On a small stone bench along a corridor of the Rayburn House Office Building last week, celebrated talk show host, motivational speaker and decorated U.S. Marine Montel Williams was moved to tears as he tried to describe the physical pain he deals with suffering from multiple sclerosis. It's a pain, he says, that is kept in check only by a strict regimen of smoking marijuana.
"I almost took my life two times because of the pain that I go through," Williams said, choking up at the memory. "If I can smoke a little pot to stay alive, then I'll smoke a little pot and stay alive."
During a week when most Members of Congress were out of Washington, Williams met with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and spoke to a packed room of some 175 Congressional staffers in an attempt to energize support for an amendment to the Commerce, Justice, State and the judiciary appropriations bill that would prevent the federal government from undermining state laws that authorize the use of medicinal marijuana.
The amendment, proposed by Reps. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), fell 66 votes short of passage last year, with 152 supporters in the House.
This year's amendment could be voted on as early as today and Williams, along with members of the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project, remain cautiously optimistic about its chances of passing.
"If a Member of Congress votes to send cancer, MS and AIDS patients to jail, we're going to make sure that voters in his or her district know that by November," said Bill Piper, director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is a life-and-death issue, and voters understand that."
Williams was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. But he first began using marijuana regularly to treat pain even before he was officially diagnosed.
After being prescribed "every form of pain medication there is," Williams' doctors eventually agreed that marijuana was the best treatment for his symptoms. But the well-known television personality only recently became an outspoken advocate for medicinal marijuana after writing a book about his life called "Climbing Higher."
"I am advocating for people like myself," he said. "There are so many of us that live in silence, [and] there are a lot of other people that are feeling the same pain that I'm feeling and can't get access" to medicinal marijuana.
Williams, who carries a card in his wallet issued by the state of California that allows him to obtain his marijuana supply, added, "We look at illness in this country as a weakness. I may be ill, I'm not weak by any stretch of the imagination, but what keeps me strong enough to walk every day is my use of marijuana."
Citing concerns about the Drug Enforcement Administration and local law enforcement, Williams would not say whether he uses marijuana when traveling around the country to places such as Washington, which do not currently permit the use of medicinal marijuana. He simply said, "I figure out a way to deal with my pain."
And for this talk show celebrity, it's a way of life that can often be a struggle.
In November, Williams was detained briefly at a Detroit airport after screeners found that he was carrying a pipe with marijuana residue on it. He was fined $100 and allowed to board his flight to New York, but he could have faced up to a year in prison under Michigan law which does not provide a medical exemption for marijuana.
"I'm asking for us to do what we've done for the last 300 years in this country, and that is believe in those people who we think are educated enough to make medical decisions -- we call them doctors," he said. "Why can't I listen to a doctor to cure my pain?"
The problem, Williams added, is that "we have politicians in this country who think they are smarter than doctors on this one issue, they're not smarter on anything else, but on this one issue they have to be smarter."
Williams was talking about those same politicians later that afternoon when he warned a room of young Congressional staffers that he "will be your boss's biggest nightmare -- I will not stop" in advocating for medicinal marijuana use, even if this year's amendment does not pass.
One of those Members who might be hearing more from Williams is Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who spoke out against the Rohrabacher-Hinchey amendment last year and is looking to defeat it again this year.
"The Hinchey Amendment would allow individual states to gut the federal health and safety regulations of drugs and potentially other medical products and services, without any solid scientific justification," Souder said in an e-mail. "I support, and so does [the Food and Drug Administration], responsible scientific research on the possible medical uses of some components of marijuana. ... But we should make those decisions on the basis of scientific evidence, and not on state referenda."
Whatever they think of him, Members are going to have to get used to seeing a lot more of Williams on prime time. Last month, the Showtime network signed Williams as the host of the new reality series "American Candidate." The show, which will debut Aug. 1, attempts to identify one individual who has the qualifications and qualities to be president of the United States. Among those competing for the job is Chrissy Gephardt, daughter of former Democratic presidential hopeful Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.).
Williams just recently finished filming the first eight episodes of the 10-episode series and said that the show is likely to influence not only the debate surrounding this year's election but also the turnout on Election Day.
"This show is coming at a time when we really need to find a way to re-spark American interest in our own political process. This is an opportunity in an entertaining way to educate the American public about the behind the scenes of the presidential campaign," he said. "We have regular Americans talking about the issues that face this country every day and addressing them and arguing them in a way that our current two candidates aren't."
The show, he said, is a way to turn the presidential election back over to the people.
"One thing that a lot of people in this country seem to do every election is pay too close attention to those pundits who are feeding you their opinion on who is going to win and lose, and they don't go out and vote because they feel their vote isn't going to count.
"Hopefully every morning after this is aired on Sunday nights this will be the water-cooler conversations."
And while Williams said he's sad to see that neither of the two leading candidates has come forward to definitively state his stance either for or against medicinal marijuana, he promises that every one of his American Candidates has taken an opinion on it, and on many of the other issues President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) aren't talking about.
"It's going to shock you," he promised.
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