The Federal Government Recognized the Health Benefits of Medical Marijuana 40 Years Ago

The fascinating story of Irvin Rosenfeld, one of only four people in the United States who the federal government provides medical marijuana to, and has been for the last 40 years.

Man Holding Marijuana Plant

As long as he lives and breathes and talks—and Irv likes to talk—he will serve as a reminder that the federal government has already admitted cannabis has medicinal uses. Yet the plant continues to be labeled as Schedule I substance under federal law, meaning it has “no accepted medical use.”

Photo By H. Lee

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Before I started moving drugs across state lines, my research started out much more innocently. Where and when it actually began is a bit nebulous, but perhaps it’s best to start here: I’m on a boat with a man smoking a joint. It’s a spectacular sun-breezy day in southeast Florida. The man smoking the joint is a successful stockbroker. He owns this boat. He is a regular guy—clean-shaven with short cropped hair, wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and a pair of black Crocs. I would like to have a drag of his joint, but I can’t. Technically, he is one of only four people in the United States of America that is allowed to smoke a joint here. And by here, I mean the United States of America.

Make no mistake: The reason I can’t smoke his joint has nothing to do with any personal moral concerns. It’s just that he won’t give it to me. And he shouldn’t, because it was given to him as medicine by the federal government. Just to make sure, and because he seems to be relishing this joint so flagrantly, I ask the man if I could, under any circumstances, share it with him.

“No, you could never smoke mine,” he explains. “To anyone who ever asks, ‘Could I have any?’ my answer is: ‘You’re undercover DEA.’”

“Got it,” I say.

I steal a look at him, using my sunglasses as a shield. On closer scrutiny, maybe he isn’t a regular guy. He does have some irregularities. He is short—5’5” at best—in a way that suggests stunted growth. His right ankle is wrapped, which draws your attention to his legs. And they are noticeably knock-kneed, with peculiar bumpiness about them.

The man’s name is Irvin Rosenfeld. He is telling me how it is that he came to look this way, and why he’s allowed to smoke this joint. He says it started in Little League baseball. He was 10 years old, playing shortstop.

“The ball was hit to me for the final out. I picked it up. Threw it to first. The first baseman caught the ball. We had won the game by one run ... we’re 10 years old. You take your glove off and throw it in the air. Yay, we won!” Irv shoots me a pregnant look. “Only problem was ... my whole arm was paralyzed. Couldn’t move it.”

“The arm that you just threw with?” I ask.

Irv nods. “Totally paralyzed. It didn’t hurt, just wouldn’t move.”

By the time Irv’s mom got him to the hospital across the street, he could feel his arm again. X-rays showed a jagged bone sticking out from Irv’s wrist. The emergency room doctor misdiagnosed it, claiming he had most likely broken his wrist when he was a baby, and it had healed wrong. But Irv’s mom had worked in a hospital before; it made no sense that a broken wrist would go unnoticed. She took Irv to an orthopedic surgeon, who said Irv’s body felt wrong. “He took x-rays, and, sure enough, there were these knots everywhere on my body, OK? He said, ‘This disorder, I’ve heard about it. I’ve seen it to a certain extent, but not like this. It’s called multiple congenital cartilaginous exostoses.’”

“That’s a fun mouthful,” I say.

But that’s not the half of it. Irv says his other disorder, diagnosed later, is pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism—one of the longest words in the English language. Basically, the body makes normal parathyroid hormone but then doesn’t use it. People with this malady have low calcium and high phosphate levels. And they tend to be short in stature.

At age 10, Irv went to Boston Children’s Hospital. Dr. William Green told Irv he had bone tumors throughout his body that would continue to grow as he grew. It was one of the worst cases he had ever seen. Irv had more than 200 tumors, any of which could turn problematic—even malignant—at any point. The hard truth of the matter was that Irv might not outlive his teenage years. Dr. Green told Irv’s parents that neither he nor they would have dominion over Irv’s medical decisions.

“He turns to me and says, ‘Irvin, you’ve got so many tumors in your body that would need surgery. And we can’t operate that much; we just can’t. You’re gonna have to make all the decisions yourself, because we as doctors can understand and learn certain things, but we don’t know how it feels. Your parents aren’t gonna know that. You’re the one.’”

Irv pauses dramatically and looks at me. Tropical-tourist music of the Jimmy Buffett variety is wafting over from a restaurant across from the marina. I try to empathize with a 10-year-old Irv: This must have been a terrifying feeling for a kid. At the same time, Irv seems to feel a retrospective aura of self-importance about his situation. Instead of being sad or embarrassed about his ailments, Irv seems to have taken the doctor’s calling him “the one” as a point of pride, a sort of anointment.

The first surgery went smoothly. Irv’s hand hurt while writing, so he asked for surgery. Dr. Waive, his local doctor in Portsmouth, Virginia, extracted the tumor, and Irv was back to playing baseball a month later. It wasn’t until Irv turned 13 that the seriousness of his condition became apparent. He came back from summer camp and went in for his monthly appointment.

“Doctor Waive does his X-rays, and all the sudden, he’s looking at them, and he just goes, ‘Holy shit.’” There was a tumor the size of a fist on Irv’s upper calf, and it was growing inward toward a major growth center. “I had surgery two days later. And I was lucky I didn’t lose the leg. And that took me years to come back from. I had to learn to walk again. I mean it was a very bad operation. And then the operation after that was almost that bad.”

Chronic pain became Irv’s daily companion. He was prescribed Demerol, Parafon Forte for muscle relaxation, and another pill for sleeping. But he didn’t like the way they made him feel. When Irv was 14, Dr. Waive pulled his mother aside. “To be honest I don’t like giving a young person this much painkillers,” he said. “By chance do you have any alcohol in the house?”

Irv laughs. He says that “in the Jewish tradition, at least in southern Virginia,” families would get together on Sunday and drink a shot of bourbon. Irv had been doing this since he was seven. At 14, he started drinking bourbon as medicine. Dr. Waive explicitly suggested that, every night around midnight, he should make himself a drink, or two, or three. Whatever it took to get relief and sleep.

I shake my head. No doctor would make such a reckless suggestion today, in the skittish climate of multimillion-dollar lawsuits and HMO oversight. And yet few doctors would hesitate to dole out a prescription of potent, addictive painkillers. 

Because of the pain and the surgeries—there would be six total—Irv started homeschooling part-time. He claims school officials encouraged this, out of fear that he might get hurt during school and sue the system. One day, during one of his rare appearances on campus, Irv ran into his principal. This was the late ’60s, when drugs were becoming more prevalent.

“And I said, ‘You know, it amazes me, all these kids talking about drugs. Why would a healthy person do drugs?’” The principal suggested Irv talk to the kids about it. “And that’s how I came to invent the D.A.R.E. program,” Irv says, referring to the now-international education program founded in 1983, whose goal is to prevent drug use, gang membership, and violence among students. To say Irv “invented” this program is a stretch—in that he had nothing to do with the actual creation of D.A.R.E.—but he was indeed an early student anti-drug warrior, the irony of which is not lost on him. “I would be speaking to kids my age at school, holding a baggie with prescription bottles in there, saying, ‘Look what I have to take. Be thankful you’re healthy. Don’t do illegal drugs.’”


After graduation Irv enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College. Dr. Waive said the heat in southern Florida would ease the ache of Irv’s tumors. Irv had met a young woman through a Jewish youth organization and arranged for her to be his roommate. On their second day together, she lit up a joint. Irv went ballistic. When she didn’t comply with his order to put out the joint, he kicked her out. “I was not gonna have drugs in my apartment. Here I had Dilaudid, Quaaludes, Valium, all these heavy narcotics. But I was not gonna, you know, have that.”

But Irv was surrounded. This was the early ’70s, when marijuana use was at a historical all-time high for the United States. A 1971 Gallup poll showed that over half of the nation’s college students had tried marijuana. He couldn’t escape it.

In the end Irv tried pot for the same reason many kids do—peer pressure. His apartment complex was full of college students. He would hang with them at the pool, but inevitably someone would suggest they go smoke pot. Irv would politely decline and slump back to his apartment. The taboo of doing an illegal drug was too heavy.

“After 30 days, I realized I wasn’t making any friends and it was always because of marijuana.” Irv takes a puff of his joint and exhales slowly. “And I thought, you know, these kids seem OK to me. It doesn’t seem like it’s harming them in any way. I’m gonna give in to peer pressure. I’m gonna try it. OK, so I tried it. And it was garbage. Didn’t get high, nothing.”

Irv’s newfound friends explained you don’t always get high the first few times. Irv kept trying, sipping on bourbon while sharing a joint, hoping to feel something. It never worked, but then Irv didn’t care much. He was making friends.

The sixth time he smoked, Irv played a game of chess, which lasted half an hour. He realized he hadn’t sat for 30 minutes straight in almost five years. Sit 10, stand 10—that was his ritual. And it had been over six hours since he’d last taken narcotics. “And just then I hear, ‘Hey, it’s your turn!’ And he handed me the garbage. I lit this garbage. And I thought: This is the only thing I’ve done differently. I’ve smoked this garbage. Hey, I wonder if there’s any medical benefit to this garbage!”

Irv snapped into action. He called Dr. Waive and asked if he knew anything about marijuana as a medicine. The same man who had prescribed bourbon as an analgesic was gobsmacked. He said he would look into it. Meanwhile, Irv called his family, and before long, they were all researching the then-novel concept of medical marijuana. “And lo and behold, that’s when we discovered, it was a legal medicine in this country from 1860 to 1937. It was manufactured by major pharmaceutical companies, Merck and Eli Lilly and all of them.”

He speaks the truth. Before 1937, nearly every pharmaceutical company in America was manufacturing cannabis-based drugs. Parke-Davis had Utroval, Casadein, and a veterinary cannabis colic cure. Eli Lilly had a tincture marketed as an “anti-spasmodic, sedative, and narcotic,” as well as Dr. Brown’s Sedative Tablets, Neurosine, and the One Day Cough Cure, a mixture of cannabis and balsam. Pills of hashish coated with sugar were sold, as well as a mixture of snuff and marijuana, sold as an asthma cure.

Though cannabis was historically used in America for a variety of disorders, Irv discovered it was primarily as a muscle relaxant and anti-inflammatory, both of which were applicable to his ailments. Irv decided to experiment on himself. He would go three weeks at a time, smoking marijuana daily. He found that he felt less pain and more alertness as his intake of Dilaudid and other medications decreased. Then he would take a week off. Within two days the pain would return and his narcotic intake would surge.

After conducting this experiment four months in a row, Irv called his doctor. His dilemma: He was becoming a full-on pothead and was worried about getting busted. “I’m not a criminal,” Irv told Dr. Waive. “I’m a patient. You can give me Dilaudid, but you can’t give me cannabis.”

Around this time Irv discovered a little known fact: The American government had a marijuana farm. Since 1968, the University of Mississippi has operated the only federally legal marijuana farm and production facility in the United States. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) contracts with the university lab to grow, harvest, process, and ship marijuana to licensed facilities across the country for research purposes. The lab also collects samples of marijuana seized by police, to determine its potency and document national drug trends. The marijuana fields are surrounded by double fences and armed guards perched in towers.

 

Irv moved back to Virginia and started keeping data about how marijuana affected his symptoms. In 1976, Irv heard about Bob Randall, America’s first legal medical marijuana patient. Randall had developed glaucoma in his teens. In the early ’70s, an ophthalmologist said Randall would be blind within a few years. He started using cannabis and noticed the “tricolored halos” he saw around lights at night would disappear after smoking. Marijuana eased the intraocular pressure that hampered his vision, and which would most likely lead to blindness. He started growing his own seed. Then he got busted.

Randall underwent testing to prove that no other glaucoma drug effectively halted the deterioration of his eyesight. He then used the “common law doctrine of necessity” to argue against his marijuana-cultivation charges, because the drug was a medical necessity. He won. The federal government started shipping him 10 joints a day from the farm in Mississippi. He was the first legal medical marijuana smoker in the United States since 1937. But when he went public with his victory, the feds cut off his supply. Randall sued for reinstatement. Twenty-four hours after he filed the suit, federal agencies requested an out-of-court settlement that resulted in Randall gaining access to marijuana through a federal pharmacy near his home. By the time Randall died of AIDS-related complications in 2001, he was still smoking government pot, and he could still see.

Irv met Bob Randall after a speech he gave at Old Dominion University. Randall started helping Irv create a compassionate care protocol to present to the federal government. They finished it in four months. Dr. Waive had recently died, so Irv had his new doctor, an endocrinologist named Dr. Goldman, sign it. They sent it off to the FDA and got stonewalled. It wasn’t outright rejected; the FDA just claimed they were looking into other alternatives.

Three more years passed. By this point a lawsuit seemed like the only alternative. Irv sought counsel from his cousin, Donald Hornstein, a third-year law student at the University of Virginia. Intrigued by the idea, Hornstein approached one of his law professors, Richard Bonnie, who was the co-author of a book on marijuana prohibition. Bonnie thought it would be a good lesson for his students, who started putting a lawsuit together. Once it was prepared, they called the FDA to let them know a suit was forthcoming. This power play finally got the FDA’s attention. Instead of prepping for battle, they decided to give Irv 15 minutes to convince a committee of his case, at the FDA headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.

Irv called Bob Randall. Knowing it would be an open hearing, Bob decided to alert the media and advertise all over the building. “So when they turn you down, we’ll have a record of all that,” Bob explained.

Irv Rosenfeld’s hearing with the FDA committee was scheduled for the first Tuesday in October of 1983. The room was full. All types had shown up—reporters, political types in bespoke suits, doctors in scrubs. The chairman thanked everyone, told Irv he had 15 minutes, and slammed his gavel down. 

As concisely as possible, Irv told the committee the story he’s been telling me: the six operations, all the narcotics, the homeschooling. And then, the revelation while playing chess: that this “garbage” helped his condition. And the 10-year study, which he claimed was monitored by Dr. Goldman, who concluded that cannabis enhanced the effects of Dilaudid, enabling Irv to take significantly less of this debilitating narcotic. All Irv had ever asked of his doctors was to do the best they could with what they knew. After all, Irv said, “they are just M.D.s, not G.O.D.s” If his doctor could give him all the potentially lethal and addictive pills he wanted, why couldn’t he give him cannabis?

“And I saw it in the committee’s face,” Irv says. “This is a waste of time. But I’m doing my best. I said, ‘Gentlemen, that’s the end of my oral presentation. I’m open for any questions.’”

A guy in a white lab coat stood up. He said he was a visiting oncologist from Venezuela, and he didn’t have a question so much as a statement. He was here studying pain treatments for cancer patients. He said the best medicine for pain in America was the same medicine they had in Venezuela—Dilaudid. And if Mr. Rosenfeld and his doctor have studied it, and marijuana enhances the effect of Dilaudid, but he doesn’t have a steady supply, then this needs to be studied with a steady supply. The man sat down. The committee members looked stunned. The logic was irrefutable. And what possible agenda could an oncologist from Venezuela have?

“The chairman didn’t say anything,” Irv says. “So I said, ‘Are there any more questions ... or statements?

Irv gets a big kick out of this, busting out in raucous, self-satisfied laughter. The way Irv tells it, this mysterious Venezuelan was an angel sent from above, and the moment he sat down, it was clear that Irv had won. The chairman of the committee looked at the doctors to his left, then his right. They avoided his gaze. Without further discussion the chairman announced that he was speaking for the entire committee when he said he was confident Irv’s protocol would be approved.

Flashbulbs snapped. A flurry of people patted Irv on the back. It was like a movie. Bob Randall and his wife, Alice, gave him hugs. Irv went out, found a pay phone and called Dr. Goldman, reminding him that, in case anyone called, it was he who had implemented the 10-year study with Dilaudid and cannabis. (Irv sort of fudged that part to the committee.) Irv got in his car, lit up a joint, and pounded on the steering wheel in jubilation.

The number of legal medical marijuana smokers had just doubled. Over the next few years, the government started to quasi-embrace the concept, calling it the Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program, or Compassionate IND. The program expanded to include some HIV-positive patients in the mid-1980s. But then applications to the program increased and—even though there were only 30 active patients at its peak—the George H.W. Bush administration shut the program down in 1992. Only four of the grandfathered-in patients are still around today, and Irv is the healthiest and most active among them.

 

A month and a half after the hearing, the federal government sent Irv a tin stuffed with 300 rolled marijuana cigarettes. To this day he remains a walking symbol of the federal government’s hypocrisy regarding the plant. As long as he lives and breathes and talks—and Irv likes to talk—he will serve as a reminder that the federal government has already admitted cannabis has medicinal uses. Yet the plant continues to be labeled as Schedule I substance under federal law, meaning it has “no accepted medical use.” Meanwhile, the list of Schedule II substances—those with accepted medical uses—includes cocaine, opium, methamphetamine, and PCP. Considering that more than a third of the states have medical marijuana programs that openly disregard the drug’s Schedule I status, the program is a tangible manifestation of the federal government’s illogical stance on weed.

Since Irv has made it clear I won’t get to sample his stash, I have to ask the obvious question. The word around the pothead campfire is that the fed’s weed is basically schwag.

“And is the marijuana good?” I ask.

“It’s adequate. It works for me medically, and that’s all that counts. I don’t get high off of marijuana anyway, OK?”

“Why? Is it just because you use it so much?”

“My reason is my body needs it. And I’m using it up that way. Just like I took addicting doses of morphine, Dilaudid. Addicting doses. OK? Never got addicted.”

“Because your body ... ”

“My body was using it,” he says. “My body was using it.”

I’m having trouble wrapping my head around this. “So you’ve never felt what it feels like to be high?”

“No, there was one time. I had been without it for about a week ... I had moved from Virginia down here to Florida. And my wife brought it to me at work. I smoked the joint, and all of a sudden I felt high. My wife looked at me and said, ‘My God. Your eyes are glazing over.’ This had never happened before. She said, ‘Irvin, you’re getting high.’ I go, ‘I know. I feel it!’ You know?”

I nod. Of course I know.

“But I viewed it as, my body needed more medicine. I smoked more, and it went away. My eyes totally cleared up. The feeling totally went away.”

Hmm. I suppose it makes sense that the cannabinoids would be utilized for healing instead of psychoactive purposes. But to smoke 10 joints a day for decades and only get high once? I’m tempted to question Irv’s sincerity, or his ability to perceive high-ness, or the quality of the product. Regardless, I’m not going to pretend I can grasp this concept, but I’m still curious about what others think. “And have you had any incidences ... socially, or with people at work, where they make comments or say that you’re a bullshitter?”

“Oh sure. I’ve had people do that. I’ve had friends where I haven’t been invited back to their house again. Even though I was outside, smoking. I wouldn’t smoke inside the house. And I haven’t been invited back. Even my own family. We have family get-togethers, and people will say, ‘Who’s gonna take Irvin?’ Because of my smoke. My wife can’t stand being around it, and we’ve been married 37 years.”

 

Irv starts telling me about a business idea he has, for a consulting company called High Integrity Business Solutions, when he gets distracted by someone at the gate of the
marina.

“Oh wait. We gotta go,” Irv says. “They’re gonna lock us up.”

I don’t like the sound of that. Irv and I hop out of the boat and run to the gate. The man there is a representative of a foundation that, among other things, takes disabled children sailing. Irv happens to volunteer for this same organization. He tries to make conversation, but the guy is noticeably freaked out by the fact that he’s smoking a giant spliff. Irv senses his discomfort and, irritated, tells the man that in all the interviews he does, he promotes the foundation. Irv says he wants to be a new kind of face for the medical marijuana community—one who wears suits and ties, not tie-dyed shirts and ponytails. The guy seems unconvinced.

Though I don’t doubt Irv’s claims about his medical reasons for using marijuana, I also sense he relishes the self-righteousness of his position, of being one of four American citizens who are allowed to smoke pot anywhere. He seems to enjoy being perceived as a rebel without having to pay any consequences for his rebelliousness. If he didn’t feel this way, he probably wouldn’t have had the persistence to fight the federal government for almost a decade.

The man sees I have a tape recorder and grows even more uncomfortable. He turns to me. “Well, whatever you write, please keep the foundation’s name out of it,” he says. “I’m trying to run a family business.”

Alfred Ryan Nerz is a Yale-educated author, journalist, and TV producer. He’s also a longtime marijuana enthusiast who has made it his mission to better understand America’s long-standing love-hate relationship with our favorite (sometimes) illegal drug. Excerpted from his new book Marijuanamerica published by Abrams Books (April 2013).