Two patients at St. Mary’s

Marijuana becomes more useful as more is learned about it

One day in 1968, I looked through a crack in a door at St. Mary’s Hospital in Reno and caught my last glimpse of my mother. The skin was stretched tightly over her skull, the result of the cancer that had eaten her away during the months and years that her appetite and body wasted away.

Five years later, on March 24, 1973, Valerie Leveroni Corral was driving through Washoe Valley when the pilot of a plane recklessly buzzed her Volkswagen. The plane came within a few feet of her car. The air currents generated by the plane caused the car to swerve off the road and down a slope. According to Corral, “The car rolled three times across a distance of 362 feet. I was thrown from the car and knocked unconscious.” She was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital and hospitalized for severe head trauma.

Her doctors first prescribed unproductive anticonvulsant drugs. At St. Mary’s she was observed in seizures soon after taking the drugs. A St. Mary’s document described “a very hard blackout spell, at which time she was rendered unconscious and unresponsive for about 20 or 30 minutes …” Moreover, the medicines put her in a “vegetable-like” state. She later wrote, “Shortly after my release from the hospital, I suffered my first grand mal seizure. … One moment I would be doing something, the next moment I would be waking up … covered with cuts and bruises.”

She moved in with her parents, who were shocked at her seizures. “My parents … held me on the floor while I foamed at the mouth and lost control of my bladder, urinating all over myself,” she said. There were days when she had five seizures.

Then her husband, who had been reading medical journals for anything that might help, read about a study—one of those studies prosecutors and police say do not exist—of marijuana’s power to control seizures in lab animals. Soon, under a marijuana regimen, which replaced a 15-pill prescription regimen, Valerie Corral had her life back.

After learning that marijuana’s anticonvulsant properties have been known to modern medicine since the 19th century, Corral devoted her life to the fight to regain access to the plant for the public. Her home state of California voted 13 years ago to make health-care use of marijuana legal, and she and her husband have operated a charity marijuana farm and hospice—the Wo/men’s Association for Medical Marijuana (WAMM). It serves sick and dying patients suffering from numerous maladies who have physicians’ recommendations for marijuana, though the hospice is vulnerable to legal harassment. In 2002 it was raided, and the Corrals were arrested, an act so callous that conservative municipal officials in Santa Cruz protested by turning city hall plaza over to Corral’s charitable organization for the distribution of marijuana. This is just one of innumerable horror stories about marijuana and law enforcement.

Loss of marijuana to the public is a relatively recent development. My mother and her generation and all preceding generations could legally smoke it until 1937. That was the year marijuana was made illegal, not because it was dangerous but because it was a competitive threat to the alcohol and timber industries, which lobbied the ban through Congress over the objections of the American Medical Association.

The law permitted my mother to smoke a plant that killed her, but not a plant that would have augmented her appetite and eased her misery. Tobacco is still killing people, but marijuana is still illegal—even though it has become more useful to tobacco victims. Chemotherapy did not exist for my mother, but it does now, and marijuana makes it easier to endure. Marijuana keeps up with the technology, becoming more useful the more we learn about it and as new medical treatments are found.

Prosecutors, police officers, and federal drug officials want patients like Corral and my mother to endure misery and pain if the alternative is a loss of power or money for the drug bureaucracy. They are like the Anti-Saloon League’s Wayne Wheeler, who in 1920 said of alcohol prohibition, “If it comes to the point where it must be a choice between medicaments for medicinal preparation and enforcement of the law, I think we must choose law enforcement.”

Congress, acting in periods of anti-drug hysteria, has stripped health-care officials of authority over marijuana and other drugs, turning it over to the Drug Enforcement Administration and other non-health officials, who have suppressed useful, therapeutic drugs—and not just marijuana—because they might be abused. Law enforcement officials have not proven to be worthy of trust as custodians of health-care decisions, and it is time to remove their power to make those decisions and put health-care professionals back in charge again.