Pubdate: Tue, 22 May 2001
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2001 San Francisco Chronicle
Author: Suzanne Herel, Chronicle Staff Writer


Newsmaker Profile: Mike Nevin

Ex-Cop Hopes San Mateo County Study Helps Legalize Medical Pot

In his 27 years as a cop, Michael Nevin learned how easily illegal drugs 
can ruin lives.

"Parents from all over the country would call the San Francisco police and 
ask us to look for their kids," he recalls. "We'd find them dead in the 
Haight. "

Now, as a San Mateo County supervisor, Nevin believes that one of those 
drugs, marijuana, can be a lifesaver.

His dedication has pushed San Mateo County to the forefront of the 
medicinal marijuana debate. The county is set to start the nation's first 
government study of the substance's medicinal effects -- despite a U.S. 
Supreme Court ruling last week quashing California's attempts to distribute 
marijuana to the seriously ill.

"The Supreme Court ruling makes what we're trying to do in San Mateo even 
more important," Nevin says.

With luck, he says, the study's results will lead to loosening federal law, 
which in 1970 criminalized marijuana in all uses.

"Sometimes it takes a local government to move the federal government," he 

Nevin's memorabilia-packed window office in the Hall of Justice in Redwood 
City pays homage to his days on the San Francisco police force, in Daly 
City's mayoral chair and on the county Board of Supervisors, where he has 
served eight years.

Nevin, 58, grew up as one of seven children, the son of a San Francisco 
police officer. As a rookie himself, Nevin was a bodyguard for former San 
Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto. He also has protected Mother Teresa, whom he 
calls "a true hero."

Throughout his career, Nevin has embraced what he terms "quality-of-life" 
issues such as transportation and affordable housing.

"I keep my feet on the ground and I'm very practical," he says.

It is from this man-of-the-people perspective that he came to the cannabis 

Or rather, it came to him, in the form of an unassuming health services 
employee named Joni Commons, who would often stop in Nevin's office to chat.

She would drop in wearing a scarf around her head -- cancer treatments had 
caused all her hair to fall out.

"She would say, 'Mike, you're a cop, you don't like drugs,' " Nevin says. 
"She would say that she wanted me to know this: that the only thing that 
gave her any relief whatsoever from the pain was marijuana. I didn't even 
talk to her about where she got it."

Commons died in 1997. But Nevin's dedication was born.

"She challenged me to say, 'This marijuana works.' " he says.

He began to consider ways in which the county government could provide 
marijuana to the seriously ill. He contemplated using marijuana confiscated 
by the police, which would then be sorted by doctors. But for several 
reasons -- including the varying grades of street-sold marijuana -- Nevin 
decided the plan wasn't feasible.

Three years ago, he started pushing for the county to host the current 
study. Last November, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration agreed to 
provide government-grown marijuana for the project.

Despite his crusade to make marijuana available to the sick and dying, 
Nevin fervently opposes decriminalizing any drug for recreational use.

Nevin, who says he never smoked marijuana, nevertheless knows the demons of 
addiction. He's a recovering alcoholic.

"I'm proud in my own life that I quit drinking 12 years ago," he says.

He finds no contradiction between his stance against illegal drugs and his 
support of medicinal marijuana.

"They say that drugs are habit-forming," he says. "What are we talking 
about here? These are people who are going to die."

Nevin thinks his mix of personal experiences validates his cause.

"I concluded that I could make a big contribution if I were outspoken on an 
issue where you wouldn't expect a policeman to come out, while having 
credibility at the same time," he says.

Nevin is finally seeing the fruits of his labor.

Any day now, a carton of marijuana cigarettes will be arriving at San Mateo 
County General Hospital. There, Dr. Dennis Israelski is signing up AIDS 
patients for the $500,000 outpatient study, which is being paid for by 

There will be 60 subjects in the study, expected to take about 1 1/2 years, 
but they will be recruited gradually, says Israelski, medical director of 
the San Mateo County AIDS Program. Among other requisites, these patients 
will have at least a six-month prognosis for survival and will have smoked 
marijuana before.

The study is too small to yield authoritative results regarding the 
efficacy of medicinal marijuana use, says Israelski, although it will 
monitor how the drug affects appetite, nausea, pain and lucidity.

More likely, the effort will prove that larger studies are practical, 
Israelski says, that it is possible to acquire uniform-grade marijuana from 
the federal government and distribute it on an outpatient basis to subjects 
who will use it as directed and not allow it to fall into the hands of 
friends or family.

The cigarettes contain marijuana grown on the government's 5 1/2-acre farm 
at the University of Mississippi as part of that school's Marijuana 
Project. The marijuana is rolled by machine into cigarettes.

The study may be a small step on a long road, but it is, at least, the 
first step, says Nevin.

"We want to do our share to get this substance to the pharmaceutical 
position it deserves," he says. "We will take the lead."
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