But in early April, I was on a plane bound for Iowa City to attend the “First National Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics,” looking down at patchworks of industrial agriculture where there used to be tallgrass prairie, ditchhemp, and Indians. It snowed the day I arrived; somebody drew a cannabis leaf in the white powder.
Medical marijuana is fast becoming an accepted industrial fact. This three-day event, televised to universities in American and Canada, and held with the blessing of the University of Iowa at the institution’s conference center, emphatically emphasized that scientists and government officials around the world, even in prohibitionist America, recognize the plant’s amazingly diverse healing potentials.
As courageous California doctor Tod Mikuriya reported during the conference, cannabis treats hundreds of medical conditions, from Attention Deficit Disorder to impotence, from anxiety to arthritis.
Mikuriya has been recommending cannabis to patients for 25 years, and has been targeted by the federal drug czar, California’s attorney general, and the state’s medical board because of it.
Despite the threat of persecution that haunts professionals who seek honest discussion of medical pot, conference organizers Mary Lynn Mathre, RN, and her husband Al Byrne, a retired navy lieutenant commander, teamed with the head of the University of Iowa’s School of Nursing, Dr Melanie Dreher, to put on a well-run, entertaining seminar featuring the latest information and debate about medical pot.
Questioning The IOM
The conference brought people who run cannabis distribution centers for medical patients into contact with urbane scientists who’ve never (yet) puffed a phattie. It also facilitated dialogue between med-pot advocates and a high-ranking representative of the Institute of Medicine, Dr Janet Joy, a University of Toronto-educated neuroscientist who was feisty, fun and fair-minded.
Everyone found it significant that the IOM med-pot report (released in 1999), which most had assumed would support drug czar Barry McCaffrey, instead affirmed marijuana’s unique medical efficacy and called for clinical trials.
Mathre and Joy agreed that the IOM study debunked the gateway myth and found that even smoked marijuana (with all its alleged negative respiratory effects) is useful in some medical situations.
“We think our study was scientific and objective,” Joy quipped, “because everybody on all sides of the debate said our report backed up their position!”
But many conference attendees criticized the report.
Dr Juan Sanchez-Ramos, a highly-regarded professor of neurology, pharmacology and psychiatry at the University of South Florida, who like Mikuriya has been persecuted because of his position on med-pot, said that Joy had asked him to contribute to the report’s section on movement disorders, but did not follow up on it, which disappointed him because he knew of a lot of unique research that he was eager to share with the IOM.
Joy told Sanchez-Ramos that the report process became complicated and rushed as it neared completion, and that her failure to get back to the doctor was due to deadline stress, nothing more.
Other critics said the IOM failed to consider holistic, non-Western approaches to plant-based medicines, and had ignored non-smoked delivery systems, such as vaporizers and marijuana food, when evaluating harm potential.
“The IOM report is totally flawed,” said Larry Hirsch, the pioneering Philadelphia attorney who last year used a class action lawsuit in an attempt to force the federal government to rescind prohibition and open the IND program to new patients.
“It minimized patients’ experiences, and leaves out a plethora of information.”
I sat near Joy during some of her dialogues with critics. She referred to some complaints as “bullshit,” but acknowledged that the IOM’s findings may have been influenced by the report design “negotiation process” between IOM and McCaffrey’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.
“There are always things you look back on and wish you could have had more time for,” Joy said. “We have a new book coming out this summer to explain the significance of this report for patients and medical professionals.”
Rediscovering The Herb
People like “Darth” McCaffrey and other meanies deny that marijuana has medical usefulness, but the conference featured many respected academic and medical professionals who provided bales of evidence that marijuana is medically effective and relatively safe. Medical doctors such as Ethan Russo, Donald Tashkin, Denis Petro, Mikuriya, Sanchez-Ramos, and Rik Musty discussed specialized studies and findings about marijuana’s effects on psychological and physiological functions.
Specialists such as David Pate, who represents the Dutch breeding company HortaPharm, and John McPartland, an osteopath and botanical expert who just completed a new book on cannabis pests and diseases, joined with GW Pharmaceuticals’ representative David Hadorn to explain how plant cannabinoids are developed and tested for medical use.
These presentations were augmented by “anecdotal” reports from Musikka, Randall, IND patients Irvin Rosenfeld and George McMahon, and Mae Nutt, a mom who saw cannabis help her two sons when they were dying of cancer.
The consensus opinion is that marijuana is already verifiably helpful in combating chronic pain, muscle spasticity, seizure disorders, glaucoma, nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, anorexia, and symptoms resulting from HIV/AIDS. Researchers believe marijuana may be useful for other conditions, but cautioned that it may also cause unwanted respiratory, psychological and cognitive effects.
Mathre noted that respected medical associations, such as the Virginia Nurses Association, American Public Health Association, National Nurses’ Society on Addictions, and many European organizations have endorsed immediate availability or study of medical cannabis.
Michael Aldrich, a countercultural hero who, along with his vivacious wife Michelle, administers the world’s largest collection of psychedelics-related archives (located in San Francisco), told the 200 conference attendees that marijuana’s medical usefulness was recognized by Asian scholars thousands of years ago.
“I think that the IOM and the drug warriors should respect the historical record,” Aldrich told me. “Marijuana-based pharmaceuticals were used throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas as recently as last century. There is this myth that better drugs came along and made marijuana obsolete. Science is rediscovering, as we are hearing at this conference, that plant-based medicines can be safer and more effective than drugs produced by for-profit corporations.”
While most of the conference presenters reported on scientific and medical realities, some presenters chronicled other challenges.
Scott Imler, the controversial founder of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Cooperative, told the audience about distributing medical herb to hundreds of patients in Southern California. Imler began the cooperative three years ago, and has assisted a total of 1600 patients, 780 of whom are current active members. AIDS patients make up 75% of his patient list; other patient problems include chronic pain, MS, paralysis, glaucoma and epilepsy.
Imler told me he has been the victim of attempted robbery, threatened by rivals in the marijuana industry, and accused of being “a nark” because he rigorously checks medical credentials and recommendations, and tries to maintain honorable relationships with government officials.
“My only goal is to help these patients,” Imler said. “It’s hard just getting enough medicine for them. We grow a third of it at the club, and patients grow it and bring in their surplus, but we are still forced to buy a third of our supply from the black market. We gave away 47 pounds last year to indigent patients.”
Kevin Zeese, a Washington, DC-based attorney active in marijuana politics for three decades and formerly chief counsel and executive director of NORML, told the conference that attempts to get courts and other branches of government to legitimize medical marijuana have so far not been handled in a uniformly just or expedient manner.
“Voters have made it clear they favor medical marijuana, but things haven’t changed enough for patients,” said Zeese, who now presides over Common Sense for Drug Policy and is active with Alliance of Reform Organizations. “What we need to do is educate lawmakers, bureaucrats and the public, and work together to make the marijuana movement a cohesive coalition that networks with allied groups, such as civil rights and environmental activists.”
Prescription For Success
The Iowa conference drew people from Europe, North America and Asia, and received favorable press coverage from many local and national media outlets, including the New York Times. I enjoyed talking to representatives of the Japan Medical Marijuana Association, who noted that marijuana was used industrially and medically in Japan until the US imposed prohibition on the country after World War Two.
Dr. Dreher, who has conducted revelatory ganja research in Jamaica, credited Mathre and Byrne for the conference’s success. The two are former NORML boardmembers who run a med-pot advocacy organization called Patients Out of Time.
“A lot of doctors and nurses know this is good medicine, but they are afraid to put patients first by joining with us,” said Mathre, who is the editor of a quality med-pot science book, titled “Cannabis in Medical Practice.”
Some people have already gotten the message. When I visited Hemp Cat, a hip headshop located near the University, customers and store managers told me Cannabis Culture is very popular with students, as is medical marijuana.
“I use it as medicine too,” a female student told me. “It helps with periods, and with life among the corn husks.”