Dr Tod

Dan Williams went to an extremely fancy hotel in Berkeley, California in early 1997, looking for medical marijuana.
Past rich white people in tuxedos Williams walked, seeking the office of Dr Tod Mikuriya, a licensed psychiatrist and author of Marijuana Medical Papers.

Williams had a copy of the book. He admired Mikuriya’s scholarship. The book was published in 1973, but contains more than a century’s worth of scientific and anthropological evidence proving that marijuana and hashish can be safe for medicinal and recreational users.

Entering Mikuriya’s office hesitantly, Williams introduced himself to the tall, erudite doctor.

“It was funny because he was dressed in tennis togs and sneakers,” Williams remembers. “I told him I couldn’t play tennis because I had a broken knee that hurt like hell. He had all these machines in his office. He said they were biofeedback devices.”

Mikuriya spent half an hour with Williams, examining x-rays and doctor’s reports, asking why marijuana was Williams’s preferred medication.

Finally, Mikuriya handed Williams a coveted “Prop 215 recommendation” for pot.

“I felt like a big weight was lifted off my shoulders. I was legal!” Williams said. “We passed 215, but my other doctors were afraid to even talk about it. Dr Tod was my savior.”

Prescription for persecution

As Jesus found out, being a savior can be hazardous to your health.

The 68-year-old Mikuriya has courted persecution by providing thousands of medical marijuana recommendations since the early 1990’s, when he and med-pot pioneer Dennis Peron discussed and organized America’s first “compassion club,” which dispensed marijuana as medicine in San Francisco’s predominantly gay Castro District.

Even before voters approved 215 in 1996, marijuana users made pilgrimages to Mikuriya’s office, seeking treatment from the courageous doctor who used, studied and professionally endorsed marijuana. It is illegal in most countries for doctors to prescribe marijuana; few American doctors are even willing to discuss it with their patients.

For many years, Mikuriya and Harvard’s Dr Lester Grinspoon were the only board-certified medical doctors publicly stating that marijuana is an effective medicine.

In the 1950’s, Mikuriya began challenging what he calls “anti-marijuana brainwashing” by exploring the history of marijuana experientially, internationally, and academically.

His first personal marijuana experience was in Mexico. A few years later, after completing a rigorous medical education and becoming a licensed psychiatrist in the mid-1960’s, Mikuriya went to Europe and Northern Africa, plunked himself into a rickety VW van, and drove around Morocco.

Under the sheltering skies of endless desert, Mikuriya watched meteors as he smoked pure resin in kif fields grown by ancient farmers. He expanded his mind with indigenous cannabinoid preparations such as majoon.

After returning to California, Mikuriya networked with visionaries like Timothy Leary, Alexander and Anne Shulgin, Michael Aldrich and Ram Dass. This team of counterculture gurus helped create worldwide interest in using entheogens to achieve altered consciousness and healing.

“I even had the grand experience of working for US government mental health agencies, studying marijuana,” Mikuriya said. “If you wanted to procure marijuana for testing, however, you had to promise that the research would show that marijuana was somehow harmful. I quit.”

In the 1970’s, Mikuriya’s patients told him they used marijuana to defeat alcoholism and other aliments. Mikuriya began keeping records about what they said.

“Many of my patients use marijuana to defeat depression, alcoholism and addiction to other drugs,” he said. “I’ve now compiled a list of at least 140 conditions that can be treated with cannabis. The most prevalent and reliable uses involve chronic pain and inflammatory diseases. For these, marijuana functions extremely well as an immuno-modulator analgesic. Since we legalized medical marijuana in California, there are added benefits: patients tell me that the combination of marijuana and being able to visit the compassion clubs makes them healthier and happier.”

Chain gang

Mikuriya looks and talks like a typical doctor, but he often breaks into jazzy verbal riffs featuring surreal combinations of humor, poetry and indignation. He gleefully spouts one-liners like “Drug police: armed clergy,” “School-free Drug Zone,” and “Drug Warriors: Making America Safe for Hypocrisy.”

These verbal barbs, combined with Mikuriya’s relentless public marijuana advocacy, have imperiled his medical license, his livelihood, and his freedom.

“I feel like I’m chained to the rock, having my eyes pecked out by harpies,” Mikuriya says, while we look at a glittering bay twilight from his house in the Berkeley Hills. “The demons are out in force: the California Medical Board, county prosecutors, drug czars, even so-called medical marijuana activists and researchers. I don’t see what the big problem is ? marijuana was a respected medicine for thousands of years until stupid bureaucrats made it illegal in 1937. ”

In 1997, then-US drug czar Barry McCaffrey threatened punitive actions against Mikuriya and the few other doctors who discuss marijuana or recommend it to their patients. During a press conference, McCaffrey displayed a poster with inaccurate information and Mikuriya’s name on it, while claiming that marijuana had no medicinal value.

If harassment from the drug czar wasn’t enough to worry about, Mikuriya began hearing from patients that their probation and parole officers, along with court-mandated drug counselors, were angry because Mikuriya’s prescriptions for pharmaceutical THC (Marinol) short-circuited urine testing regimes.

The man often described as a “pot doctor” had already drawn the ire of county prosecutors, because savvy defense attorneys used Mikuriya’s expert witness testimony about marijuana’s medical efficacy and the harmful health effects of criminalization.

Mikuriya says prosecutors across California began working together to overwhelm him with subpoenas requiring hours of uncompensated travel expenses and expert medical testimony, in courtrooms hundreds of miles from his Berkeley home.

“It is extremely frustrating to face prosecutors, probation officers, police and judges who have no medical training, no respect for voters, no compassion,” the pot doc said. “The system wants me to compromise patient-physician confidentiality. I’m expected to explain the obvious, like how marijuana helps a dying defendant spending the last weeks of his or her life in the shackles of the criminal injustice system. These sadistic gremlins are trying to kill patients and bankrupt me. I can’t make any predictions about whether the Bush presidency will make it better or worse for us here in California, or for me personally. I will keep helping patients as long as I am allowed to.”

Hateful history

Some of Mikuriya’s patients have been victimized by police who disregarded the doctor’s marijuana recommendations.

“The cops told me Dr Tod was a quack,” explained med-pot patient Sarah Jensen. “While they were ripping my house up, they said, ‘He’s not a real doctor, he’s a psychiatrist. He’ll give anybody a recommendation for pot as long as he gets paid.’ Then they made him [appear at trial]and talk about my personal life and why I need pot. It was so humiliating. I just wanted to die.”

Mikuriya says he “detests” the way that police treat med-pot patients. He notes that police and prosecutors have tried to shut him down by telling California’s Medical Board that he was violating accepted treatment standards. The Board then notified Mikuriya that it was investigating his professional practices.

“They had some low-level functionary examine a few of my cases. She accused me of not spending enough time with clients,” Mikuriya said derisively. “That is total bunk. Most HMO doctors reach for prescription pads before the patient even sits down. They give bucketfuls of lethal medicines without even listening to what patients say. I listen to my patients. When I recommend marijuana, I do so because it works for them, because it doesn’t hurt them. Some people want to legitimize a witch hunt, strip my medical license, and stop me from helping patients.”

Managers of the hotel where Mikuriya had his office didn’t want the maverick physician in their posh establishment. They forced Mikuriya to close his office. He began seeing patients at secret med-pot clubs throughout California, in his home, and at the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative.

“I make myself as available as patients need me to be,” Mikuriya said. “It’s an honor to empower patients to trust their experiences with a medicinal herb, to remove the stigma of using a drug that has been slandered by the government, and to remove their fear of police by providing an official recommendation.”

Prejudice and persecution hounded Mikuriya even before he became the “doctor of pot.”

“I had the good fortune to have a Japanese father and a German mother in a small Pennsylvania town during the Depression and World War II,” Mikuriya revealed, his voice tinged with irony. “The townspeople believed US war propaganda depicting Japs and Germans as sub-human brutes, so my sister and I were chased, shot at, beaten up, spat upon, called names. The local kids chased us like a pack of dogs. I realized that people could be brainwashed and trained to hate. The same thing has been done with marijuana and marijuana users. I’ve learned to fight back.”

Mikuriya and patients are fighting back by suing Shasta County officials for making disparaging remarks about medical marijuana users and Mikuriya’s medical recommendations.

Outspoken iconoclast

Mikuriya is opinionated, blunt, and articulate. He has a unique understanding of marijuana. Thus, critics on all sides of the marijuana debate have labeled his ideas “unorthodox.”

The California Medical Association (CMA) and some drug policy reform groups have partially ostracized Mikuriya. Establishment organizations say the doctor’s activism makes him “too radical” to be invited to professional conferences. Drug reform groups say Mikuriya tells the truth too frequently. They criticize him for not muzzling his criticisms of anti-pot politicians and police.

Mikuriya’s response is that the CMA is beholden to “mercantile medicine that puts profits over patients.” He also says that “some so-called reform groups are too timid and too self-interested to engage in effective marijuana advocacy.”

A few wanna-be medical marijuana patients have criticized Mikuriya for not writing more recommendations, and for charging for his services. Mikuriya is unapologetic.

“Cannabis is very clearly a powerful medicine. It doesn’t function therapeutically for everybody,” he says. “And I’ve had people contact me after being arrested, asking that I write retroactive recommendations. People get mad when I won’t help them play games with the system. They get mad when I expect to be paid for professional services.”

As a psychiatrist, Mikuriya worries about the motivations and psychological effects of chronic marijuana use in some people.

“Marijuana is more than a euphoriant,” he explains. “It’s a mood modifier that suppresses emotional reactivity. It’s an ‘easement’ that can restore stasis, improve sleep and appetite. It functions in some ways as an anti-depressant, but some people use it to decrease emotional awareness, to limit their range and intensity of feelings. This can compromise their ability to test and respond to reality. It can make them less able to fully engage in the world.”

Mikuriya warns that marijuana is “not for everybody” but he also states emphatically that “marijuana is one of the most benign therapeutic substances we have,” and that it does not cause severe long-term physical or psychological problems. He often tells patients addicted to hard drugs like crack and alcohol that judicious use of marijuana can help them wean themselves off of dangerous substances.

The doctor’s iconoclastic side is also evident from his views about synthetic THC, which is marketed as Marinol. Many people say that Marinol is therapeutically and recreationally useless. The doctor disagrees.

“Clearly, pharmaceutical companies, and government researchers who tried to use marijuana for military mind control experiments in the 1950’s, are looking for a monomolecular mercantile magic bullet that won’t get people high. They created Marinol, and some patients tell me Marinol is useful,” Mikuriya said. “Other patients report negative experiences with it, but I believe this comes, at least in part, from the mental set they bring to it. They expect it to be unpleasant. They think it’s a symbol of evil pharmaceutical companies and the FDA. These negative feelings can cause their experience to be unpleasant. Other patients find Marinol to be fun and useful.”

Proactive structuralism

Mikuriya has been challenging prohibition for four decades. He explains his resiliency and perseverance by saying he is engaged in a form of civil disobedience called “proactive structuralism.”

“We live in a corrupt society, filled with injustice, so what do we do about it?” Mikuriya asks rhetorically. “We engage in proactive structuralism, which means envisioning a better world, then creating policies, relationships, and organizations that follow your ideals. You don’t live in fear. You live free in an unfree society.”

Mikuriya says that when he used botanical, medical and scientific knowledge to create the “Oakland Guidelines” which liberally govern how Oakland, California implements Prop 215, he was engaged in proactive structuralism.

The proactive structuralism concept is also embodied in organizations Mikuriya has founded in the last three years, such as the California Cannabis Research Medical Group (CCRMG), the Medical Cannabis Association, and Classic Pharmaceuticals.

“CCRMG is an accredited non-profit medical group consisting of doctors who write med-pot recommendations,” Mikuriya explained. “They’ve learned from my mistakes. Classic Pharmaceuticals is based on the fact that cannabis medicines were an accepted part of the pharmacopoeia before 1938. We’ve petitioned the FDA to grandfather these medicines in. I just got a response from the FDA. They admit that cannabis drugs were on the market, but they claim that our documentation did not rise to level of proof they required. We will do the medical archival research to show that cannabinoids in extracts and other forms were real medicines, safe medicines, made by pharmaceutical companies. We want them back in the pharmacopoeia.”

Mikuriya is also a founder and director of the Medical Cannabis Association.

“It’s a non-profit trade association with different categories of membership. It’s an outgrowth of meetings of cannabis providers and compassion club representatives called ‘The Consortium,'” the doctor explains.

Although every day brings new battles, worries, and victories, Mikuriya remains optimistic and determined.

“I attended the implementation conference for California’s new law that mandates drug treatment instead of jail,” Mikuriya said, referring to Proposition 36, which was approved by voters last year. “Attorney General Lockyer shook my hand, and gave a speech that pleasantly surprised me. He’s the first AG I’ve met who understands drug treatment. I am also happy that some of the legislators interested in this topic, such as John Vasconcellos, are so humanistically oriented. Our governor isn’t enlightened, but we have a lot of friends at the top. I predict that we will see California move away from using police to solve health problems.”

Mikuriya is proud to be called “the doctor of pot,” but he is a real physician who has been a counseling psychotherapist, addiction counselor, biofeedback specialist, and attending psychiatrist at local hospitals.

In many ways, Mikuriya reminds me of one of his heroes, Dr William O’Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor whose writings about marijuana – first published in 1839 – are featured in Mikuriya’s book.

Like Mikuriya, O’Shaughnessy was way way ahead of his time. The Irishman studied cannabis in India, discovered and publicized its medical uses, and created worldwide interest in marijuana. His research led to the widespread use of medicinal cannabis extracts in Europe.

Mikuriya is a modest man. He demurred when I said he was a latter-day O’Shaughnessy,

“The only important fact is that many patients have been saved from bad aliments because of pot,” Mikuriya responded. “Cannabis is leading the way for a more holistic type of medical care, a general revolt against corporate rationed care and traditional pharmaceutical company approaches to medicine. Patients use marijuana to get off toxic drugs. They find fellowship in compassion clubs. They find empowerment in fighting against prohibition, standing up to police and demagogues. Our opponents can threaten our freedom, but they can’t kill our spirit.”

? Dr Tod Mikuriya: tel (510) 548-1188; email [email protected].

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