Bad Eyes, Good Medicine, and a Guy Named Bob

A Short History of the Modern Medical Marijuana Movement

Halos have long adorned the heads of saints, but in the case of the late Robert Randall — the compassionate angel anointed by bad luck and good timing to launch the modern medical marijuana movement — the halos hovered in his eyes. Due to a rare type of glaucoma that began in his youth, Bob couldn’t see very well, particularly at night, when streetlights would be surrounded by halos. Halos are the common symptom of severe though painless pressure on the optic nerve, which is what glaucoma — nicknamed the “sneak thief of sight” — victims experience until blindness sets in.

One particular evening in 1972, soon after a doctor informed him that no medicine would stop him from going blind in less than five years, Bob was looking out his Washington, D.C. window at the familiar streetlight halos when he decided to alleviate his worries by turning on some music and smoking a joint. An hour later, he looked outside again, only to find that the halos were miraculously gone.

Federal-Med-Tin.gifIt was, his widow and longtime partner Alice O’Leary recalled, a “eureka moment for Bob. He knew in an instant what had happened.” Of course, upon waking the next morning, Bob thought he was probably just nuts. But being a “bookish” fellow, Bob set about conducting his own tests, and sure enough, he discovered that smoking pot (on top of taking his regular pills) helped his eyes. Scientifically, the drug was relieving pressure on his optic nerve, immediately eliminating the halos and, in the long run, stopping the disease from blinding him.

Yet because marijuana was an illegal substance, Bob was afraid to tell his doctor, who was himself surprised by the sudden reversal in Bob’s health. “Bob didn’t want to implicate [his doctor] in what was then a crime,” Alice explained. Instead, Bob spent a small fortune buying weed from dealers and enduring the black market’s dry spells until the spring of 1975, when a little sprout came up in Bob and Alice’s yard. Although they were just eight blocks from the U.S. Capitol Building, the couple knew it would be cheaper to grow their own pot, so they nurtured a handful of cannabis plants on their deck.

Then one day when the couple was away on vacation in August of 1975, the cops showed up to raid the apartment of their neighbor, who was also growing marijuana. But the neighbor was tipped off and moved his plants. The cops, however, happened to spot Bob and Alice’s garden, raided their house, and left a note telling them to turn themselves in. When they returned, they did so, but rather than just pay the $250 fine and go on living an illegal life in constant search of marijuana, Bob decided to fight back. He would later write, “Being arrested saved my sight.”

When Bob told his tale of marijuana as medicine to the attorney he hired, the lawyer simply said, “Prove it.” To the lawyer, as to most people in the 1970s, the idea that pot made you better sounded ridiculous. That’s because cannabis — which was the second most prescribed drug at the turn of the century, used to alleviate symptoms of epilepsy and muscle spasms as well as to reduce pain during childbirth — was forced out of the American medical manuals by the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, a politically convoluted piece of legislation motivated by backroom economics but publicly fueled with racist propaganda against southwestern Mexicans and Southern blacks. (The doctors and nurses of the American Medical Association were the only on-the-record opponents of the tax act.)

But not everyone closed their minds to the drug’s 5,000-year medicinal track record; Bob soon stumbled upon a report that was delivered to the U.S. Congress about a doctor at UCLA who found that marijuana reduced intraocular pressure when smoked. To Bob, this was shocking. Alice remembered, “It made Bob furious that the U.S. Congress had been informed that marijuana could help glaucoma, but he was being busted for growing marijuana to save his sight. … That just set his course like a laser beam. Bob was a bulldog about it. He felt it was wrong. He felt that it was immoral.” So he went to UCLA, got tested by the researcher, and returned to his lawyer in D.C. with a piece of paper that proved what he’d been saying.

The lawyer, according to Alice, “knew immediately how important it was. He knew it could be history, which it was.” They decided to attack on two fronts: The first was to defend his pot-growing crime as a medical necessity case — the first of its kind in national history — and the second was to make the government provide Bob with marijuana. Serendipitously, the two paths converged one week in 1976, as the judge found in Bob’s favor a few days after the government enrolled him in a marijuana study at Howard University. It was “big news at the time,” said Alice, remembering headlines from then that said “Bob Smokes Pot and It’s Legal.” Immediately, Bob and Alice’s phone was ringing off the hook with calls from patients who also needed help.

For the first time in 40 years, the American government admitted that cannabis worked as medicine and agreed to let one of its citizens smoke it legally. The modern medical marijuana movement was in full swing.

Winning Wars, Losing Battles However, their fight was not over; the Howard University study stopped in 1977, and Bob was about to be without pot again. After grabbing some more headlines with articles about his pending problem, D.C.’s blockbuster law firm Steptoe & Johnson — whose very name makes federal agencies shake in their boots — agreed to represent Bob for free. It was a relationship that lasted until Bob’s death in 2001. Not only was Steptoe & Johnson able to get Bob into the Compassionate Investigational New Drug (IND) program, which meant monthly shipments of marijuana from the feds to the tune of a dozen pre-rolled cigarettes per day, the firm also helped the couple create the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics, which educates and advocates for patients. They even got a group of four Republicans, including Newt Gingrich, to introduce a bill into Congress that proposed moving marijuana off the list of Schedule One drugs. (Schedule One drugs include LSD, heroin, and Ecstasy, and supposedly have no medical value, and a high potential for abuse). Despite strong support from both parties, the bill died a political death in the early Reagan years, which was the dawn of a new anti-drug era, thanks to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaigns.

Along the way, Bob helped 15 other sick people enroll in the IND program and, as the world was besieged by the onset of AIDS, established the Marijuana/AIDS Research Service (MARS). (Bob would later find out that he had contracted AIDS from a previous homosexual relationship; the disease eventually killed him in 2001 at age 53.) With MARS, which made boilerplate documents to help AIDS patients enroll in the IND program, Bob pushed a little too hard, and the government under George Bush the elder decided to end the program altogether, save for the 15 who were already getting their pot from the government (today, only seven of those people are alive).

That defeat in turn spurred activists to launch their own medical marijuana initiatives as state-by-state measures, the first of which was California’s Proposition 215, which voters approved overwhelmingly in 1996. Since then, 10 other states have passed similar measures that, in general, allow for the growing and using of cannabis so long as it is recommended by a doctor.

But while these state bills have the look of progress — and confirm, along with steady poll results, that most Americans support medical marijuana use for patients — they are not signs of success in Bob and Alice’s book. Rather, to the tried-and-true medical marijuana activist, these state laws are mere Band-Aids to the gaping wound that the federal government has let fester by not addressing marijuana as medicine and rescheduling the drug’s status. In fact, a federal judge even approved a rescheduling in the late ’80s, but that was scuttled by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) under political pressure. Said Alice, “Every time medical marijuana is thought through consistently and reasonably, it hits the stonewall of the DEA and anti-drug people. … They’re just wacko about it all — there’s no other word for it.”

Currently, the situation is hazy and confusing, because state laws — which are usually enforced differently at the county and city levels — are still trumped by federal law. As it stands now in California, an AIDS patient who is smoking a joint due to a doctor’s advice might be okay if the city police come to his door, but if it’s the feds, he can bet on going to jail. The current federal appeals case in Pasadena of Angel Raich — who smokes pot to relieve her brain tumors and scoliosis — is testament to the state vs. feds dilemma. Meanwhile, there are countless cannabis clubs — often with shady backers and questionable business practices — popping up throughout the state, selling federally illicit substances with the support of local cops and city councils. And frequently that “support” merely means looking the other way. It seems that thanks to these state laws, the modern medical marijuana movement is evolving into a form of institutionalized bootlegging, which at the end of the day does little to help the sick patient who needs marijuana and has neither the time nor inclination to deal with cannabis clubs or grow their own.

Alice explained, “Bob felt that it became a cultural war and the patients were caught in the middle of it. … Some patients were pro-marijuana, but some weren’t saying anything at all. They were sick and they happened to need marijuana.” She lamented that Bob didn’t live to see the feds deal with the issue during his lifetime, and since Bob’s death — as well as in the preceding years when AIDS whittled at Bob’s will and well-being — Alice has moved away from the “political football” that she considers medical marijuana. She’s now a professional nurse, helping more people in different ways. “It feels like we won the war, but lost the battle,” confessed Alice.

Times A-Changin’? In the court of American public opinion, Bob Randall and Alice O’Leary certainly won the war. In the 30 years since the government granted Bob the right to smoke weed to help his glaucoma, Americans have gone from thinking that pot was just for dopers to a population where, according to numerous polls, four out of five people believe that it should be medically available. The federal government, for all its brash denial in the face of internationally proven science and bending to political pressures from both sides of the aisle, cannot be too far behind.

According to Al Byrne, whose organization Patients Out of Time (POT) represents five of the seven who still get marijuana from the feds (the other two remain anonymous) and is also hosting the conference at SBCC, this momentous shift in public opinion can be traced back to an event in 1991. Byrne and his partner Mary Lynn Mathre — a nurse who is the president of POT and one of the foremost advocates for medical marijuana among healthcare professionals — were at the time serving in high positions at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, known more commonly as NORML. They decided to hold a conference in Washington, D.C. that would focus on medical marijuana; Byrne, a former Naval officer, had witnessed firsthand the benefits of pot in the late 1960s when his dad used cannabis to relieve pain caused by his cancer. It would be a new direction for the organization, because NORML was more about legalizing pot for everyone, rather than just for patients. It was also a crucial time in NORML’s history, for the group was treading water to stay afloat financially as the “Just Say No” Reagan years had done a number on American pro-pot platforms.

Byrne invited Bob Randall and the other federally approved smokers, including Irvin Rosenfeld and George McMahon, to speak, and a NORML boardmember convinced C-SPAN to televise the conference. Within moments of the conference hitting the airwaves — and over the course of a month when C-SPAN replayed the meeting over and over — tens of thousands of phone calls flooded the NORML lines.

Said Byrne, “I believe that the C-SPAN event changed the visual image of the marijuana user. These were not hippies, these were real people. This could be your grandmother, or uncle, or your dad. … It was like opening up another door, and once it was opened, it never really closed.”

The users included Rosenfeld, a successful stockbroker who discovered in college that marijuana, a drug he despised and even broke up with a girlfriend over, helped ease the pain from bad bones; and McMahon, who discovered after smoking a joint in a hospital that marijuana soothed his numerous health problems and allowed him to eat and sleep. Both of these men are still alive, discussed their lives at length for this article, and will also be at the conference.

As for the performance of Bob Randall, Byrne said that he was “magnificent and eloquent. He stated the case simply … but he really got to the heart of the thing. He came across at that conference on C-SPAN as good as anybody could have. … They’d never done anything like this before. They were terrified.” Rosenfeld agreed, “If it wasn’t for Bob, we wouldn’t be here. Bob and Alice are my heroes.”

Overnight, NORML’s funding returned, but the organization wanted to shift back to promoting complete legalization, which made advocating for the medical issue a bit murky. So Byrne and Mathre founded Patients Out of Time in 1995, and were able to officially distance the medical marijuana issue from the recreational one, a separation that they maintain fiercely to this day. It’s a necessary discretion too, because medical marijuana opponents often claim that this movement is just a bunch of stoners and hippies trying to smoke weed legally. It’s a silly argument, according to Rosenfeld, who explained, “Nobody asks for disease. Nobody sits there and says, ‘Well, if I get cancer, then I can get chemo, and then I can smoke marijuana.’” Unfortunately, considering how the state laws have resulted in Amsterdam-ish cannabis clubs, doctors who give cannabis recommendations for $200 flat fees, and every tenth college kid with a legal right to puff blunts, the argument that medical marijuana is a backdoor for recreational use is somewhat defendable these days.

However, thanks to their diligent advocacy that included three prior National Conferences on Cannabis Therapeutics in 2000, 2002, and 2004, Byrne and Mathre proudly report that an end to the medical marijuana war may for once be in sight.

Less than two years ago, Byrne and Mathre named POT and the federally approved pot smokers the petitioners in an application to reschedule marijuana. They submitted 50,000 pages of international science as well as 17 pages of single-spaced references in seven different languages. While the American medical community turned away from marijuana in 1937, the rest of the world kept researching it. “Just because it dropped out of the eyeballs of the U.S. public from 1940 to 1990 doesn’t mean that it dropped out of the eyes of the rest of the world,” Byrne said. The petition’s first hurdle was the DEA, which right before the summer 2005 deadline agreed to accept the petition and pass it up the bureaucratic line to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

“Every indication we are getting is that they’re going to have to decide this is medicine,” said Byrne. “The war on medical cannabis is over that day, with a regulatory decision. A politician doesn’t have to cast a vote, they don’t even have to go on the record.” That day is slated for the summer of 2007, which is the HHS deadline for action. If it is denied, POT will sue. If it is approved, then it goes back to the DEA for a rescheduling from Schedule One to something less severe, such as Schedule Two, which is where cocaine, methamphetamine, and morphine are, or Schedule Three, where most prescription drugs lie.

The timing is perfect in terms of pharmacological technology; a British company called GW Pharmaceuticals recently released a drug called Sativex, which is a mouth spray that contains all the chemicals found in whole smoked cannabis. (It’s currently jumping through FDA hoops.) Marinol, the cannabis-based Schedule Three drug currently on the market, consists only of tetrahydracannibinol, or THC, the main chemical in marijuana; critics say that it doesn’t work well because it leaves out the other 400-plus cannabinoids and it is harder to self-medicate because it is in a pill form, which takes longer for the body to absorb. Sativex, on the other hand, functions similarly to smoked marijuana, in that the user has more instant control over dosage and gets much fuller relief. What GW has also done — and this will be discussed at the conference — is standardize the cannabis growing in its greenhouses, strictly using clones and a steady process. That has effectively “medicalized” the company’s marijuana by giving it a stable, reliable potency. “Sativex,” explained Rosenfeld, who smokes about 10 joints or so a day, “will make it easier for doctors to prescribe the drug.”

Given that the next National Clinical Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics won’t be until 2008, next week’s event at SBCC might just be the last time that doctors, researchers, and patients will be discussing medical marijuana while the drug is still technically illegal. “This conference is about real science, not political science,” said Byrne. “We will even be hearing some negatives about cannabis, and that’s the way it should be.” And with recent positive research showing that marijuana may even inhibit the growth of tumors, the news that change might be on the horizon couldn’t come at a more opportune time.

“The sad part is that people are suffering needlessly in this country and they shouldn’t be,” summed up Rosenfeld. “They are being made criminals for using the medicine they need.”

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