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The Federal Medical Marijuana Program (Yes, It Exists)

September 12, 2018 @ 8:47AM

How would you react if I were to tell you that the United States already has a federal medical marijuana program, and that it has existed for decades? You might think it’s some half-baked conspiracy theory that sounds like something out of Pineapple Express, but it’s true! Not only has the US government been cultivating and studying cannabis since the 1960's, they’ve been producing and distributing buckets full of joints to their patients since the late 1970's.

Robert Randall: The First Medical Marijuana Patient

It all began in 1972 with a young man named Robert C. Randall; at only 24 years old, Randall had lost sight in his right eye, and he was diagnosed with a serious form of glaucoma that would claim the vision in his left eye in another 3 to 5 years. He started seeing "transient tri-colored halos” in his late teen years, and went “white-blind” at night. Unfortunately for Randall, going blind was inevitable, and the various medications he took to alleviate intraocular pressure were ineffective.

The following year, a friend offered him a couple of joints (or “marijuana cigarettes," if you prefer), and as they were smoking, Randall noticed that his halos had disappeared. After 6 months of trial and error, Randall concluded that smoking marijuana made his halos and white-blindness go away. During this time, his doctor had noticed that Randall's visual fields had stabilized, but Randall wouldn't dare to disclose his cannabis use to his physician out of fear of legal consequences.

Randall decided to grow his own weed to maintain a consistent supply of medicine, and in 1975, local vice cops noticed a cannabis plant on his back porch and raided his home. "I could not know at the time, but being arrested was about the best thing that could have happened to me,” he said. "Being arrested saved my sight.”

His 1976 trial concluded with Judge James A. Washington remarking that Randall "has established a defense of necessity… the evil he sought to avert, blindness, is greater than that he performed.” The charges against him were dropped, and Randall’s attorneys petitioned the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to include him in a research program that would entail 10 joints a day. Robert Randall became the first person to legally receive a monthly supply of 300 joints from the federal government’s cannabis cultivation facility at the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”).

In 1978, the federal government tried to cut off Randall’s supply when his doctor moved to another state. Randall sued once more, and within a day, federal agencies put a gag order on the case and settled out of court by establishing the Compassionate Investigational New Drug (IND) program and including Randall as its first patient.

Though his doctor said he’d be blind by age 30, Randall kept his eyesight until he died in 2001 at the age of 52.

Irvin Rosenfeld: The Second Medical Marijuana Patient

A well-known advocate in the medical marijuana community, Irvin Rosenfeld is the oldest surviving benefactor of the federal IND program. At age 10, doctors found over 200 tumors covering his bones, diagnosing Rosenfeld with a rare disease called multiple congenital cartilaginous exotosis; these potentially fatal tumors multiply and expand, often splintering bones in the process and causing excruciating pain. The worst case scenario for Rosenfeld was that his tumors would become malignant and kill him, and the best case scenario was that he would live his life in incessant pain and take heavy doses of painkillers to try and alleviate it.

Rosenfeld started college in 1971, and though he never had any interest in illegal drugs due to the volume of legal prescription medications he had to take on a daily basis, he ‘caved into peer pressure’ and began smoking joints socially with his friends. One day during a game of chess, Rosenfeld realized that he had been sitting down for 30 minutes, which was odd because he usually couldn’t sit for more than 10 minutes at a time, and he hadn’t taken his painkillers that day. “I looked at this piece of garbage [the joint], because to me that’s all marijuana was – garbage – and I thought, this is the only thing I’ve done differently: I’ve smoked this garbage.”

Irvin Rosenfeld found his passion. He began researching obsessively, learning about medicinal applications of cannabis that had existed before federal prohibition, and discussing medical marijuana with multiple relatives who worked in the medical field. Like Randall, he procured some cannabis and began experimenting on himself by smoking for a week, stopping for a week, and repeating the process several times to see how effective cannabis was for managing his pain and inflammation. By 1972, Rosenfeld learned about the marijuana being cultivated at Ole Miss and, with the help of his doctor, he began petitioning the federal government to get legal access to more medicine.

Rosenfeld met Randall in 1977, and with the help of Randall and his wife, Rosenfeld became the second patient of the IND program in 1982.

Compassionate Investigational New Drug (IND) Program

The IND program, as previously mentioned, was established in 1978, though Ole Miss has held its exclusive contract with the federal government (specifically the Drug Enforcement Agency) to cultivate marijuana for research since 1968. The program was initially funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and later by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

The marijuana research facility at Ole Miss is overseen by Dr. Mahmoud ElSohly (previously mentioned in Lab Results: Our Love-Hate Relationship) and Dr. Ikhlas Khan. They cultivate indoors and outdoors on their 12-acre farm to supply their [surviving] medical patients, as well as to meet the ever-increasing demand for research grade cannabis.

Once harvested, whole marijuana plants are sent to Raleigh, North Carolina where they are fed into a cigarette machine and made into uniform joints. The cannabis cigarettes are then placed into tin buckets, freeze-dried for some inexplicable reason, then stored in a freezer for up to 13 years before the joints are sent to the patient’s local pharmacy for pickup.

By all accounts, the quality of the marijuana grown at Ole Miss is piss poor, and it makes Mexican brick weed look like top shelf. “[It’s] consistently bad,” said the late Robert Randall, “Very metallic. It lacks the fine, almost perfumed taste of street marijuana."

At the height of the IND program, there was a total of 15 patients receiving 300 joints a month from the federal government. Unfortunately President George H.W. Bush— like President Richard Nixon— blatantly disregarded any and all research that cannabis is benign if not beneficial, and ordered the IND program to stop accepting new patients in 1992.

As of September 2018, only two of the original 15 patients are still alive: Irvin Rosenfeld and Elvy Musikka.

Bottlenecks in Marijuana Research

In addition to supplying medicine to the 2 remaining patients, Ole Miss is the only source in the United States for scientists to legally acquire cannabis for research purposes, and those researchers have to jump through a lot of hoops and wait years to receive marijuana for their studies.

Ole Miss and NIDA have had a monopoly on cannabis cultivation for research purposes since 1968. According to their website, the reason they’ve been able to maintain this monopoly is due to their "proven capabilities of providing pharmaceutical-grade marijuana and marijuana-derived materials to NIDA’s Drug Supply Program.”

We already know from Randall’s account that their 'pharmaceutical-grade marijuana’ has an acrid metallic flavor, and Rosenfeld has also remarked that the federal marijuana is nothing that a cannabis connoisseur would want to imbibe. Even researchers complain that this ‘pharmaceutical-grade marijuana’ is of extremely poor quality and bears no resemblance to the cannabis that people actually use. "NIDA is completely inadequate as a source of marijuana for drug development research,” remarked Rick Doblin, the director of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). "They’re in no way capable of assuming the rights and responsibilities for handling a drug that we’re hoping to be approved by the FDA as prescription medicine.”

Marijuana from Ole Miss was recently tested by a Colorado laboratory, and in addition to the low potency, they found high levels of mold and yeast, as well as trace amounts of lead. NIDA was quick to blame the recipients of the cannabis for “improper storage” (the weed was left unrefrigerated for a day) rather than take responsibility for the inferior product they supply researchers with.

The federal government practically went out of its way to produce the shittiest weed possible for the 15 people who sued for legal access, and it speaks volumes that their shwaggy, moldy, powdery, low-potency, heavy-metal-contaminated ditchweed is still effective for those patients who depend on it (and with minimal adverse effects, considering they’re smoking bammer on top of having serious health problems). Imagine how the lives of these patients might be positively impacted if they were actually given decent cannabis to smoke!

In light of the public’s increasing interest in marijuana legalization and research, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have recently decided to license more facilities to cultivate cannabis for research, and are currently accepting applications from prospective growers. Even Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a notorious opponent of cannabis use, said "it would be healthy to have some more competition in the supply.” As of this writing, the DEA has already received at least 25 applications. NIDA has also listened to complaints from researchers and released a list of recommendations for improving the quality and variety of research marijuana.

Fascinating stuff, right? Well, here’s another plot twist: the United States Department of Health (DOH) currently holds a patent on the use of cannabinoids as medicine, and has held this patent since 1998. The mere existence of this patent held by the same government that categorizes cannabis as a Schedule I drug is simultaneously hypocritical and infuriating, prompting waves of marijuana activists to memorize and hashtag patent number 6,630,507 in an effort to expose this glaring hypocrisy.

"The patent expires on April 21, 2019,” says Renate Myles, a spokesperson for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), "after which anyone would be free to develop drugs based on these cannabinoids that, like all drugs, would require FDA approval to demonstrate safety and effectiveness in humans.”

Article by Ramsey Doudar; an in-house marketing and social media strategist at Herbn Elements. Ramsey's perspective is influenced by 2 years of budtending, 5 years as a cannabis industry marketing professional, and 10+ years of being a super picky medical patient.