In order for cannabis to be slowly re-legalized in America, and in order for scientists and the public to rediscover and accept the palliative power of the plant, people had to suffer in the public eye. It is right and proper, then, to occasionally pause, reflect and remember the giants on whose shoulders anyone visiting a legal cannabis storefront is standing. Here are some of the cannabis legalization movement’s heroes.
Some form of medical marijuana is now available in more than half of American states. Eighty-eight percent of Americans support medical marijuana, a groundswell that extends to deep-red regions like Georgia and Texas, where lawmakers are making accommodations for sick people to access cannabis oil. How did we get here? Suffering and death, and lots of it. California’s push to legalize medical marijuana in 1996 began with the AIDS apocalypse. As President Ronald Reagan ignored and denied the crisis, hordes of gay men withered away and lost their lives. One of the few bright spots was the discovery, somewhat by accident, that cannabis soothed pain — and for that discovery, “Brownie” Mary Rathbun, the brash diner waitress who distributed pot brownies to patients at San Francisco General Hospital’s AIDS ward, is owed much of the credit (her obituary in the New York Times recognized this).
The loneliest voices whispering from the wilderness often speak the most truth. So it was with Robert Randall, America’s first legal marijuana patient, and the man whom longtime NORML director Keith Stroup called “the father of the medical-marijuana movement.” Randall, who died in June 2001 at 53, first came to fame 25 years prior, when he convinced a Washington, D.C. Superior court judge that the cannabis he grew on his porch in Capitol Hill kept him from going blind. What convinced the courts was the applied knowledge rediscovered and reintroduced to America by a man who risked his livelihood in order to do so.
Dr. Tod Mikuriya
A physician and dedicated researcher, Tod Mikuriya pored over 130 years’ worth of dusty medical research papers to prove to the public what the medical establishment had known all along: Marijuana has real and accepted medical value. Mikuriya briefly led a government research arm into cannabis before he realized the government only wanted “bad things” to be known about cannabis. He applied that knowledge and made it public when he published the first volume of “Marijuana: Medical Papers in 1973.” More than twenty years later, his reputation and scholarship were personally assaulted by Gen. Barry McCaffrey. Undaunted, Mikuriya founded the Society of Cannabis Clinicians in 1999, before suffering yet another blow: an investigation and punishment from the Medical Board of California, punitive actions he believed were politically motivated and that contributed to his failing health.
This year began with the shock sudden death of Franco Loja, the internationally famous strain hunter. A legend in the insular world of cannabis genetics for his skill as a master breeder, Loja shot to mainstream marijuana fame as the Indiana Jones-like mind and face behind VICELAND’s Strain Hunters series. True to form, while in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, searching for yet another landrace cultivar of pre-contact cannabis, Loja succumbed to what was most likely malaria on January 2. In a cruel twist, part of the mission for Loja and the Strain Hunters team in the jungle was to investigate how cannabidiol might be used in treating malaria, which continues to kill numerous people across the globe.
Following the work of AIDS activists, suffering children continued to demonstrate the need for medical marijuana. By the time he died at age 15 from complications from cerebral palsy, Colorado teenager Jack Splitt had influenced massive changes in medical marijuana policy, allowing for cannabis on school grounds.
Cash was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor before he turned 2 years old. He died before he turned five — but only after officials in his home state of Montana changed the state’s medical-marijuana law to cut off easy access to the cannabis oil that had given him some measure of relief and allowed him to live at least a semblance of a normal life. Needless suffering and death goes on like that today in many prohibition states, even as investors and entrepreneurs scramble for a slice of the billions and billions of dollars available in the legal marijuana economy. Those dollars have come at a great cost.
Jack Herer died as he lived, succumbing to complications from a heart attack he suffered moments after speaking at a Portland, Oregon marijuana rally (a decade after surviving a stroke at yet another hemp festival). Today, his name lives on mostly in the fruity, uplifting sativa-dominant strain bearing his name, but it’s good to remember the grassroots and sometimes guerrilla tactics that jumpstarted the legalization movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s: Jack Herer and a gang of colleagues and followers on buses, traversing the country, speaking to anyone who would listen about cannabis’s awesome power. For him, it was a lifelong vow fulfilled: Herer and “Capt.”
Ed Adair, another legalization advocate whose career began in the early 1970s, swore to campaign for legalization until weed was legal, everyone in prison for it was freed or until they turned 84.