Alice O’Leary Randall — The First Lady of Medical Marijuana

Exclusive interview with “The First Lady of Medical Marijuana”. Alice O’Leary-Randall talks with Kevin Quinn about the history of medical marijuana in America.

In 1976, the federal government was supplying your husband with medical marijuana. Is that correct?

That is indeed correct. My husband had glaucoma. He was young. He was 24 years old when he was diagnosed with it, but he was told that he would go blind by the time he was 30. That was in 1972. He discovered sort of accidentally that marijuana seemed to be helping his sight. We realized we had to have a steady supply of marijuana available and we were growing some plants. We got arrested and not long after getting arrested, Robert discovered that there was, in fact, ongoing research at UCLA in Los Angeles that was looking specifically at marijuana’s effects on lowering intraocular pressure. He got very excited about that.

He managed to get himself out to Los Angeles for 10 days of testing and that testing conclusively proves that it was the addition of the marijuana to the rest of his conventional drugs that made the critical difference in saving his sight, so armed with that information, we took a two-pronged approach in 1976. We had the criminal trial to deal with, of course, but we also filed a petition with the federal government, using the UCLA data and asked for permission for Robert to use federal supplies of marijuana.

In November of that year, the petition was affirmatively answered. He received his supplies of marijuana and in that same month, the court ruled and he was found not guilty of marijuana possession by reason of medical necessity. It was the first time medical necessity was ever raised as a defense and it has been used successfully by other medical marijuana patients since that time, so it was a very historic and very happy month for us, November of 1976. Pretty amazing.

Robert was the first person to go down this path and to do this successfully?

He was and, I have to say, it made absolutely huge news. It was covered by all the major news networks. Of course, we’re talking 1976. We have to remember we have to place this within the context of the period. There wasn’t the 24/7 news coverage that we have today, but nevertheless, Robert was on all three evening news shows. He appeared on the morning shows. He was covered in all of the newspapers. Radio was always having him talk with them. He was a huge news story. I remember one headline in particular that sad, “Bob smokes pot and it’s legal” and above a picture of him, it said, “One man in 213 million,” and that’s what he was.

He very quickly realized … In fact, he often said that he felt like the only one to make the lifeboat. He knew that there were many others who would benefit from medical access to marijuana and we started hearing from them almost immediately, and we realized that it was really up to us to do something about this. Robert had the bully pulpit, if you will. He had the medical marijuana from the federal government. He could hold up those legal marijuana cigarettes at any press conference and be ensured of a lot of press, and he used that bully pulpit really, really well.

That’s absolutely astounding to hear that story and to know that it went in that completely different direction in this country with the legislation and everything else.

I think one of the things that people have lost sight of and I think it’s really important to remember and it’s one of the reasons that I wrote the book because medical marijuana is, of course, it’s all the news now and people tend to think, “Oh, it started back in 1996 when those happy, loony folks out in California passed their law,” but the truth of the matter is the medical marijuana movement not only began with my husband in 1976, but in 1978, the state of New Mexico became the first state in the country to enact a law recognizing marijuana’s medical value and establishing a statewide program of controlled, legal access to the drug for patients with glaucoma and cancer chemotherapy.

Now, that bill was passed overwhelmingly at the behest of a young cancer chemotherapy patient. It was quickly followed on by three additional states that year: Florida, Illinois, and Louisiana. Now, consider those states: New Mexico, Florida, Louisiana. These are not hotbeds of liberalism. The medical marijuana issue really resonates with humanity. It doesn’t matter what your political persuasion is. People understand that if you’re going to go blind or if you’re having trouble throwing up or if you’re spasming uncontrollably, and marijuana helps you, I believe the vast majority of Americans want people to be able to get that legally and under the supervision of their doctor.

In 1978, we had four states who passed it. By 1980, we had 34 states with those types of laws in existence, but those laws were really quashed by the Federal government and that’s a lot of what my book is about: The intransigence, the absolute despicable way in which the federal government has acted throughout this entire saga of seriously ill people trying to gain legal access to marijuana.

It must be so frustrating to see how backward everything has been for the last 30 years.

You’re right on any number of levels, Kevin. It saddens me in a way because I realize if the federal government had approached this with good faith, which is definitely the way the states back in the 1970s and ‘80s approached it … They were operating on good faith. They were told that if they set up the statewide program of research that the federal government would provide them with supplies, that the data that would be gathered from these studies would go towards proving once and for all whether marijuana had medical use, and you’re right, it’s been 30 years. If those laws had been allowed to go forward, we’d have so much data and there’d be so many people who didn’t have to suffer needlessly in these past decades.

By the same token, I look at the current medical marijuana scene and my heart is full and it cheers me so to see that … Bob always said the American public will not let us down and they haven’t. They have been creative. They have worked their way around the federal government and they have found a way to get marijuana, medical marijuana, to their citizens in, what? … I think, 22 states now that we’re counting at. It’s kind of a best of times, worst of times thing and I am just pleased that there’s really hundreds of thousands of people receiving legal access to marijuana at this time. It’s wonderful.

Alice, you also discuss in your book that there have been three excellent opportunities for the federal government to resolve the medical marijuana issue and maintain control, the first starting in the late 1970s. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Yeah, I came up with this analogy of three strikes and you’re out, and the first strike was the one I just talked about where you have 34 states trying to provide their citizens with a legal means to get medical marijuana, and that was marched over by the federal agencies. That was in the late ‘70s into the early ‘80s. That was strike one.

At the end of the 1980s, there was a very long-standing court case that finally came to fruition. The Chief Administrative Law Judge for the Drug Enforcement Administration was ordered by the Court of Appeals to hold hearings on whether or not marijuana had accepted medical value in the United States of America. Judge Francis Young held two years of hearings in four or five different geographical spots throughout the United States. He took volumes of testimony and ruled in 1988 that marijuana did have medical value and that it should be rescheduled.

This was a Chief Administrative Law Judge for the Drug Enforcement Administration, and he sent that recommendation to the Administrator of the DEA who eventually rejected it, and that’s strike two. Another opportunity where the federal government could have said, “Hey, maybe we’re looking at this wrong. Maybe we should have a few committee hearings about how we can change this problem,” but they didn’t, so that’s strike two.

Strike three came in the 1990s. At the time, there was something called Compassionate IND Program which allowed a few people to gain legal access to marijuana. My husband, Robert, was one of them. With the advent of the AIDS crisis in the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s, that presented a new disease category that marijuana was helpful for. People with AIDS use marijuana to stimulate their appetite, to reduce nausea and vomiting, to help with muscle aches, and we realized with the AIDS population, we had a disease category that lent itself very well to creating a relatively simple set of forms that a doctor could complete along with the help of his patient.

We launched a group called the Marijuana AIDS Research Service. We prepared these packets to be sent out to AIDS patients and their doctors all over the country and it could be filled out within about 30 minutes or so by the doctor and patient. Hundreds of people contacted us for these packets. We know that AIDS groups across the country Xeroxed them and gave them to their members. We don’t know how many of these packets actually ended up in the FDA. We theorize that there were hundreds, if not thousands. The FDA actually approved 38 patients before the DEA stepped in and said, “Whoa. Wait a minute. This is getting out of hand,” and so the Compassionate IND Program in 1992 was shut down.

The federal government said, “No more single patient INDs, no more single patient access to marijuana. The existing patients will be grandfathered and allowed to continue to receive the marijuana they’ve been receiving, but no new patients will be able to receive marijuana.” It was a horrendous step on the part of the Bush Senior administration, and it was put forward by their Public Health Chief, James O. Mason, who was a … I’m getting off beat here.

The bottom line was the program was shut down and the public became furious. There were editorials criticizing the government. The anger was palpable, and within a short while of that program closing, in California on a local level, they started passing the propositions that allowed medical use and eventually, it evolved into the state laws that we have today.

That was really strike three and I think it was the worst strike because it was such a slap in the face of not only AIDS patients and multiple sclerosis patients and glaucoma patients, but also their doctors. These are men and women who are highly educated who know what’s best for their patients, and the federal government just said, “Nope. No more. We don’t care. Nobody’s getting anything.” You can say that maybe things turned out okay because the government has been hoisting on its own petard, if you will.

I don’t think they ever envisioned the situation that has grown up today with so many states having intrastate programs of medical access, but what those three strikes have done, to my way of thinking, is really knocked the federal government out of this picture entirely. They have no standing any longer. They are not to be trusted. In fact, they are to be distrusted severely and it’s really time that somebody in federal government manned up and acknowledged that they have been wrong for all of these years and move to reschedule marijuana to schedule II or III where it belongs. It’s unbelievable to me that nobody in the federal government has done that.

As a schedule I drug, some people don’t know what that means. It means that the drug has “no currently accepted medical use” and that’s absolutely asinine. You’re a nurse. You’re an advocate. You’ve seen lots of ways that this … examples of this drug working, and yet, the federal government stand says, “Well, we need more studies.”

Yes. Can you believe it? That has been their mantra since 1976 when Bob first got his legal supply of marijuana. It has been a continual harping on “We don’t have the research. We don’t have the research,” and when people step up to do the research, when 34 states, 34 Department of Health in states, step up and say, “We want to do the research,” and the federal government knocks them down, it’s appalling. It’s totally appalling. One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I want the focus to return to the federal level.

There’s no reason why President Obama can’t issue an executive order rescheduling marijuana.

There’s no reason that the current director of DEA couldn’t decide to reschedule marijuana.

There’s no reason that Congress couldn’t pass an act saying, “Reschedule marijuana.” It’s time for somebody who’s got the authority to man up, like I said, man up and do the right thing, and
I would really like to see that happen.

Obviously, the way it’s being handled right now is just a shocking example of government indifference to the seriously ill, and the unbelievable steps taken by the federal government to squash the medical marijuana movement is, like you said … You used the word horrendous a number of times in our interview this evening, and I agree with you wholeheartedly, but Alice, I want to ask you, in your opinion just how far out do you think we are in ending prohibition?

Oh, gosh, Kevin. I don’t know. I wish I could, but there’ve been too many times throughout this 30, 40 years that I’ve been involved in this issue when I thought, “Well, another five years, maybe it’ll happen.”

As much as I dislike the federal government, I have learned that they are very capable of doing terrible things, and they are not to be trusted, and I’m very pleased with what the states are doing, but I feel like there’s a 900-lb. gorilla in the corner and we’ve got a pretty good atmosphere right now with the Obama Administration, but I worry if the administration changes and attitudes start to change, until we get marijuana rescheduled on a federal level, everybody is vulnerable, and the genie is obviously way out of the bottle at this point, so prohibition, I think, the end of prohibition is closer, but to put a timeframe on it, I can’t do that.

If you could sum it up succinctly how we fix this, what do you think we should do, either as a country, on a federal level, if you were in an administrative role in this country, what do we do to fix this? What is the steps that need to be taken and what is the path?

I honestly think that the rescheduling of marijuana would have a huge impact both in terms of research, medical access, and eventually total elimination of prohibition, so what I see as necessary is what I alluded to just a few moments ago. Somebody in the federal government has got to man up and say, “We’ve handled this badly. We need to move as a cohesive unit and reschedule marijuana.” It can be the President, it can be the DEA, it can be the Congress. There’s means for it to happen, and I think that really has to happen before we can resolve the issue once and for all. Obviously, it has to happen before that happens.

It’s not a hard thing to do, but sometimes it is very hard to say, “We’re sorry. We were wrong.” I don’t ever expect to see it from DEA, but the President and Congress are two different matters. They have it within their power and it would be a generous acknowledgement to the number of people in this country who have suffered for so many years, either without the medication they need or skulking around in back alleys and hunkering and paying exorbitant prices for medication that is crucial to their well-being.

It’s just too many vested interests in that.

Clips from Waiting to Inhale (Jed Riffe Films)
See the trailer here:

Photographs used with permission of Alice O’Leary-Randall

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