A little-known federal program continues to supply patients with medical marijuana, but allegedly provides low-quality cannabis.
The contradictions in federal and state drug laws has created a system where some medical marijuana users are arrested for consuming pot, while others are given marijuana directly by the federal government.
While the federal government raids medical marijuana dispensaries almost daily across the nation — arresting more than 2,000 people per day on minor marijuana-related charges — the federal government also supplies more than 300 pre-rolled joints a month to four Americans as part of the lesser-known federal medical marijuana program.
Known as the Compassionate Use Investigational New Drug Program (IND), the federal medical marijuana program began on May 10, 1978, after a man named Robert Randall won a case against the government. Randall was arrested in 1976 for growing marijuana on his deck and had to prove that using the drug kept his glaucoma from spreading to a point where he lost his vision.
After Randall’s success in the courtroom, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) opened the program up to the public. Though thousands of Americans applied — many of whom were HIV or AIDS patients — only 15 people were admitted before it was closed in 1992 at the recommendation of the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
According to Dr. Steven Gust, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s international program, the decision to close the program came after public health authorities and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) concluded there was no scientific or medicinal value to marijuana.
Since the DEA’s position contradicted the FDA, which approved the medicinal use of marijuana, the 15 patients were allowed to stay in the program, but all other Americans were denied the ability to use the drug.
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the pro-pot advocacy group the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told Mint Press News he finds it confusing that the head of the DEA, Michele Leonhart, said that there was no medicinal benefit to using marijuana, all while the federal government provides marijuana to the patients in the IND program.
If marijuana is toxic, St. Pierre said, it’s unethical for the government to continue giving it to these patients. “So what is it,” he said he’d ask the federal government, “are you unethical or are you lying?”
Betty Aldworth is the deputy director for the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). She agreed with St. Pierre, saying that the program is an example of the government ignoring its own science, since the National Institute of Health (NIH) has recognized medicinal benefits of marijuana.
Of the 15 Americans who were accepted into the IND program, only four are still alive.
George McMahon was born with Nail Patella Syndrome — a rare genetic disorder– and first tried marijuana when he was in the hospital in 1988 when he was 37. McMahon ended up at the University of Iowa Hospital where doctors discovered that he had tuberculosis of the kidney.
“By that time, that was just one of many complications,” he said, adding doctors had given him hours to live.
“They said, ‘Get your paperwork in order. Call your wife. You’re going to be here until you die.'”
McMahon hadn’t slept or eaten without a feeding tube in about six weeks, so when a hospital employee asked McMahon if he wanted to trade a tobacco cigarette for a marijuana cigarette from a cancer patient down the hall, he felt he had nothing to lose and agreed to the trade. Within about 15 minutes doctors were taking McMahon off of equipment and he ordered food for the first time in weeks. Ten days later, he was walking around the hospital hallways.
Though use of marijuana was life-changing, McMahon says it was a struggle to get accepted into the program, calling the approval process “intense and all-involving.”
“I mean they went right down to my social standing, man,” he said. “If I had been a known hippie or pot smoker or something like that, and not just a businessman in real trouble, I undoubtedly would not have gotten it.”
Barbara Douglass, 57, was admitted into the program in 1991 and was the last person who made it into the program before it was closed. Douglass told Mint Press News that she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1988 at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., when she was 32.
Before Douglass entered the program and began using marijuana for a medicinal purpose, she says she didn’t smoke pot. But when her doctor recommended Douglass try smoking marijuana to help her with the side effects of MS, she decided to give it a shot.
Douglass was accepted into the program and gets 360 joints a month from the federal government, but says her boyfriend re-rolls the joints for her, creating two joints for every joint the government sends her.
Legally Douglass can smoke up to 20 joints per day, but says she doesn’t just smoke the joints because she can. “If I don’t smoke 20 [joints] in a day it’s a good thing, but if I need to it’s there.
“I wouldn’t be alive without medicinal marijuana,” Douglass said, adding that using marijuana has allowed her to stay alive long enough to see her grandchildren.
Elvy Musikka, 73, was the first woman who was admitted into the program on Oct. 17, 1988.
Before entering the program, Musikka had been using marijuana for 12 years at the advice of her doctor to help with her glaucoma. “It was either try marijuana or go blind,” she said.
Marijuana’s illegal status was concerning to Musikka, but she says that since she never had a successful surgery, the risk of using marijuana was worth it to her.
St. Pierre agrees that for many Americans like Musikka, marijuana is a last option. St. Pierre said, “if someone tried every prescription and surgery — if cannabis can help, why not use it or try it? In a country of 4,000 drugs, its moral turpitude to turn someone down.”
Irvin Rosenfeld was admitted into the program in November 1982 for Multiple congenital Cartilaginous Exostoses, a bone disorder. On his website, Rosenfeld writes that “after numerous operations and all types of medicines which had marginal results, I discovered in 1971 the medical benefits of cannabis and was lucky enough to become one of the elite Federal Medical Cannabis Patients in the fall of 1982.”
He currently receives 360 joints a month from the government.
Poor quality marijuana
Dr. Mahmoud Elsohly is a research professor at the School of Pharmacy at the University of Mississippi who oversees the production of marijuana for the IND program patients. Though Elsohly is one of only a few researchers in the U.S. who have federal approval to grow and study marijuana, and his farm at the University of Mississippi has about a hundred different varieties of marijuana, the quality of marijuana that the federal patients receive has been described as rather poor.
“The government double-wraps the joints, which are generally poor quality,” St. Pierre said, adding that the marijuana is not your average medicinal grade marijuana since it has been freeze-dried.
While showing a reporter in 2008 a new can of marijuana that he had received from the government, McMahon demonstrated how he can see stems and seeds — part of the marijuana plant that should not be smoked — in his joints.
“They took the buds out and shredded the leaf and the stem,” he said, adding that the plant is incredibly dry.
Another issue with the government-supplied marijuana is that it often arrives when the THC is no longer active. The jar that McMahon opened on camera was packaged in April 1996 — years before he received it in 2008.
“Their own paperwork says after three years there’s no THC left,” McMahon said.
Talking to Mint Press News, Musikka said she’s not the only one who gets “garbage” and shared she thought about moving to California after the state first legalized medicinal marijuana in 1996. She said a bad batch of marijuana didn’t keep her ocular eye pressure down and she had to have emergency surgery on her retina.
To those who think Musikka is just trying to get high, she says “no one is getting high.”
“As a senior, I have all things seniors have,” Musikka said, listing off medical conditions she has including osteoporosis. “But until last summer when [health professionals] made me take two Tylenol, I didn’t even have a bottle of Tylenol in my house,” she said.
“I can’t double up on eyedrops but I need more marijuana [in] one day, I can do that and be fine — it’s not toxic,” Musikka said.
Fight for medicinal marijuana continues for many
Though the federal government has provided marijuana for 15 Americans, no research or evaluation of marijuana’s effects was ever measured by the government. Instead, a medical marijuana advocacy group, Patients Out of Time, commissioned a study that included both physical and mental tests on the IND patients.
St. Pierre said that the four living patients were put through pulmonary, respiratory and immune system tests at Missoula University in Montana. What researchers found was that other than developing phlegm — which St. Pierre says is not “a great surprise when smoking vegetable matter” — the IND patients were fine.
“It’s disgusting,” Musikka said. “The government adheres this lie that states there is no medicinal use — that’s not exactly true… The Controlled Substance Act and the War on Drugs are actually wars on us, the patients,” she said.
“Most of us, we’re supposed to die,” McMahon said. “If we were under conventional treatment, we would not be alive today. None of us.”
Eighteen states and Washington, D.C. have legalized medical marijuana, but since the Schedule 1 drug is still illegal federally, with the exception of the IND patients, all other Americans using marijuana for a medicinal purpose could be arrested and/or fined.
But the stories of marijuana’s incredible breakthroughs has prompted some Americans to take a risk and use marijuana. Tonya Davis is one of those Americans.
Davis has pseudohypoparathyroidism, which she says means that her parathyroid and thyroid work but her body doesn’t know it, so she releases nutrients and vitamins that she needs to survive through her urine.
Other medical conditions Davis has include calcium deposits on her brain, inflammatory bowel disease — which has left adhesions throughout her digestive system — arthritis, a diseased esophagus and permanent spinal damage as a result of physical abuse.
“I face dementia, Alzheimer’s, heart attack, stroke — that’s my future,” Davis said.
Initially, Davis was given legal pharmaceutical drugs to help her with her list of medical issues, including morphine patches and oxycontin. Since hose drugs made her sicker than her illnesses, Davis decided to try marijuana.
“Who wants to throw up for 20 minutes before you start feeling better,” she asked.
“My neurologist came into my hospital room and told me a year ago that there was nothing that they can do for me anymore except keep me comfortable and treat symptoms,” Davis said. Using marijuana helps Davis with the pain from all of her medical conditions, but it comes with a cost due to it’s illegal status.
“I am tired of feeling like I’m a criminal and I don’t deserve to have to live in fear. It is the worst feeling ever.”
Since Davis has become a legalization advocate, she said she does not buy, sell or grow marijuana, and made a promise to her local police department that she would not use marijuana.
While Davis could have moved to a state that had legalized medical marijuana, she says she has no intention to move. “I shouldn’t have to leave my state to go die like an animal, a wounded animal, to go to a state where I have no support or family,” Davis said.