I testified in Washington at the end of last month, even though I have never scrounged through Ken Starr’s sex life, or found jobs for big-mouthed interns. I appeared before a public meeting sponsored by the Institute of Medicine on medical marijuana. The institute was established by the National Academy of Sciences, and it has received an $800,000 contract from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (the drug czar’s office) to prepare a report, which should be out in December. Dr. Stanley Watson Jr. of the University of Michigan and Dr. John Benson Jr. of Oregon Health Science University chaired the proceedings at one of those solemn temples of republicanism along the Mall.
In the anteroom, I saw a friend-none other than George Washington, decorating the leaflet of some pro-pot crusader. “Sow hemp,” said the caption under his visage. There followed several extracts from his writings, warning of the dangers of power-hungry factions, by which the leafleteer meant the Drug Enforcement Agency.
That’s the kind of thing you run into when you take up the pro-legalization cross. Whenever I appear on a radio show to talk about the Father of His Country, the most commonly asked question is, “Did Washington grow hemp at Mount Vernon?” Every pothead in America knows that he did; I have to tell them that he almost certainly grew it for fabric or rope. (Although who knows-maybe the difference between Bill Clinton and George is that George inhaled. Clearly, there is some difference.)
Like all lunacy, it is charming only the first couple dozen times, tiresome thereafter. Yet who wouldn’t be loony after contemplating Federal policy on medical marijuana?
Dr. Watson and Dr. Benson ran an efficient show. The users of medical marijuana appeared in panels of three; each spoke for five minutes and answered a few questions. Then the gong rang, and we gave way to the next panel.
I caught the last speaker of the panel before mine. He was Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a Philadelphia man with AIDS. Smoking boosts his appetite and combats the wasting syndrome. When he had to leave his pot behind to make a recent trip to Japan, he lost 10 pounds-nice if you want the supermodel look, not nice if you want the “I’m alive” look. My fellow panelists were Michael Krawitz, a young veteran from Elliston, Va., and Mouncey Ferguson, a businessman from Leesburg, Va. Mr. Krawitz was disabled in a motorcycle accident and finds that pot usefully supplements his legal painkillers. Mr. Ferguson is manic-depressive and finds that pot helps his prescription drugs flatten the highs and boost the lows. I gave my little song and dance about chemotherapy. Mr. Kuromiya, Mr. Krawitz and myself had had no trouble with the law, but Mr. Ferguson, who grew his own plants, went to jail, directly to jail; he did not pass “Go,” he did not collect $200. The program listed 20 more tales of woe, and it was raining, so I left.
I know what everyone would have said-the benefits they receive, the indignities (or worse) they undergo. I do not think marijuana is a sacrament, or a cure-all. As a mood-alterer, I prefer Haydn. But it is a useful little drug, helpful with this and that. It is also less dangerous than many of the legal drugs in the pharmacopoeia. Look, I took Demerol after an operation. Demerol was sweet heaven, Demerol was my friend. And no wonder, because Demerol is synthetic morphine. And yet marijuana, for which there is no recorded case of a fatal overdose, is illegal, while doctors’ cabinets bulge with addictive and potentially lethal pain-candy.
Marijuana’s very versatility will hamper clinical tests of its effectiveness. Pot has dozens of active chemicals; isolating each one, injecting a rat with 50 pounds of it and recording the results will take time. Friendly drug companies will offer to produce each single chemical, in pill form, for only a hundred times the cost of a joint. Meanwhile, William Bennett and Gary Bauer will swell and glower like Batman balloons at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and say that if stupid teenagers use a substance badly, then no one should be allowed to use it well.
I see little short-term prospect of relief from politics. Senator John Ashcroft, Republican of Missouri, this month’s fresh face among the Republican Presidential candidates, has already attacked needle-exchange programs for heroin addicts on the grounds that we should not help “dope addicts … conduct their poisonous activity”-a take-no-prisoners tone which suggests he won’t be willing to help cancer patients conduct their health-giving activity. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s push for urban civility will undoubtedly include crackdowns on street pushers, as it should. Who wants to be accosted by a raggedy Rasta man muttering “smokes, smokes” under his breath? Yet the AIDS patients and the cancer patients and the manic-depressives have to get their stuff somewhere. If they grow it at home, they risk suffering Mr. Ferguson’s fate. Even states with the referendum process, that circuit breaker for citizens, are out of luck. Last month, the California State Supreme Court ruled that, notwithstanding Proposition 215 in 1996, cannabis buyers’ clubs could not sell pot to the sick.
Help may come instead from the aging of the baby boomers. Parenthood made them forget their salad days, and so we got ludicrous subterfuges, like President Clinton’s claims about inhaling. But now, as they turn 50, breast cancer, prostate cancer and a host of other tumors lurk behind the examining room door. When some chemo nurse or oncologist mentions marijuana, will the baby boomers remember that their youthful abuse of it, though frivolous, was not life-threatening, and will they then be willing to legalize what they have turned to for relief?
Until that happens, bad laws and capricious enforcement remain. A plant that grows as a common weed throughout North America is classified alongside heroin. Anyone who wants to can grow it, many people will sell it, and only some of them will be arrested. A member of the media elite, like myself, can do what he must and live to gossip about Vernon Jordan. Sick people in smaller towns, with less prestigious jobs, will run afoul of the law. Conservatives are supposed to fear big government, and liberals are supposed to be bleeding hearts. Can we get some action from some of them?