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

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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.”
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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 ten joints a day from the farm in Mississippi.
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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.

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

“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

“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

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

“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

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

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

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,

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

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

“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

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

“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

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

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
Marijuanamericapublished by Abrams Books(April 2013).

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