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High in America

  The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana

    Patrick Anderson

  Chapter 14

    During the NORML conference in December of 1977, as other delegates variously attended workshops, snorted cocaine, and threw pies, two men and a woman huddled together for hours talking earnestly about politics, medicine, and marijuana.
    One of the men, twenty-six-year-old Lynn Pierson, who had come to the conference from New Mexico, was six feet two, weighed less than 130 pounds, and was entirely bald because of the chemotherapy treatments he was undergoing for lung cancer. The other man, Bob Randall, was twenty-nine years old and lived in Washington, D. C. He was solidly built, with dark, curly hair and a drooping mustache, and he wore thick glasses because glaucoma had damaged his vision and would probably blind him someday. The two men both found that smoking marijuana helped them medically. It stabilized Bob Randall's glaucoma and thus held off blindness, and it enabled Lynn Pierson to endure the chemotherapy treatments that were keeping him alive.
    The woman, Alice O'Leary, was dark-haired, heavyset, and had a determined look about her. She and Randall had met as college students, and she had shared Randall's long battle against both glaucoma and the federal government, which had bitterly resisted giving him legal access to marijuana. Now Lynn Pierson had come up from New Mexico to ask Randall what he could do in the remaining months of his life to aid in the battle for medical use of marijuana.
    Incredibly, on February 21, 1978, less than three months after Pierson, Randall, and O'Leary met at the NORML conference, New Mexico enacted the nation's first medical-use bill, making possible legal access to marijuana for persons suffering from cancer, glaucoma, and other life-threatening diseases. New Mexico's example, along with NORML'S new "medical-reclassification project," which O'Leary directed, would soon spark medical-use legislation in twenty other states. This dramatic breakthrough was a tribute to the efforts of Pierson, the cancer victim, and Randall, the glaucoma victim, and it was also a milestone in NORMAL's longtime effort to force the federal government to admit what scientists have long known: that marijuana has legitimate medical uses.
    Marijuana has for centuries been used as medicine throughout the world. In the United States in the nineteenth century it was routinely prescribed as a pain reliever and anti-convulsant. Its medical use was severely restricted, however, by laws passed during Harry Anslinger's anti-marijuana campaign in the 1930s. The virtual end to its medical use came when the Nixon administration, in writing the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, chose for symbolic purposes to classify marijuana as a "schedule-one" drug, along with, among others, heroin and LSD. This meant that marijuana was officially defined as having a high potential for abuse and no known medical value. That was blatantly untrue, but it was politically expedient, and it became the law.
    NORML petitioned DEA in 1972 to reclassify marijuana, but DEA and other government agencies bitterly resisted the request and NORML'S subsequent lawsuit. That was the situation—legal stalemate—when Bob Randall walked into Stroup's office one day in September of 1975 and said he'd been busted for growing marijuana.
    Bob Randall grew up in Sarasota, Florida, where his father owned a furniture store (and where, to the endless delight of Randall and his friends, the Ringling Brothers Circus spent the winter months). In 1967, when he was an undergraduate at the University of South Florida, majoring in speech and political science, Randall began to have trouble with his eyes. In the evenings his vision would become hazy, and there would be tricolored circles, halos, around lights. Doctors told him it was eyestrain.
    In June of 1971 he received a master's degree in speech and went up to Washington, D.C., where he hoped to find a job as a political speechwriter. When that didn't work out, he shrugged off his disappointment and started driving a cab. He also continued to have problems with his eyes. One evening near the end of the summer of 1972, he was reading, and when he closed one eye, he suddenly couldn't see the words. Then he couldn't see the book. He went to an ophthalmologist the next day and finally learned he had glaucoma.
    Glaucoma occurs when fluid within the eye fails to drain properly and pressure builds on the optic nerve; in time the pressure destroys the nerve and causes blindness. Randall was given the standard treatment—eyedrops and pills—but it didn't work for him. He had already lost 85 percent of his optic nerve, and his doctor predicted he'd be blind in three to five years; his 20/400 vision made him already legally blind in his right eye. The only possible treatment was surgery, but the operation was a dangerous one and might cause immediate blindness. Then, one evening in 1973, Bob Randall discovered that marijuana helped him.
    He was spending a quiet evening in his apartment in Virginia. He smoked a couple of joints and was feeling quite mellow when suddenly he realized that the tricolored halos around lights had gone away. He was stunned. In college he'd sometimes had a vague sense that smoking somehow relieved his chronic eyestrain, but he'd never made a direct, cause-and-effect connection. Now he did. He had no doubt about it. Smoking marijuana improved his vision. He felt a great euphoria. He knew at once, instinctively, that the marijuana laws would no longer apply to him.
    When he awoke the next morning, his euphoria was gone. He laughed bitterly at his illusions. How could he have been so self-deluding as to think smoking dope would save his sight? That was childish, true reefer madness. Still, he experimented. He smoked every evening, testing what effect different amounts of marijuana had on his sight. After a few months he knew it was true. His condition was supposed to be one of irreversible deterioration, but marijuana stabilized, perhaps improved, his vision.
    But what should he do with his discovery? He thought long and hard about telling his doctor, and finally decided against it, for fear his doctor might not treat him if he knew of his illegal self-treatment. Nor did he have any inclination to tell the government or the scientific world of his discovery. He knew how the government felt about marijuana; at best he would be laughed at, and at worst he might be arrested. It was not Randall's nature to be a gadfly, a troublemaker. He was an easygoing, good-humored, intelligent young man who feared he had only a few years of sight left and didn't want to spend those years being hassled by the government. So he kept buying illegal marijuana on the street, but it was expensive ($25 or so for the ounce he smoked each week), and the quality was inconsistent. In the spring of 1975 he decided to grow his own.
    He had by then got a job teaching speech at Prince George's Community College, in Maryland. He and Alice O'Leary were sharing a comfortable second-floor apartment on Capitol Hill with several cats and a great many books, classical recordings, and hanging plants. Randall began growing four marijuana plants in what he thought was a secluded spot on his back porch. But when he and O'Leary returned home from a trip to Florida one Sunday evening that August, they found their apartment ransacked. They also found a summons ordering the occupant of the apartment to report to the nearby police station. Randall dutifully turned himself in and learned he was charged with possession of marijuana. Police, investigating an unrelated incident, had climbed a fire escape and spotted his plants.
    "It was a gentle bust," Randall recalls. "I wasn't handcuffed or anything. Yet I felt psychological abuse. It made me feel very insecure to realize the government could walk into my house, tear my things apart, and take away what to me was medication. It made me insecure; then it made me mad as hell."
    Randall went to a lawyer. He had a growing sense that he should not be charged with a crime for using what was, to him, medicine. The lawyer was skeptical. It might be easier to pay a fine and forget it. At the least, Randall would need more scientific evidence, so he wouldn't be laughed out of court.
    His search for information took him to Stroup and NORML. He was impressed that he could walk right in and see Stroup, but he was not much encouraged by what Stroup told him: that NORML was in the fourth year of a legal battle to force the government to reclassify marijuana for medical use and the government was bitterly resisting any change. Stroup didn't see how one young teacher could take on the government. He assumed that the battle would be won, if at all, by NORML'S suit. At that point, Stroup had seen a great many angry young men charge into his office, vowing to sue the government for this or that injustice. What he could not foresee was how determined Randall was, and what a potent symbol of the medical-use issue he could become.
    Stroup gave Randall some clippings and the names of several government scientists who might give him information. The scientists all told Randall the same thing: Recent studies demonstrated that marijuana was useful in treating glaucoma.
    That news, although it confirmed Randall's own discovery, made him furious. The government knew that marijuana could help glaucoma victims, and it was doing nothing about it. His anger was not just for himself. From two to four million Americans suffer from glaucoma. About 90 percent of them can be helped by the standard medications. The other ten percent, two hundred thousand to four hundred thousand people, have no alternative but dangerous surgery. Those were the people, Randall among them, whom marijuana might help.
    Randall flew to Los Angeles in December for thirteen days of testing with Dr. Robert Hepler of UCLA, who in 1970 had conducted a pioneering study on marijuana and glaucoma. The tests confirmed Randall's own self-testing, and he returned to Washington in early 1976 to begin planning a two-pronged challenge to the government. In the first place, he would challenge the criminal charges that were pending against him. Second, he would demand that the government provide him with marijuana to meet his medical needs. During his visit with Dr. Hepler he had learned that the government grew marijuana, rolled it into joints, and provided it to the few scientists who had obtained permission to conduct marijuana research. He had smoked those nicely pre-rolled government joints while he was with Dr. Hepler, and he thought the government should continue to provide him with them. At his lawyer's suggestion, Randall obtained a sworn statement from Dr. Hepler that said that marijuana helped Randall's vision, that without it he would face either blindness or a dangerous operation, and that he would recommend that Randall be given marijuana by prescription.
    With this evidence in hand Randall on May 20 petitioned DEA to give him immediate access to government marijuana. DEA's first reaction was to do nothing. Randall assumed they thought he was some nut who would go away if ignored. He didn't. After a few weeks he went to reporters for the Washington Post and UPI and told them about his petition. Randall wanted the publicity, not only for himself but for all those other people who were going blind and had no idea that marijuana could help them. Friendly reporters told Randall DEA's unofficial comment on his case: Mr. Randall was a criminal.
    Next came his trial, in the D.C. superior court in late July. Randall raised the very rare defense of "medical necessity." He was saying that it was no crime for him to use marijuana, because he needed it for medical purposes. The government said the only issue was whether Randall had in fact possessed marijuana. The prosecutor added gratuitously that Mr. Randall had no constitutional right to his eyesight. The judge was a black man named James A. Washington, Jr., formerly a professor of constitutional law at the Howard University law school. After two days of testimony he took the case under advisement. It was against this backdrop that Randall continued to negotiate with the government for legal access to marijuana.
    First the government, through a middle-level bureaucrat at NIDA, said it would give him all the marijuana he wanted if he would agree to be hospitalized for the duration. Randall declined. Then the government said Randall could have marijuana if he would go to a hospital to smoke it. Randall said that reminded him of the churches in the Middle Ages that kept their Bibles chained to the wall for use on the premises only. Next the government said it might give him marijuana to take home if he would purchase a 750-pound safe to protect it. Randall replied that no one had ever stolen his marijuana except the D.C. police. Finally the government said it might let Randall take its marijuana home if he would agree not to tell anyone about it.
    No way, Randall said. No way.
    Finally, in October, the government proposed to establish a special "research program" for Randall. His doctor would be authorized to receive government marijuana, give it to Randall, and conduct tests on him. Randall was uncertain. He wanted a more general ruling that would apply to all glaucoma victims. But his lawyers urged him to accept the offer. It was a start, and in theory others could do the same.
    Randall accepted the offer. The doctor he found after a six-month search was John Merritt, of the Howard University medical school, a black man who had a special interest in the matter, since black males suffer disproportionately from glaucoma. In November, Randall's first government-issue joints began arriving: seventy a week, ten a day, decent stuff. At about the same time, Judge Washington announced his verdict. Randall was not guilty, because of medical necessity. Randall assumed that it was the threat of such a verdict that had forced the government to offer the deal it had: better for a government agency to set the terms of his legal marijuana than for a judge to do it.
    Throughout 1977, in defiance of the government's wishes, Randall began to speak out. He attended drug conferences and testified on behalf of decriminalization in New Mexico (at the hearings Chip Carter declined to address); he gave newspaper interviews and appeared on Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show and even on To Tell the Truth. Sometimes he became annoyed at the questions reporters asked. "They always ask, 'Do you still get high?' and not 'Can you still see?"' he says. Still, he realized it was the controversy surrounding marijuana that got his medical issue on the front pages.
    All that year, Randall and his doctor were subjected to what they regarded as increasing harassment from the government, and he believed it was in direct retaliation for his speaking out. First, in March, when he asked DEA for a letter stating that his marijuana was legal, in case he was ever stopped by police, the DEA replied that he had no immunity from prosecution. Randall took that as an attempt at intimidation, discouraging his travels. Next, in May, after he spoke at a drug-abuse conference in San Francisco, the FDA said he must start receiving his marijuana daily instead of weekly. That would have effectively stopped Randall's travels, but he and Dr. Merritt refused to accept the change, and FDA backed down. Next, FDA ordered him to stop smoking for two months, as a "test"; again he refused, and the government backed down. Next, FDA demanded that he sign a previously unmentioned "consent form," one he feared would make him subject to its "research" whims; he signed, but noted on the document that he did so under duress.
    Late in May, Randall wrote to Peter Bourne, protesting what he viewed as the harassment of him by the various agencies. He hoped that Bourne would intervene and force the bureaucrats to leave him alone. That was not to be. Bourne, taking the side of the bureaucrats, bluntly replied to Randall on June 6: "Publicity in the case has forced consideration of tightening up the dispensing of your supplies." He added, "We do not want to interfere with your rights, but as a patient taking part in a research study you have a certain responsibility to assure its success."
    After that, Randall had no more illusions about Bourne or the Carter administration. He was surprised only that Bourne would put on paper what he viewed as a crude threat. Randall filed away Bourne's letter for use in the lawsuit he expected to bring against the government. He gave a copy to Stroup, however, who mentioned it to his friend Gary Cohn, and Jack Anderson quickly broke the story of White House indifference to a man who was going blind.
    It was not long after the Jack Anderson story that Bourne made public a letter he had written to officials at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare requesting a study of possible medical uses of marijuana and heroin. Bourne's action was well publicized and seemed to express the White House's concern for the Bob Randalls of the world. Unfortunately, his letter led only to a series of meetings, which led to a report calling for more study.
    The government's position throughout the medical-use controversy had been to minimize the medical value of marijuana and to stress the need for more research. In effect, when the Bob Randalls and Lynn Piersons had asked for legal marijuana to treat urgent medical needs, the government had told them to come back in a few years. The government insisted this was necessary scientific caution, because smoking might prove to have harmful side effects, although it is difficult for the layman to see what side effects would be worse than going blind or dying of cancer. Another explanation is that the bureaucrats were simply afraid of the political controversy surrounding marijuana, afraid that Congress or the White House might think them "soft" on the drug, and they therefore sidestepped the issue by endless calls for more research.
    To NORML, Randall was a near-perfect personification of the medical-use issue, and the government's treatment of him was an incredible show of stupidity and/or malevolence. Stroup could never quite believe that the government could be so dumb as to deny medicine to people who were going blind. Medical use was a humanitarian issue, but it was also a wonderful political issue. It put a friendly face on marijuana; the Killer Weed became the Helpful Weed. It also attracted a new pro-marijuana constituency of old people and the ill. Randall had been quick to organize more than sixty cancer and glaucoma victims to join in NORML'S medical-reclassification suit against the government.
    As 1977 progressed, Randall became absolutely convinced that the research program the government had set up for him was a sham. As he saw it, the government had decided to give him marijuana to shut him up, but when he insisted on speaking out—saying others should be allowed medical use of marijuana—the government would threaten to cut off his medicine. He saw it as medical blackmail, and he became increasingly outraged.
    The climax came in January of 1978 when Dr. Merritt left Washington for a teaching post in North Carolina. A year earlier NIDA had helped Randall find Dr. Merritt. Now the government said he must find his new doctor on his own, and until he did, and his new doctor received government authorization to handle marijuana (which could take months or years), he would be given no more marijuana. Randall thought the government was gambling that he would give up the struggle and return to illegal marijuana. (Time after time, bureaucrats had told him it would be simpler for everybody if he would only buy his dope on the street.) Randall searched for a new doctor and found several who were willing to take him as a patient but none who was willing to become involved with government paperwork at best and government harassment at worst.
    Desperate, Randall again wrote Peter Bourne, who replied, "That issue should be resolved between you and Dr. Merritt." Randall took this to mean he was supposed to persuade Dr. Merritt not to leave Washington for his new job.
    At length Randall decided his only hope was to sue the government, but he already owed $12,000 in legal fees, and several lawyers told him a new suit could cost $10,000 at the outset and perhaps much more. Then he got a break. A leading Washington law firm, Steptoe and Johnson, agreed to represent him pro bono. His case was given to a young lawyer named Thomas Collier, who tried to persuade FDA to give Randall a "compassionate IND," or "investigational-new-drug exemption." The negotiations dragged on for months, and finally, on a Monday afternoon, May 6, Collier filed suit against FDA, DEA, and NIDA. He argued in his brief that the government cannot pass laws that impinge upon a person's constitutional right to maintain his or her health. Moreover, Collier declared that freedom of speech was at issue in the Randall case: "During his participation in Dr. Merritt's program, repeated efforts were made to limit Mr. Randall's access to marijuana in retaliation for his exercise of First Amendment rights. Mr. Randall should not again be placed in a position where he would have to choose between his right to protect his eyesight and the exercise of his First Amendment rights."
    The day after the suit was filed, the government agreed to a settlement. It stipulated that Randall would get his marijuana allowance immediately, directly from a federal pharmacy, and that no research requirements would be made of him without his and his doctor's approval.
    The settlement was a total victory for Randall, and yet he accepted it reluctantly, because he knew it was unlikely that other glaucoma patients would benefit from it. In theory, they could do what he had done and force the government to grant them legal marijuana. In reality, Randall had won his victory because of three special circumstances: the fact that he had won his criminal trial with a medical-necessity plea, and thus gained some legal leverage over the government; the fact that he lived in Washington and could thus keep after the government when it gave him the runaround; and the fact that a major Washington law firm had taken his case pro bono. He had won his case, but he also felt he had reached a dead end in his crusade to help other glaucoma victims. It was then that he met Lynn Pierson, who was able to build on Randall's achievement and to carry the medical-use issue into a new forum: state legislatures all over America.

    Lynn Pierson grew up in Grants, New Mexico, the son of an accountant. He planned to study accounting, then perhaps go to law school. He served a two-year stint in the Army, returned to the University of New Mexico, and was married. One day in October of 1975 he noticed he had a swollen testicle. He feared it might be venereal disease. A doctor informed him it was testicular cancer and he might die within six months. He underwent surgery, and after that chemotherapy.
    In chemotherapy a cancer patient's body is injected with a great amount of poison; the hope is that the poison will kill the cancer before it kills the patient. Its side effects are excruciating: nausea, vomiting, loss of hair, convulsions, depression. Hubert Humphrey called it "living hell." After Pierson's first chemotherapy, and convulsions that left him trembling, he did what many others have done: He told his doctor he would not undergo that treatment again. In response, the doctor gave him a medical-journal article about recent studies showing that marijuana-smoking often reduced the side effects of chemotherapy.
    Pierson tried the chemotherapy once more, this time smoking marijuana; it reduced his vomiting and convulsions and enabled him to take solid food and liquid during the treatment. Within a few months Pierson's cancer went into remission. By then he was becoming interested in the politics of the marijuana issue. He attended the New Mexico legislative hearing that Randall addressed early in 1977, but the two did not meet. In October, Pierson's cancer returned, this time in his lungs, inoperable and terminal. He began chemotherapy again, smoking along with it, to prolong his life. He bought his marijuana illegally, of course, and in November he heard about paraquat and realized that even his marijuana might be poisoned, and by the very government that would not allow him legal marijuana. It was too much. The government was truly monstrous, offering him a choice between illegal, poisoned marijuana on the one hand and the agonies of chemotherapy on the other. And he wasn't alone. He'd had a friend in the Veterans Hospital, a middle-aged man who refused to smoke, because it was illegal, and Pierson had watched his friend die an unnecessarily agonizing death. Lynn Pierson wanted to act, to do something that would give meaning to his death. He wasn't sure what, but something. It was then, early in December of 1977, that he went to the NORML conference and met Bob Randall and Alice O'Leary.

    Randall and Pierson felt close from the first, peers in a select fraternity. Randall felt as if he'd been waiting for a long time to find Lynn Pierson. He'd fought his fight, taken it as far as he could alone, and now he thought Pierson could take it further. Pierson felt the same way. He confessed that he had clippings about Randall at home on the wall beside his desk. "If you hadn't done it first, I would have," he told Randall.
    At first Randall wondered if Pierson would have the strength for political action. He'd met other cancer victims who wanted to fight the government but who lacked the physical or psychological resources. But he soon saw that Pierson was a fighter, a hell raiser, as determined a man as he'd ever met. "Lynn had the critical element, a sense of rage," Randall said. "Rage that he was forced to smoke illegally and that other people didn't even know it would help them."
    As they talked that weekend at the conference, Randall told Pierson he faced a choice. He could petition DEA, as Randall had, for legal access to marijuana, or he could take the issue to his state legislature. The latter was what Randall hoped Pierson would do, because if he succeeded, he would help not only himself but many others. Pierson agreed to go the legislative route.
    He already had allies in the New Mexico legislature. He had come to the conference with two legislators, Tom Rutherford and Manny Aragon, who had worked with NORML on decriminalization. When he returned to New Mexico, legislative aides drafted a medical-use bill. Randall and Pierson then rewrote it, in the long-distance phone conversations they had almost every night. They made sure that the bill's language was open-ended, allowing treatment to others whom marijuana might help, not just cancer and glaucoma victims, and they made sure it was defined as a program primarily to help people, not a research program.
    When the bill was ready, Pierson stalked the halls of the state capitol, personally talking to each of the nearly one hundred legislators. "Don't play politics with my life," he told them. He stressed that he was asking only for medical use, not for recreational drug use. The bill won widespread media support. The state AMA backed it. It passed easily, thirty to one in the state senate and forty-four to sixteen in the house. Gov. Jerry Apodaca signed it into law on February 21, 1978, with Pierson looking on. "Okay, Lynn, you can start smoking it legally now," the governor said jokingly.
    It was not that easy. The New Mexico program still had to obtain federal approval, and that approval was very slow in coming. Pierson, who had been so successful in dealing with the legislature, learned the frustrations of dealing with the bureaucracy. He and Randall continued to talk by phone almost every night. That was in the period when Randall's legal marijuana had been cut off, after Dr. Merritt left Washington, and they would joke about which of them would get his legal dope first. But it was not a joke. Pierson couldn't understand how the will of his state legislature could be thwarted by federal bureaucrats.
    "Lynn became more aggressive that summer," Randall recalled. "He began growing marijuana in his backyard, and he invited a television crew to come film it. He wanted to demonstrate that he could grow marijuana faster than the government would provide it for him. Near the end of July, he was on the Tomorrow show. He looked a little better—his hair had grown back—but he was obviously in terrible pain. I called him after the show and he told me he was bleeding internally but he felt it was important to do the show and let the country know what the government was doing to people.
    "In the last conversation I had with Lynn, his state was beatific. I had bad news that I decided not to give him: I'd learned of another delay on the New Mexico proposal. But he felt good. He felt he had changed things. This was August, and the Florida medical-use bill had passed by then. Lynn felt a sense of personal reward. He felt very satisfied with what he'd done. He died three days later."
    Three hours after Pierson's death, Randall added, an FDA official called the New Mexico health department and said its medical-use plan had finally been approved. Then, three months later, FDA withdrew its approval. To Randall, this runaround was all too familiar. "They decided that New Mexico was a small state and they'd try to stop medical use there," he said. Finally, nearly a year after the bill was passed, and after state officials had angrily denounced FDA for the delays, the New Mexico program was given federal approval. State officials named it the Lynn Pierson Therapeutic Research Program.

Chapter 15

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