stating that hemp was indispensable:
“Long ago when these ancient Grecian temples were new, hemp was already old in the service of mankind. For thousands of years, even then, this plant had been grown for cordage and cloth in China and elsewhere in the East. For centuries prior to about 1850 all the ships that sailed the western seas were rigged with hempen rope and sails. For the sailor, no less than the hangman, hemp was indispensable.”
-Excerpt from Hemp For Victory transcript, 1942