Project CBD interviews medical cannabis pioneer Alice O’Leary Randall.
Project CBD: Welcome to another edition of Cannabis Conversations. We’re very happy to have Alice O’Leary Randall as our guest today. Alice O’Leary Randall is one of the preeminent elder stateswoman of the medical marijuana community in the United States. She is the author, most recently, of the book Medical Marijuana in America: Memoir of a Pioneer. Alice, you’re also a registered nurse. She has been a leader and an educator with the American Cannabis Nurses Association. She has also participated in what might be called several medical missions of mercy around the world and countries like Haiti, India, Uganda, where there’s been health emergencies. But her passion really is cannabis therapeutics. We are now at the cusp of a very significant anniversary involving you and your late husband that is really a milestone for the medical marijuana movement in the United States. Maybe you could tell us about that, going back 40 years. What happened at that time?
Alice O’Leary Randall: This November will mark the 40th anniversary of the case of U.S. vs. Randall. And my husband was Robert C. Randall. In 1975, we were arrested for growing about four plants on our Washington, D.C. sundeck. Robert was using them to treat his glaucoma. He had discovered quite accidentally that marijuana was helping his glaucoma. He was only 25 years old at the time, and had been told that he would be blind by the time he was 30. And, to discover something as simple as marijuana that could, that really did seem to have significant value in treating his glaucoma – it was quite startling to us. We thought we were the only ones in the world who knew that marijuana might be helpful to glaucoma. Remember the time frame, we’re talking 1975.
A few weeks after we were arrested, we discovered that we weren’t the only ones that knew. In fact, the U.S. government had known for several years that marijuana might be helpful in treating glaucoma. They had reported this to the U.S. Congress. They just seemed to forget to tell the public that that might be helpful. And, that fact made Robert quite angry. We decided to fight the charges against us. And, we went on trial in the summer of 1976 and in November 1976, the decision came down – Robert was found not guilty of marijuana possession and cultivation by reason of medical necessity.
“Necessity” is a very old concept. It’s in common law. And essentially it says that the harm that you commit, the harm that might happen to you if you don’t commit the crime is worse than the crime itself. So that established the concept of medical necessity. Simultaneously we had petitioned the federal government for permission to use their supplies of marijuana to treat Robert’s glaucoma. And, that petition was also granted within about two weeks of the court decision. And so, in November of 1976 it became very big news. Robert C. Randall was one in 213 million people – the only one in the country allowed to use marijuana legally to treat a medical condition.
We immediately started hearing from other patients, patients using it for multiple sclerosis, for cancer, chemotherapy treatments, for epilepsy, and we could have walked away I suppose. But, we really couldn’t. We wanted to help them. So really a movement was formed. We began organizing bit by bit. We put together 13 patients and filed petition with the U.S. Attorney General. Robert was sneaking all around the country. Before we knew it, we had a movement going.
Project CBD: I think a lot of people, particularly in California, date the movement back to 1996 when Proposition 215 passed. And of course, that was huge. But we’re talking now 20 years before that. I think it will be a surprise to many people that there was a very active effort to legalize medical marijuana in various states. And that actually was successfully done, at least in terms of the law itself, if not implementing these laws. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about what you actually were focusing on after you and Robert won this tremendous victory.
Alice O’Leary Randall: Yes. We started hearing from people – one of them was a young cancer patient from the state of New Mexico by the name of Lynn Pierson. And Robert realized – we lived in the District of Columbia at that time, so we didn’t have a state legislature – but Robert realized that Lynn Pierson did have a state legislature. So Robert and Lynn kind of put their heads together and decided that they would try to pass a law in the state of New Mexico that recognized marijuana’s medical value and provided a legal access to the drug for patients with either glaucoma or undergoing cancer chemotherapy. This was in January 1978 that the bill was introduced to the New Mexico legislature. Lynn literally stalked the halls of the New Mexico legislature. The bill was passed overwhelming, and signed into law by Governor Jerry Apodaca in February of 1978. That was really the first state law recognizing marijuana’s medical value.
Project CBD: Did other states follow at this point?
Alice O’Leary Randall: Oh, yes. There were three more states that year: Illinois, Louisiana, and Florida. So you had New Mexico, Illinois, Louisiana, and Florida – not exactly hotbeds of liberalism! What we found in those very early days is that the medical marijuana issue really resonated with the true conservative. The true political conservative understood that this was really an issue of privacy between the doctor and the patient. It was not hard to pass these laws in various conservative states. What the laws did was try to establish statewide research programs using federal supplies of marijuana. We were very excited because the federal government kept telling us there wasn’t any research, so of course we couldn’t reschedule marijuana. And here we had entire states that were willing to conduct the research, collate the data through their state departments of health. We thought that was excellent. In 1978 there were four states, in 1979 another 12 or 14 passed similar laws. And by the time Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981, there were 34 state laws that tried to establish these intrastate research programs. Unfortunately, very few got the programs up and running.
Project CBD: You mentioned about rescheduling. You and Robert were involved in the first efforts, as far as I can recall, to have cannabis rescheduled so it would no longer be Schedule 1, which was reserved for substances considered to have no medical value and to be dangerous. And I believe NORML [National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws] was also involved in that early effort to reschedule. Ultimately it faltered. But now fast-forward 40 years to the present time, and it seems we are going through this all over again. The DEA just announced its refusal, once again, to reschedule cannabis. So how does it make you feel emotionally – what did you expect at this point from the DEA? You’ve been through a lot of ups and downs over the last 40 years on this issue. So what was your response to the DEA?
Alice O’Leary Randall: I was not surprised that DEA didn’t reschedule. I know the rumors started last spring that DEA was going to reschedule in the summer. And I simply didn’t believe it. It is going to take something monumental – and I don’t know what that is. I almost think it’s going to be up to Congress eventually, just simply order that this has to be rescheduled, because I doubt the DEA will ever reschedule the whole plant, cannabis. Now, they’ll reschedule all of the components of cannabis, THC (Delta 9-THC) of course is already rescheduled in Schedule 3. The most psychoactive part of the cannabis plant is Schedule 3, whereas the plant is Schedule 1. Ludicrous.
Project CBD: What do you think is behind this intransigence on the part of the federal government? Here you have state laws being changed, there is a huge cultural shift, you might call it a pro-cannabis cultural shift. But politically, at least on the federal level, they seem to be so far behind. Why?
Alice O’Leary Randall: Well, the DEA is a big part of this. And I think it’s an outdated, outmoded administration that really needs to be revamped from the top down. It’s simply living in the Anslinger era. Harry Anslinger, who of course was the infamous bureaucrat of the 1930s who passed the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. He overlaid control of drugs with a very powerful patina. And it’s been very hard to break through that. The DEA still has that idea that we have “reefer madness,” in that we can’t allow this plant to be rescheduled. I, by the way, I’m not in favor of cannabis being moved to any of the existing schedules. I’m following Dr. Tod Mikuriya’s suggestion of a few years ago that we establish a Schedule 6 that would be only for cannabis and all cannabis products. Let’s get it out of all of those schedule 5s or any of those schedules, and put it into its own schedule, and start talking about it like adults. It’s really time for the cannabis movement to grow up.
Project CBD: I think, unfortunately, it’s not just the DEA that’s a repository of this inability to let go of reefer madness. You know, it’s been a powerful cultural imprint, even among educated people, among physicians – that lingers. That still has an effect. I know that in your work with the American Cannabis Nurses Association you’ve helped to develop a core curriculum for teaching health professionals about cannabis, about cannabis therapeutics. Maybe you can describe those efforts.
Alice O’Leary Randall: Education is very important to me. Both my parents were educators, relatives were educators, and so I think it’s in my blood. The need for good education relative to cannabis, it’s just critical. There’s a lot of it cropping up, which I’m delighted about. We can’t have too much good education. You’re absolutely right about the lingering prejudices – I call it botanical bigotry, actually. I think there’s almost like a botanical bigotry that people have toward this plant. They dislike it because that’s what they’ve been told to do. To dispel those myths, to get rid of the misconceptions about cannabis, it is really going to take probably a generation, if not two. When I meet people today who are starting out in the movement, I say if you’re really serious about this I hope you’re in it for the long haul because there’s no quick fix, there’s no magic bullet, there’s no single law that can be passed that’s going to make everything all right. It’s going to take hard work, hard education work of many of us for the next decade or so.
Project CBD: Aside from dealing with the fears that people may have or the ignorance about the plant, what specifically can you do to address that and to broaden the educational scope in terms of actually enabling people to use this plant – because we’ve been cut off from this plant for 80 years now, since prohibition, yet it’s a plant that’s been a friend of humankind since before the written word. So I think we’re collectively, as a movement or an industry or a community (whatever you want to call it), we’re involved in the process of re-learning how to relate to this plant. What’s the key challenges in that respect?
Alice O’Leary Randall: I think one of the keys to resolving this is getting as much information as possible out about the endogenous cannabinoid system. This marvelous system that’s within all of us that was only discovered in 1992, which is just a millisecond ago in terms of our history. Once people learn about the endogenous cannabinoid system, once they understand that we all have it, once they understand that it’s responsible for keeping us balanced, then they begin to understand the importance of cannabis. So I feel that’s our key – it unlocks a lot of doors. I’ve spoken at a lot of senior centers in the state of Florida and I will tell the seniors about this endogenous cannabinoid system, and I see them kind of squinting and trying to understand, and I say well it’s a little bit like your endocrine system but it’s even more important because it balances you. And they start to get it, and the light goes on and they begin to understand that this is more than just something that you have fun with. This is something that keeps us balanced.
Project CBD: You mentioned seniors, in particular, as a group or demographic that you’ve been relating to. This is a group that’s very important in terms of the medical marijuana world right now. It’s said to be the fastest growing demographic of medical users with respect to cannabis. When you talk about the endocannabinoid system and you see it resonating, what else has been your experience that maybe has surprised you in terms of relating to seniors about this, educating seniors, and what is the basis for hope in this regard?
Alice O’Leary Randall: Of course, many seniors are still thinking if they were going to use marijuana or cannabis as a medicine that they’d have to roll a joint and sit around and learn how to smoke, and people don’t want to smoke. So that’s a detriment. But once they learn that there are things like transdermal patches, tinctures, some edibles, once they learn that they don’t have to sit around like Cheech and Chong and smoke a joint, that really breaks a lot of ice. And suddenly they’re more interested in what it can do. I would always have little props with me, empty packets of the Mary’s Medicinal patches, some empty vials showing tinctures, and whatnot, and that seemed to really ease the minds of seniors. People told me two years ago when I was campaigning for Amendment 2 in Florida that, oh we’ve already written off the seniors because we know they won’t vote for it. I think that was a critical mistake because they were very interested in it. They’d heard a lot about it. And of course this is the population that often has the hardest medical problems. They’ve been through all of the medications and they don’t work. They’re in chronic pain, and they don’t like the opioids that are being prescribed for them. So they’re interested. They’re always looking for alternatives. And they were quite interested in cannabis. They wanted to know 1) if they had to smoke it, and 2) was there some way that insurance would pay for it. So I had to disappoint them about the insurance. But when they found out that they didn’t have to smoke that was a real revelation to them. I think they’re a critical mass for this issue right now. And I’m really focusing a lot more of my energies in that area because, as you say, they are one of the – if not the -- largest population using medical cannabis. It’s certainly one of the fastest growing.
Project CBD: We appreciate your efforts in that regard. And we thank you for educating, not just seniors, but so many of us in so many ways, regarding what has happened with medical cannabis in the United States. It’s been built upon the shoulders of you and Robert.
Alice O’Leary Randall: Thank you.