Gadfly Online. Feature. Marijuana as Medicine.


Editor's note: In November 1996, California voters spoke loudly and clearly about medical marijuana. By approving Proposition 215, they declared that seriously ill patients and their primary caregivers should be exempted from prosecution under state law for cultivating and possessing marijuana (if the patient’s physician recommended using the drug for treatment). The Oakland Cannabis Cooperative was organized to distribute marijuana to qualified patients for medical purposes. In a typical move, however, the federal government sued to stop the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative from carrying out its activities. The feds based their decision on a federal law, the Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits the manufacture and distribution of various drugs (including marijuana). On May 14, 2001, in a unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court sided with the government and the Controlled Substances Act. The Court noted that marijuana is specifically listed in the category of substances that Congress has determined to have no medical benefit. However, due to the medical marijuana movement, the Supreme Court’s decision, in all likelihood, is not the final word. Thus, the battle for those who could benefit from the drug’s use will continue.

By Doug Hornig

"It becomes bracingly difficult to hear from anti-drug fundamentalists that they would rather see a patient, suffering from cancer, vomit in pain, than permit him to smoke a marijuana cigarette."

William F. Buckley, Jr.

Corinne Millet smokes grass. She has done so every day for twenty years. Yet this unassuming Nebraska woman, a wheelchair-bound widow in her late sixties, hardly fits the Cheech-and-Chong stereotype of the spaced-out pothead.

Millet suffers from glaucoma, a degenerative disease of the eye and the leading cause of blindness in the United States. She employs marijuana medicinally—utilizing its ability to relieve intraocular pressure—to stabilize her condition.

In this, she is like thousands of Americans who have discovered the therapeutic properties of the herb that many prefer to call by its Latin name, cannabis. Unlike all but seven others, Corinne has the official blessing of the federal government.

She is one of the fortunate few who have benefited from a 1972 challenge to drug prohibition laws. That suit, brought by Robert Randall, another glaucoma victim, contended that his arrest for marijuana cultivation violated his rights as a patient for whom there was no substitute medication. The court agreed.

As a result, the FDA was forced to include marijuana in its Investigational New Drug (IND) program. Individual applications (called Compassionate INDs) for use of the drug were permitted. A farm in Mississippi would supply approved recipients.

Corinne Millet had been hesitant about pot because, like many, she’d been socially conditioned to fear the killer weed. But deciding that "my sight means more to me than being afraid of a plant," she tried it and found smoking one joint like drinking a single martini. (Medical users commonly don’t want, nor do they get, the "high" sought by recreational users.)

More important, the drug worked. The glaucoma’s progression halted. In addition, marijuana unexpectedly ameliorated her arthritis. "It was so wonderful," she recalls, "to be free of pain after all those years."

She applied for her IND, waded through the requisite paperwork, and was accepted. She could not have been happier. Doctors had told her she had perhaps three years of vision left when she discovered that cannabis relieved the stress on her fragile optic nerve.

Millet got what she needed. But the FDA’s actions hardly led to a flood of newly-legal pot smokers. In the first twelve years of the regulations’ existence, only half a dozen Compassionate INDs were awarded. When demand rose sharply with the spread of AIDS in the late Eighties, the agency came under intense pressure from the Bush administration, which contended that its drug policy was being undercut. The program was suspended in June, 1991, and discontinued 9 months later.

Al Byrne (Lcdr., USN, ret.) believes he knows why. Al and his wife, R.N. Mary Lynn Mathre, are co-founders of Patients Out of Time (, a non-profit that disseminates information about medical marijuana.

With a no-nonsense military approach, Byrne says, "It’s simple. Medical marijuana is the linchpin of the entire War on Drugs. Once resistance to it ceases, the whole structure is going to collapse, and they can’t face that. They’re going to fight to the bitter end."

Al and Mary Lynn will be fighting, too. Last year they organized the National Clinical Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics, sponsored by the University of Iowa College of Medicine. It brought together doctors, nurses, scholars, and policy wonks from all over the country.

That a prestigious university would sponsor such a conference, and attract attendees from across the political spectrum, is indicative of the widespread interest in medical marijuana.

As is activity at the state level. There, what is being mounted is nothing less than the most serious challenge to federalism since school desegregation.

Thirty-four states have some form of statute allowing doctors to prescribe cannabis. Nine have seen voter initiatives enacted. Seven have proposals pending in their legislatures.

Public support for change is overwhelming: 79% favored medical use in an ACLU poll; 73% in a Gallup poll; and an astonishing 85% in an NBC poll. Institutional endorsement has come from the American Bar Association, National Association of Attorneys General, American Academy of Family Physicians, Federation of American Scientists, New England Journal of Medicine, Episcopal Church of the U.S. and dozens of other major organizations. The governors of New York, New Mexico, and Minnesota have backed policy re-evaluation.

How many people who would be affected by relaxation of the law is unknown, but Oregon’s experience may be instructive. In Oregon, after voters passed a pro-medical initiative, the state health department began supervised distribution of the drug. Patients with doctors’ prescriptions are eligible and, in the program’s first year of operation (2000), over a thousand signed up. That translates into nearly 100,000 patients nationwide, a number that is likely to increase dramatically as treatment gains general acceptance.

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