An Opportunity for Education
I accepted the position of Director of the NORML’s Council on Marijuana and Health. By 1990, there were five patients who had legal access to marijuana through the Compassionate IND program. I was serving on the planning committee for the annual NORML conference and suggested that we have the patients present their cases in a panel presentation. The patients were eager to tell their stories and were excited to meet others with similar issues. Their presentations were aired on C-SPAN and garnered national attention. We had each patient interviewed and videotaped by a volunteer professional videographer. Over the next 2 years, excerpts from the interviews were used to create an 18-minute video called Marijuana as Medicine (Byrne & Mathre, 1992), which was designed to be a teaching aid. Following the airing of the patients’ panel, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received many requests for IND access to marijuana, especially from HIV/AIDS patients. The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Dr. Louis Sullivan, responded by shutting down the IND access to marijuana in 1992. At that time, 15 patients were receiving marijuana, over 30 patients had been approved and were waiting for their medication to be delivered, and hundreds of applications were waiting for review (Randall & O’Leary, 1998). Only the 15 current patients would be allowed to continue in the program, closing the door to all others. Also at this time, one of the legal patient’s supply of marijuana was cut off. Corinne Millet, a widow and glaucoma patient, sought help from her congressman to regain her supply of medicine, but during the 6 weeks she spent without her medication, she lost 80% of her peripheral vision (Byrne & Mathre, 1992).
These events made me feel that it was important to end the prohibition on the use of cannabis in the U.S. My perspective was that there was no justifiable reason for the marijuana prohibition. It has therapeutic value, it is safe, and patients benefit from it. I saw this as a problem that required patient advocacy and that had ethical implications. I believed it to be a professional responsibility to end the cannabis prohibition and make this medicine legally available to patients.
The more I learned, the more determined I became. I embarked on a more than 20-year fight, met countless barriers, and often felt like David taking on the Goliath of the federal government. Colleagues have questioned me over the years as to why I’m still trying to change the laws, but the answer is always the same: Patients still do not have access to a safe and legal supply of this medicine.