Like many law enforcement officers, Tom McCain has stood in photos holding marijuana plants after helping bust a growing operation.
As chief deputy in Johnson County, he wrote search warrants for deputies to make marijuana cases and participated in marijuana raids.
But he never liked it.
"I thought it was a waste of time," he said. "The whole time I'm thinking 'I could be back in the office doing something more important than this.'"
Now retired, he smokes pot daily and leads the effort to make marijuana fully legal for adults in Georgia. He is executive director of Peachtree NORML, the Georgia chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.
McCain, 67, lives in Treutlen County, where his father was a Baptist preacher. All of the law enforcement officers there know him, and they know about his cause. But he's never been pulled over and searched, and he says he's not worried about getting arrested.
"I invite them to arrest me," he said. "I’ve got attorneys who are willing to go to court with me, because I really don’t think — given my whole story — I don’t think 12 of my peers are going to put me in jail for a year."
'They kept me lost in a fog'
He grew up in rural Alabama and never used marijuana until he joined the Air Force in 1971, when the Vietnam War was still raging.
"There were a lot of people coming back from over there that had basically survived, or kept their sanity in Vietnam by using marijuana," he said. "It was pretty prevalent in the military."
He never served in Vietnam, but he started using pot, and he decided it was a better way to cope with the stresses of military service than chugging beer.
Despite daily marijuana use, he said his career was going well. He was winning awards and moving up in rank. He continued to smoke pot until he got married and had two children. Then he started worrying it could get him kicked out if he was caught, so he stopped.
After 20 years in the Air Force he retired and went into law enforcement, first as a deputy in Laurens County. He worked a total of 15 years as a cop before retiring in 2008. He also made an unsuccessful run for sheriff in Laurens County. He says he never smoked pot while he was in law enforcement.
After retirement, medical issues started to hit him. He suffered five heart attacks, had open-heart surgery and battled depression because of his declining health. He had severe back pain and was on multiple medications, including the powerful and addictive opioid pain relievers OxyContin and hydrocodon.
"OxyContin and hydrocodon pretty much took away my pain, but they kept me lost in a fog," he said.
That's when he turned to pot again.
'This ... man does not represent law enforcement'
With marijuana, he said he was able to kick the pain medications as well as several other prescription drugs, including Ambien, a sleep aid, and Zoloft, an antidepressant. He has been using pot regularly ever since, in various forms. He became physically active again, and his weight dropped from nearly 300 pounds to around 220.
He eventually got interested in efforts to legalize marijuana, even testifying in hearings at the General Assembly on legislation to make cannabis oil legal for medicinal use.
Last year he ran for executive director of NORML and was elected to a two-year term. Now he travels around the state promoting the cause. There is growing interest among cities, he said, to get away from locking up people for marijuana possession. Atlanta, most notably, has made possession of less than an ounce of marijuana about the equivalent of getting a speeding ticket. McCain said he has spoken with other cities that are interested in similar reform.
With a growing tide toward relaxing marijuana laws, McCain is optimistic it could become fully legal in Georgia within a few years, but there is still staunch opposition.
The Georgia Sheriffs' Association, for one, strongly opposes legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and it rejects claims that pot is mostly harmless.
"This particular man does not represent law enforcement," said Terry Norris, the association's executive director. "The sheriffs are adamantly opposed to legalizing marijuana for recreation and social reasons."
The group Let's Be Clear Georgia also takes the counter view to NORML. The group's website says that medical evidence for many of the conditions approved for cannabis oil in Georgia is lacking.
"And the evidence linking heavy marijuana use with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia is mounting," the website states.
It accuses the Legislature of being guided by the "pot lobby," which it compares to "Big Tobacco" that wants marijuana legalized in Georgia for the profits it would provide.
"Research has shown that regular use from ages 18 through 38 is associated with an 8 point IQ loss," Clear Georgia states. "More youth by far are in drug treatment for marijuana than any other illicit drug or for alcohol."
Parallels with adultery?
While he was involved in large marijuana busts at the direction of sheriffs he served, McCain said he doesn't recall ever making an arrest solely for misdemeanor marijuana possession. There were occasions when he pulled over vehicles and smelled pot or found a small amount of pot, and he just made the occupants dump it out and let them be on their way.
"The argument from law enforcement is 'but it's against the law,'" McCain said. "Well, adultery is still against the law in Georgia, and I don't see no adultery task forces operating anywhere. The possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor and adultery is a misdemeanor."
McCain's wife, Barbara, said she also comes from a rural background, and she left McCain when he starting smoking marijuana again. Gradually, though, she started to see how it was helping and had a change of heart.
"I support him 100 percent," she said as she sat beside him wearing a T-shirt that read "In Weed We Trust."
McCain doesn't see his cause exactly as trying to make marijuana available for "recreational use."
"I contend all use of marijuana is medical," he said. "We are all treating something. We’ve all got our demons. We’ve all got things that bother us, and the use of marijuana is proven to help."
Another argument he makes is that like alcohol, the use of marijuana is too prevalent to be controlled.
"We are not accomplishing anything," he said. "There are just too many people that like it. There is more dope being smoked in this state than you can shake a stick at. There is nowhere in this state that I cannot go and within 30 minutes have a hookup."