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Feisty George Diana stood up to MS, pot laws

Sam Diana, the first multiple sclerosis patient in the country given the legal right to use medical marijuana, died Feb. 26.
Sam Diana, the first multiple sclerosis patient in the country given the legal right to use medical marijuana, died Feb. 26.

Life could be tough for a Catholic kid in the 1950s. So Sam Diana got tougher.

George Diana remembers the taunts he and his brother would get walking home from school in their uniforms: “‘Cat-licker! Cat-licker! Cat-licker!’” George recalled recently. “Other kids wouldn’t play with us and stuff.”

He also remembers a young Sam fighting back against three bigger kids at a school carnival – beating up all three. It wasn’t the last time Sam Diana got into a fight.

He fought other kids, he fought teachers, and he fought rules – running away from home, getting kicked out of school, protesting the Vietnam War. He fought multiple sclerosis. When he was arrested and convicted for possession of marijuana – something he did recreationally before noticing it helped control his tremors, nausea and other symptoms – he fought the law.

And the law didn’t win. In 1981, Sam Diana became the first MS patient in the country to be granted the “medical necessity” of using marijuana, which he did until he died Feb. 26 at age 62.

“He was a hell of a guy,” said George Diana, a longtime Spokane attorney like their father, Carl. “He was the toughest kid in high school. He was the toughest kid fighting a stupid disease. He was the toughest kid fighting the marijuana laws.”

Sam’s family traces his illness to his childhood, when they believe he was exposed to Hanford radiation. As a high school student, he had occasional episodes when he couldn’t get out of bed. He was formally diagnosed with MS in 1969, which didn’t stop the Marines from drafting him later that year. A month later, he came home with what George calls a “major exacerbation” of his disease.

From there, the cruel inevitability of MS – which attacks the central nervous system – began to take its gradual toll, affecting his walking and physical movements more and more. Sam began to feel that the marijuana he was smoking for purely nonmedical reasons was doing him some good. George said he, his parents and three brothers and sisters didn’t buy it.

At first.

Like Sam, George grew up tough, but he used that more for football than fisticuffs. Unlike Sam, he did well in school, going on to Harvard and Gonzaga Law School. The year George graduated from law school, 1977, Sam was arrested after police came to his home on a domestic dispute. His wife at the time said he’d hit her; in court later, Sam acknowledged things had gotten out of hand and he was glad she called the police.

When they arrived, they found pot under his couch. At trial, Sam argued that he smoked it for his MS, but the judge wasn’t buying it. Sam was convicted of a felony drug charge. He took it to the Court of Appeals, which ruled in 1979 that the trial judge erred in not allowing Sam to make the case for “medical necessity.”

George, meanwhile, was a young lawyer and he began helping on the case. They enlisted the help of a local doctor, Walter Balek Jr., who gave Sam a battery of neurological tests while he was sober. Then Sam and George left for a bit, Sam smoked a couple of joints, and they returned – where Sam proceeded to show improvement on more than half the tests, George said.

Balek testified at the second trial in Spokane County Superior Court, as did other MS patients who claimed the drug had helped them – though they were hidden behind a sheet for fear of prosecution. On March 4, 1981, Sam was found not guilty.

Sam’s victory was a landmark, but it didn’t usher in any overnight changes. All you have to do is take a peek at our currently insane legal framework on the matter to see that. It allowed the possibility of a legal defense against a possession charge, but didn’t provide a framework for anyone to get and use the drug.

After the ruling, Sam struggled with the inevitable decline of his motor skills. He began using canes and walkers in the 1980s, and wheelchairs in the 1990s. A guy with a counter-cultural, anti-authoritarian style, he moved into a house outside of Cheney, where he had a lot of guests, lived with a couple of “helpers,” and grew marijuana – which continued to get him in trouble, despite the ruling.

Federal agents raided his home in 1998, finding more than 100 plants, and he wound up facing charges of growing and selling marijuana. He pleaded guilty in a deal in which most charges were dropped, but he argued that he didn’t believe he was violating the law. About nine years later, George said, a deputy seized Diana’s plants, but no charges were filed.

Diana’s last fight started on Feb. 13, when he was thrown from his wheelchair at home. He landed hard, breaking his left femur in several places, though he initially refused to have it checked – the toughest guy said he was OK.

It was a full day later when a nurse insisted that he seek medical attention, George said. By then, his blood pressure and heart rate were up, the leg was swollen, and other medical problems had set in.

Sam spent the next 12 days at Sacred Heart. “Finally his kidneys failed on the 25th and we lost him on the 26th,” George said.

Sam credited marijuana with helping him battle MS, and George doesn’t disagree. But he thinks there was a more important factor.

“He lasted 42 years with this miserable disease and it was because he was bull-headed,” George said. “He was tough.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or

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