April 08 2012

Chapter 10: Reefer Madness

The high-water mark for drug prohibition in the 20th Century may have been reached on November 5, 1996 when citizens of California and Arizona chose to ignore the warnings of President Clinton, former Presidents Bush, Ford and Carter, the governors of both states and all their collective law enforcement and drug experts, and voted overwhelmingly in favor of making  marijuana legal for medical use. It was a stunning defeat for the prohibitionists. Both Proposition 200 in Arizona and Proposition 215 in California allowed medical patients to use marijuana virtually without limit, but the Arizona voters went further, turning the clock back 80 years to a time when doctors could prescribe any drug they saw fit, including heroin.

Apparently taken by surprise when late summer polls showed both initiatives leading by wide margins, the anti-drug establishment launched a main force effort to head the measures off. Drug czar Barry McCaffrey made repeated trips to the West Coast blasting the proponents for their cruel hoax. “How dare they capitalize on the suffering of victims of cancer and AIDS,

who deserve the best American medical care?”[1]  Six days before the election, McCaffrey arrived in Los Angeles with a letter signed by three former Presidents saying the initiatives would send “the erroneous message that dangerous and addictive drugs such as heroin, LSD, marijuana and methamphetamine are safe.” Public officials from Washington to Sacramento villified the proponents and issued dark warnings about their hidden agenda. 

The electorate turned a deaf ear. They seemed more impressed by the televised images of fellow citizens in pain. In one spot, a California oncologist tells the camera, “I’ve been treating cancer patients with chemotherapy for over 25 years.  But the side effects can be very severe: nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite… There is a medicine that can help.  It’s marijuana.  I’ve seen it work.”  In another commercial, a lady you could meet in the checkout line says, “I’ve been a nurse for over 40 years.  But when my husband, J.J., was dying of cancer I felt helpless.  The nausea from his chemotherapy was so awful, it broke my heart.  So I broke the law and got him marijuana.  It worked.  He could eat.  He had an extra year of life.” Against these earthly tales, the impassioned doomsday warnings of generals and lawyers proved unequal to the occasion.  The two measures won by a wider margin than the President himself in both states: 56 percent in California, and a whopping 2-to-1 majority in Arizona, where they not only voted to unfetter the doctors, but the prisoners as well.  Proposition 200 called for releasing non-violent drug offenders.

The reverberations were tectonic.  Here was a fault-line no one could paper over, and from Washington to Sacramento, agitated congressmen and federal agents began shooting from the hip. The Senate Judiciary Committee called a hearing, the Administration promised to prosecute any doctors foolish enough to even discuss marijuana with a patient, and Dan Lungren, the California Attorney General who led the battle against Prop 215, was apoplectic. “This thing is a disaster.  What’s going to happen? We’re going to have an unprecedented mess.”[2]


The only plausible explanation was that the voters had been duped.  “It’s not the only mistake that was made in November,” said former drug czar William Bennett. “That this initiative passed is a scandal.  It’s also understandable given the promotion and advertising that were used.” That was the key. The voters had been seduced by slick advertising. “A moneyed, out-of-state elite mounted a cynical and deceptive campaign to push its hidden agenda to legalize drugs,” said former Health Secretary Joe Califano Jr., and the Times’ A.M. Rosenthal named names. At the top of the list was financier George Soros, whose “gobs of money” Rosenthal likened to “the fortunes manipulated by drug criminals.” He accused Soros and his ilk of “preaching the benefits of slavery.”[3]  For Soros, a self-made Hungarian billionaire who escaped both the Nazis and the Communists before coming to the U.S., it must have been a novel experience to be accused of preaching the benefits of slavery since he had personally donated more cash to the struggle for human rights than probably anybody else on the planet. After the fall of the Soviet Union, while the West equivocated, Soros rushed into Eastern Europe and handed out a billion dollars of his own money to aid the new democracies. But when he dropped $6 million on the Drug Policy Foundation, a group that opposes the drug war, he was transformed from a capitalist Galahad to a carpet-bagger with a foreign accent—“the Daddy Warbucks of drug legalization.”[4] 

But laying this disaster at the feet of an evil genius would prove to be a tough sell. The voters in both states had been extensively surveyed before either of the laws were written, and they had apparently come to the conclusion that jailing sick people was unenlightened. In California, the legislature had in fact already legalized medical marijuana two years in a row but the governor torpedoed it. In Arizona, the initiative was backed by civic beacons from left, right, and center, and the honorary chairman was Republican icon Barry Goldwater.[5]  But probably even more decisive, the opponents of the law were unable to explain their own failure. In spite of D.A.R.E., Zero Tolerance,

Drug Free America, and the full weight of the criminal justice system, drug use in Arizona elementary schools had gone up 1000 percent in four years.[6] 

On the other hand, the explosive reaction to the two initiatives was evidence that the decisive hour had come. Strategists on both sides know this could be the El Alamein of the war on drugs. After this, everything changes. If marijuana turns out to be a medical miracle instead of the Devil’s handmaiden, public support for confiscating houses and sending nonmedical users to prison will quickly erode. And marijuana is the linchpin. Take reefer out of the equation and the number of illegal drug users instantly drops from 13 million to 3 million, and the drug war shrinks from a national crusade to a sideshow.[7]  To maintain the present $16-billion-a-year federal effort, the concept of medical marijuana must be defeated at all costs. In Arizona, the state legislature was subjected to intense pressure to gut the law. After a four-month high-level blitz from Washington with the President himself reportedly standing by to lean on the holdouts, the Arizona lawmakers rode to the rescue and passed a bill demanding Federal approval of marijuana before it’s prescribed.[8]  This put the ball safely back on Washington’s side of the net, but there was nervousness at the State House in Phoenix. You don’t slap down 65 percent of the voters without paying some kind of price on down the line.[9] And in any event, this particular genie was already out of the bottle. The debate over marijuana that the government has successfully suppressed for 25 years was underway.

Back in the old days when Harry Anslinger had his back to the wall and he needed some impressive numbers, he just made them up. So far there’s no indication that modern drug enforcers have given up the practice, but in the age of digital information, fact-alteration can produce unpredictable results.  When General McCaffrey was asked on CNN whether there was any

evidence that marijuana was medically useful, he was emphatic. “No, none at all.  There are hundreds of studies that indicate that it isn’t.”[10] Yet any eighth-grader with access to the internet could find evidence to the contrary just a mouse-click away on the World Wide Web. There you could read of reports like “Inhalation Marijuana as an Antiemetic for Cancer Chemotherapy” from the New York State Journal of Medicine,[11] and discover that the General didn’t know what he was talking about. McCaffrey, an exemplary soldier, was undoubtedly just repeating information he’d been given, but one wonders how he would have reacted in Vietnam if he’d discovered his staff officers were producing phony maps. 

If you had just arrived from Mars and were trying to make some sense out of the furor surrounding the medical usefulness of a local herb, you would probably wonder why nobody had bothered to do a definitive test. The problem is that marijuana is not just a controlled substance, it is totally illegal—not even available to qualified medical researchers.  Investigators could always buy a stash from their students, but that’s not how scientific research is done. You must apply instead for special dispensation from the government, and for the last 20 years, the government has said No. Anyone who challenged this position was invited onto a labyrinthean bureaucratic game board with constantly moving goalposts.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 labled marijuana a drug of maximum danger and no redeeming value. This classification was immediately challenged by the National Organization for the Reform of Marihuana Laws, but the government simply refused to discuss it. In 1986 the DEA finally decided to hold the public hearings that the U.S. Court of Appeals had ordered seven years earlier, and the resulting parade of doctors, patients, professors and lawmen left a two-year court record that is the most thorough review of the evidence in our time. In 1988,

twelve years after the case first hit the docket, the DEA’s administrative law judge stunned the agency by ruling for the plaintiffs: “marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man… One must reasonably conclude that there is accepted safety for use of marijuana under medical supervision.  To conclude otherwise, on the record, would be  unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious.”[12] 

The DEA concluded otherwise. The Administrator brushed aside the ruling, and ridiculed the very idea of medical marijuana as a “dangerous and cruel hoax.” Besides, researchers had finally figured out how to synthesize marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, THC, and it was now available in pill form as Marinol™. Since there was obviously no longer any need for the crude natural product, DEA officials slammed the door on cannabis with finality in 1992.

Anyone who tried to approach the issue from the other flank—setting up a scientifically controlled test to see if the stuff actually worked—hit the same wall. In 1992, Donald Abrams, a professor of medicine at the University of California, designed a pilot study to compare the effectiveness of smoking marijuana with the synthetic Marinol™ as a treatment for AIDS-related weight loss.  The plan for the study made it past each hurdle in turn—the University of California’s Institutional Review board, the State examiners, the Food and Drug Administration—and in 1994 Abrams applied to the National Institute for Drug Abuse, the country’s sole source of legal marijuana, requesting a supply from the government’s plot in Mississippi. NIDA deftly moved him back to square one.  They questioned the basic design of his study, and each answer he gave just provoked another question. Years later the project was still in limbo.

On the flip side of this issue, any researchers who were willing to delve into the dangers of cannabis and search for its harmful effects found funds and assistance raining down from government and private institutions. But even this kind of enforced academic tilt did not always produce the desired results.

A classic illustration of the failure of science in the service of politics was the 1975 study by Robert Heath of Tulane that proved marijuana smoke causes brain damage. When Dr. Heath was finally pinned down, investigators discovered he had fitted rhesus monkeys with gas masks and pumped in marijuana smoke at the rate of 10 joints an hour.^ The brain damage that turned up in the autopsies was caused by oxygen deprivation, not marijuana. Heath could have produced the same results by suffocating his animals with smoke from an oak log. 

Unfortunately, the Heath study fits a pattern that characterizes much of official marijuana research. What separates these projects from normal science is that they usually hit the evening news before they’ve been debated in the halls of acadame. Typically, a research group funded by the the U.S Government will find a smoking gun proving that marijuana causes serious physical or mental damage. In time, other researchers discover the claims are flawed and the study is discredited within the scientific community, but the average citizen is stuck with the original headlines. As a result, most Americans believe to one degree or another that marijuana damages the brain, that it lowers testosterone, that it weakens the immune system, that it breaks chromosomes, when in fact there’s no accepted evidence for any of this.

One sure-fire way to hit the front page is to come up with a test result that proves marijuana is a steppingstone to harder drugs—the “gateway theory.” In 1994, the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University made the shocking announcement that marijuana smokers were 85 times more likely to go on to cocaine than non smokers.[13] They discovered this by taking the estimated number of cocaine users who had smoked reefer first, and dividing it by the estimated number who hadn’t (almost nobody). Using the same quasi-scientific procedure, you can establish that coffee, alcohol, tobacco, and cherry pie are also precursors. Another headline in this vein hit

the front pages in the summer of 1997—“STUDIES BACK GATEWAY ROLE OF POT”—when a group of Italian scientists announced they had discovered both marijuana and heroin stimulate the same pleasure centers in rat brains.[14] While this was scientifically interesting, the authors leaped from this tiny fact to the more thrilling conclusion that marijuana use may prime the brain for other drugs. But here again, these same principals could be used to demonstrate that sex and cheese could also turn rats into junkies.[15]  Another group came up with evidence that marijuana withdrawal causes the same chemical changes in rats as hard drugs. “This blurs the distinction between a hard drug and a soft drug.”[16] But long-term students of the battle point out that all attempts to prove the addiction thesis using real human beings have failed completely.[17] 

Currently, one of the leading scientific lights of the marijuana prohibition movement is Dr. Gabriel Nahas, a hero of the French resistance in World War II and a sworn enemy of the cannabis plant. As consultant to the UN Commission on Narcotics, Dr. Nahas has been an advisor to the White House and to most of America’s major anti-drug organizations. Over the last quarter-century he has endeavored to supply a scientific rationale for the drug war, and while his efforts have been lauded by the prohibitionists, his colleagues in the medical profession seem less impressed. As one observer put it, “No drug-abuse scholar in recent history has been the subject of such scathing commentaries in the scientific journals.”[18]  A review of his work in The New England Journal of Medicine called it “psychopharmacologic McCarthyism” peppered with “half-truths, innuendo and unverifiable assertions.” The Journal of the AMA noted that “examples of biased selection and…omissions of facts abound in every chapter.”Contemporary Drug Problems was even less charitable: “meretricious trash.”[19] When Nahas recently published a paper in the Medical Journal of Australia[20] claiming that new research proved marijuana was toxic, he was immediately attacked by pharmacologists from the University of Sydney who discovered that he was largely quoting

himself, and that 80 percent of his references were misleading or distorted.[21] Nonetheless, his work is still a primary source of scientific justification for the war on marijuana. 

On a blustery winter morning in 1990, Harvard psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon was in his Cambridge office listening to the windows rattle when he got a call from a desperate woman on the other side of the country. She had read some of Grinspoon’s work—he literally wrote the book on medical marijuana—and she needed help. Her son had been arrested in Malaysia for possession of half a pound of cannabis. She wanted to take a chapter from one of Grinspoon’s works—“Medical Uses of Illicit Drugs”—and rewrite it in the form of an affidavit. When her son was twelve, she said, he had fallen off a 60-foot cliff while hiking. The newspapers called his survival a “Christmas Miracle,” but his left shoulder was permanently deformed and subject to excruciating muscle spasms. The young man later discovered that cannabis controlled the pain better than anything the doctors had given him and it had fewer side-effects.   So when he went to Malaysia on a year-long sabbatical, he had foolishly mailed himself a package of marijuana.

Grinspoon was shaken. He told the woman she needed a hell of a lot more than an affidavit. Malaysian law doesn’t differentiate between marijuana or heroin or cocaine. To them all drugs are encompassed within the catch-all term, “dadah.” The penalty in Kuala Lampur for possession of half a pound of dadah is death by hanging and they aren’t kidding. More than a hundred drug users and traffickers have seen their last sunrise from a Malaysian gallows. Grinspoon put her in touch with former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, a man who knows something about travelling to the boondocks in defense of human rights, and Clark flew to Kuala Lampur to get the lay of the land. On his return, he and Grinspoon mapped out a medical necessity defense that seemed ironclad. Then Grinspoon assembled his supporting documents and took off for Asia.


His first stop was the grim fortress-like Pudu Prison where he examined the young man and found him, not surprisingly, terrified, depressed, and subject to muscle spasms in his arm and shoulder. Over the next several days, Grinspoon worked with the defendant’s Malaysian attorney, giving him an education in the medical necessity defense.  After walking the man through the three-thousand-year history of cannabis, recounting its widespread medical use from the beginning of the written word up through 1937, the lawyer was open-mouthed.  He immediately began making phone calls to influential Malaysian doctors and lawyers and arranged for them to hear the same lecture the next night.  They too were amazed when Grinspoon told them that a ground-breaking study of the medicinal uses of cannabis was based on observations right there in Malaysia in 1839.[22]

But when the legal team reached the court house next morning, they were almost blown out of the water before Grinspoon could open his mouth. The lawyer introduced his American expert, and the judge exploded. “Why have you brought this man halfway around the globe to testify when it has been established that the defendant possessed 265.7 grams of cannabis and the punishment is prescribed?”

Reluctantly, since Grinspoon had already made the trip, the judge agreed to let him speak even though it was obviously pointless. But as with the audience of the night before, the judge’s skepticism melted, he became intrigued, and finally brushed the lawyer aside and began questioning the witness himself. Grinspoon told him the defendant was one of thousands of people who claim that marijuana is the best thing they can find for controlling the kind of painful spasms associated with quadriplegia, multiple sclerosis, and traumatic nerve injury.

After lunch, it was the prosecutor’s turn. Grinspoon had been warned that the state was anxious to swing this young American from the yard-arm and they did not look kindly on this intevention. In his opening volley, the prosecutor threatened to have Grinspoon himself arrested and thrown in prison for not

following procedures, then waded into him with a withering barrage of questions. Unfortunately, the questions turned out to be based on misinformation, and each response from the professor steamrolled the prosecutor with a roll call of references to the scientific literature. After an hour of this, the infuriated official said, “Dr. Grinspoon, all that you have reported here about the capacity of cannabis to relieve suffering of one type or another comes from papers and journals! What has been your experience in observing this for yourself?” 

Wrong question.  To a courtroom now packed with late arrivals who had heard of the furious duel, Grinspoon traced his experience back to that day in 1967 when his 10-year-old son was diagnosed with acute lymphatic leukemia. At first, he said, Danny was good-natured about the treatments, but by 1971, he was involved in major chemotherapy and Grinspoon and his wife found themselves subjected to heart-wrenching scenes at the hospital. “He would start to vomit shortly after treatment and continue retching for up to eight hours.  He vomited in the car as we drove home, and when we got there he had to lie in bed with his head over a bucket on the floor.”

Then one day Grinspoon arrived at the hospital and found his wife and son already there. They were uncommonly relaxed and it was obvious something was up.  He was shocked to see his son take the medicine without a fight and after it was over there was no sign of nausea. Instead of throwing up in the car, Danny asked if they could stop off for a submarine sandwich. When they got home, Grinspoon asked for an explanation.  His wife said she had stopped by the schoolyard on the way to the hospital and one of Danny’s pals had given them a marijuana cigarette. She and Danny had smoked it together before the session.

Grinspoon was stupefied. They could have been arrested!  What about the law? What about the embarrassment to the hospital staff and the university?

Their son, meanwhile, rather than going straight to bed as in the past, went out to play.  And at that point the shaken professor began to re-examine his position. Dr. Grinspoon would ultimately

write two major books on the subject—Marijuana Reconsidered in 1971, andMarijuana, The Forbidden Medicine in 1993.[23] And in the last year of his son’s life, thanks to the infamous weed, they were able to have a few more submarine sandwiches and a few more laughs. 

According to a U.S. Embassy official, when Grinspoon finished “you could hear a pin drop in that courtroom.” Thirty days later the judge ruled: “…there was enough evidence adduced from the accused to show that the cannabis was for his own consumption…to relieve pain from injuries he suffered in a fall off a mountain.” The death penalty would be set aside.  The defendant would be released in 26 months.[24]

On his last visit to the impregnable colonial fortress where his client was to spend the next two years, Grinspoon examined the young man one final time and asked how he was managing to control his muscle spasms in jail.


Grinspoon looked at him, incredulous.

“I buy it from the guards.”



[1] Los Angeles Times, Oct 30, 96, B-3

[2] Los Angeles Times, Nov 6, 96, A-1

[3] Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker, Jan 6, 97, 4

[4] Joseph A. Califano Jr., “How the Pro-Drug Gang Won the West,” San Jose Mercury News, Dec 6, 96, editorial.

[5] Los Angeles Times, Dec 10, 1996, A-1

[6] Los Angeles Times, Dec 10, 1996, A-1

[7] U.S. Dept. of Health, Preliminary Estimates from the 1995 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, Aug 96 — An estimated 12.8 million Americans were current illicit drug users and 77 percent of the current illicit drug users (9.8 million) were marijuana users.

[8] The Arizona Republic, Apr 9, 97, A-1, “Pot-Law Critics Call In Big Guns.”

[9] Los Angeles Times, Apr 16, 97, A-3, “Arizona Bill Guts Legalized Drug Initiative.”

[10] ^ [Check with the ONDCP.  This is from a DRCNet news summary Feb 4 1997]^

[11] Vinciguerra et al., “Inhalation Marijuana as an Antiemetic for Cancer Chemotherapy, New York State Journal of Medicine, Oct 88, 525-527; Fifty-six patients who had no improvement with standard antiemetics were treated with marijuana; 78 percent demonstrated positive response.  See Also: Ekert, H., K.D. Waters, I.H. Jurk, J. Mobilia and P. Laughnan, “Amelioration of Cancer Chemotherapy-Induced Nausea and Vomiting by Delta-9-Tetrohydrocannabinol,” The Medical Journal of Australia, vol 2 (1979): 657-659; Chang et al., “Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol as an Antiemetic in Cancer Patients Receiving High Dose Methotrexate,”  Annals of Internal Medicine, vol 91, no. 6, Dec 79, 819-824; Hollister, Leo, “Hunger and Appetite after Single Doses of Marijuana, Alcohol and Dextroamphetamine,” Clinical Pharmacoloby and Therapeutics, vol 12, no.1, 1970, 44-49, etc.

[12] In the Matter of Marijuana Rescheduling Petition, Docket No. 86-22, Sept. 6, 88Opinion, Recommended Ruling, Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Decision of Adminstrative Law Judge, Drug Enforcement Administration.

[13] The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, Cigarettes, Alcohol, Marijuana: Gateways to Illicit Drug Use,Oct 94, chart 4.

[14] Los Angeles Times, June 27, 97, A1.

[15] New Scientist, July 5, 97, editorial, “A bad case of deja vu…”

[16] George F. Koob, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla CA, quoted inLos Angeles Times, June 27, 97, A:1

[17] Lester Grinspoon, interview, July 3, 97

[18] Arnold Trebach, The Great Drug War, Macmillan, NY, 87, p126-127.

[19] Arnold Trebach, The Great Drug War, Macmillan, NY, 87, p126-127.

[20] Gabriel Nahas, C. Latour, “The Human Toxicity of Marijuana, Medical Journal of Australia, 1992;156: 495-7

[21] McDonald J. Christie & Gregory B. Chesher, “The Human Toxicity of Marijuana: A Critique of a Review by Nahas and Latour,” Drug and Alcohol Review, 1994:13:209-216

[22] W.B. O’Shaughnessy, “On the Preparations of the Indian Hemp, or Gunjah: The Effects on the Animal System in Health, and Their Utility in the Treatment of Tetanus and Other Convulsive Disease,” Transactions of the Medical and Phyusical Society of Bengal, 1838-1840.

[23] Lester Grinspoon, Marijuana Reconsidered, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1971; Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar, Marihuana, the Forbidden Medicine, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993.

[24] Lester Grinspoon, “A Brief Account of My Participation as a Witness in theTrial of Kerry Wiley,” International Journal of Drug Policy, vol 2 no 5, 1991 p11-12, and interviews with Dr. Grinspoon in 1995, 96, 97.


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