High in America
The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana
During the NORML conference in December of 1977, as other delegates
variously attended workshops, snorted cocaine, and threw pies,
two men and a woman huddled together for hours talking earnestly
about politics, medicine, and marijuana.
One of the men, twenty-six-year-old Lynn Pierson, who had come
to the conference from New Mexico, was six feet two, weighed less
than 130 pounds, and was entirely bald because of the chemotherapy
treatments he was undergoing for lung cancer. The other man, Bob
Randall, was twenty-nine years old and lived in Washington, D.
C. He was solidly built, with dark, curly hair and a drooping
mustache, and he wore thick glasses because glaucoma had damaged
his vision and would probably blind him someday. The two men both
found that smoking marijuana helped them medically. It stabilized
Bob Randall's glaucoma and thus held off blindness, and it enabled
Lynn Pierson to endure the chemotherapy treatments that were keeping
The woman, Alice O'Leary, was dark-haired, heavyset, and had a
determined look about her. She and Randall had met as college
students, and she had shared Randall's long battle against both
glaucoma and the federal government, which had bitterly resisted
giving him legal access to marijuana. Now Lynn Pierson had come
up from New Mexico to ask Randall what he could do in the remaining
months of his life to aid in the battle for medical use of marijuana.
Incredibly, on February 21, 1978, less than three months after
Pierson, Randall, and O'Leary met at the NORML conference, New
Mexico enacted the nation's first medical-use bill, making possible
legal access to marijuana for persons suffering from cancer, glaucoma,
and other life-threatening diseases. New Mexico's example, along
with NORML'S new "medical-reclassification project,"
which O'Leary directed, would soon spark medical-use legislation
in twenty other states. This dramatic breakthrough was a tribute
to the efforts of Pierson, the cancer victim, and Randall, the
glaucoma victim, and it was also a milestone in NORMAL's longtime
effort to force the federal government to admit what scientists
have long known: that marijuana has legitimate medical uses.
Marijuana has for centuries been used as medicine throughout the
world. In the United States in the nineteenth century it was routinely
prescribed as a pain reliever and anti-convulsant. Its medical
use was severely restricted, however, by laws passed during Harry
Anslinger's anti-marijuana campaign in the 1930s. The virtual
end to its medical use came when the Nixon administration, in
writing the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, chose for symbolic
purposes to classify marijuana as a "schedule-one" drug,
along with, among others, heroin and LSD. This meant that marijuana
was officially defined as having a high potential for abuse and
no known medical value. That was blatantly untrue, but it was
politically expedient, and it became the law.
NORML petitioned DEA in 1972 to reclassify marijuana, but DEA
and other government agencies bitterly resisted the request and
NORML'S subsequent lawsuit. That was the situationlegal stalematewhen
Bob Randall walked into Stroup's office one day in September of
1975 and said he'd been busted for growing marijuana.
Bob Randall grew up in Sarasota, Florida, where his father owned
a furniture store (and where, to the endless delight of Randall
and his friends, the Ringling Brothers Circus spent the winter
months). In 1967, when he was an undergraduate at the University
of South Florida, majoring in speech and political science, Randall
began to have trouble with his eyes. In the evenings his vision
would become hazy, and there would be tricolored circles, halos,
around lights. Doctors told him it was eyestrain.
In June of 1971 he received a master's degree in speech and went
up to Washington, D.C., where he hoped to find a job as a political
speechwriter. When that didn't work out, he shrugged off his disappointment
and started driving a cab. He also continued to have problems
with his eyes. One evening near the end of the summer of 1972,
he was reading, and when he closed one eye, he suddenly couldn't
see the words. Then he couldn't see the book. He went to an ophthalmologist
the next day and finally learned he had glaucoma.
Glaucoma occurs when fluid within the eye fails to drain properly
and pressure builds on the optic nerve; in time the pressure destroys
the nerve and causes blindness. Randall was given the standard
treatmenteyedrops and pillsbut it didn't work for him. He
had already lost 85 percent of his optic nerve, and his doctor
predicted he'd be blind in three to five years; his 20/400 vision
made him already legally blind in his right eye. The only possible
treatment was surgery, but the operation was a dangerous one and
might cause immediate blindness. Then, one evening in 1973, Bob
Randall discovered that marijuana helped him.
He was spending a quiet evening in his apartment in Virginia.
He smoked a couple of joints and was feeling quite mellow when
suddenly he realized that the tricolored halos around lights had
gone away. He was stunned. In college he'd sometimes had a vague
sense that smoking somehow relieved his chronic eyestrain, but
he'd never made a direct, cause-and-effect connection. Now he
did. He had no doubt about it. Smoking marijuana improved his
vision. He felt a great euphoria. He knew at once, instinctively,
that the marijuana laws would no longer apply to him.
When he awoke the next morning, his euphoria was gone. He laughed
bitterly at his illusions. How could he have been so self-deluding
as to think smoking dope would save his sight? That was
childish, true reefer madness. Still, he experimented. He smoked
every evening, testing what effect different amounts of marijuana
had on his sight. After a few months he knew it was true. His
condition was supposed to be one of irreversible deterioration,
but marijuana stabilized, perhaps improved, his vision.
But what should he do with his discovery? He thought long and
hard about telling his doctor, and finally decided against it,
for fear his doctor might not treat him if he knew of his illegal
self-treatment. Nor did he have any inclination to tell the government
or the scientific world of his discovery. He knew how the government
felt about marijuana; at best he would be laughed at, and at worst
he might be arrested. It was not Randall's nature to be a gadfly,
a troublemaker. He was an easygoing, good-humored, intelligent
young man who feared he had only a few years of sight left and
didn't want to spend those years being hassled by the government.
So he kept buying illegal marijuana on the street, but it was
expensive ($25 or so for the ounce he smoked each week), and the
quality was inconsistent. In the spring of 1975 he decided to
grow his own.
He had by then got a job teaching speech at Prince George's Community
College, in Maryland. He and Alice O'Leary were sharing a comfortable
second-floor apartment on Capitol Hill with several cats and a
great many books, classical recordings, and hanging plants. Randall
began growing four marijuana plants in what he thought was a secluded
spot on his back porch. But when he and O'Leary returned home
from a trip to Florida one Sunday evening that August, they found
their apartment ransacked. They also found a summons ordering
the occupant of the apartment to report to the nearby police station.
Randall dutifully turned himself in and learned he was charged
with possession of marijuana. Police, investigating an unrelated
incident, had climbed a fire escape and spotted his plants.
"It was a gentle bust," Randall recalls. "I wasn't
handcuffed or anything. Yet I felt psychological abuse. It made
me feel very insecure to realize the government could walk into
my house, tear my things apart, and take away what to me was medication.
It made me insecure; then it made me mad as hell."
Randall went to a lawyer. He had a growing sense that he should
not be charged with a crime for using what was, to him, medicine.
The lawyer was skeptical. It might be easier to pay a fine and
forget it. At the least, Randall would need more scientific evidence,
so he wouldn't be laughed out of court.
His search for information took him to Stroup and NORML. He was
impressed that he could walk right in and see Stroup, but he was
not much encouraged by what Stroup told him: that NORML was in
the fourth year of a legal battle to force the government to reclassify
marijuana for medical use and the government was bitterly resisting
any change. Stroup didn't see how one young teacher could take
on the government. He assumed that the battle would be won, if
at all, by NORML'S suit. At that point, Stroup had seen a great
many angry young men charge into his office, vowing to sue the
government for this or that injustice. What he could not foresee
was how determined Randall was, and what a potent symbol of the
medical-use issue he could become.
Stroup gave Randall some clippings and the names of several government
scientists who might give him information. The scientists all
told Randall the same thing: Recent studies demonstrated that
marijuana was useful in treating glaucoma.
That news, although it confirmed Randall's own discovery, made
him furious. The government knew that marijuana could help
glaucoma victims, and it was doing nothing about it. His anger
was not just for himself. From two to four million Americans suffer
from glaucoma. About 90 percent of them can be helped by the standard
medications. The other ten percent, two hundred thousand to four
hundred thousand people, have no alternative but dangerous surgery.
Those were the people, Randall among them, whom marijuana might
Randall flew to Los Angeles in December for thirteen days of testing
with Dr. Robert Hepler of UCLA, who in 1970 had conducted a pioneering
study on marijuana and glaucoma. The tests confirmed Randall's
own self-testing, and he returned to Washington in early 1976
to begin planning a two-pronged challenge to the government. In
the first place, he would challenge the criminal charges that
were pending against him. Second, he would demand that the government
provide him with marijuana to meet his medical needs. During his
visit with Dr. Hepler he had learned that the government grew
marijuana, rolled it into joints, and provided it to the few scientists
who had obtained permission to conduct marijuana research. He
had smoked those nicely pre-rolled government joints while he
was with Dr. Hepler, and he thought the government should continue
to provide him with them. At his lawyer's suggestion, Randall
obtained a sworn statement from Dr. Hepler that said that marijuana
helped Randall's vision, that without it he would face either
blindness or a dangerous operation, and that he would recommend
that Randall be given marijuana by prescription.
With this evidence in hand Randall on May 20 petitioned DEA to
give him immediate access to government marijuana. DEA's first
reaction was to do nothing. Randall assumed they thought he was
some nut who would go away if ignored. He didn't. After a few
weeks he went to reporters for the Washington Post and
UPI and told them about his petition. Randall wanted the publicity,
not only for himself but for all those other people who were going
blind and had no idea that marijuana could help them. Friendly
reporters told Randall DEA's unofficial comment on his case: Mr.
Randall was a criminal.
Next came his trial, in the D.C. superior court in late July.
Randall raised the very rare defense of "medical necessity."
He was saying that it was no crime for him to use marijuana, because
he needed it for medical purposes. The government said the only
issue was whether Randall had in fact possessed marijuana. The
prosecutor added gratuitously that Mr. Randall had no constitutional
right to his eyesight. The judge was a black man named James A.
Washington, Jr., formerly a professor of constitutional law at
the Howard University law school. After two days of testimony
he took the case under advisement. It was against this backdrop
that Randall continued to negotiate with the government for legal
access to marijuana.
First the government, through a middle-level bureaucrat at NIDA,
said it would give him all the marijuana he wanted if he would
agree to be hospitalized for the duration. Randall declined. Then
the government said Randall could have marijuana if he would go
to a hospital to smoke it. Randall said that reminded him of the
churches in the Middle Ages that kept their Bibles chained to
the wall for use on the premises only. Next the government said
it might give him marijuana to take home if he would purchase
a 750-pound safe to protect it. Randall replied that no one had
ever stolen his marijuana except the D.C. police. Finally the
government said it might let Randall take its marijuana home if
he would agree not to tell anyone about it.
No way, Randall said. No way.
Finally, in October, the government proposed to establish a special
"research program" for Randall. His doctor would be
authorized to receive government marijuana, give it to Randall,
and conduct tests on him. Randall was uncertain. He wanted a more
general ruling that would apply to all glaucoma victims. But his
lawyers urged him to accept the offer. It was a start, and in
theory others could do the same.
Randall accepted the offer. The doctor he found after a six-month
search was John Merritt, of the Howard University medical school,
a black man who had a special interest in the matter, since black
males suffer disproportionately from glaucoma. In November, Randall's
first government-issue joints began arriving: seventy a week,
ten a day, decent stuff. At about the same time, Judge Washington
announced his verdict. Randall was not guilty, because of medical
necessity. Randall assumed that it was the threat of such a verdict
that had forced the government to offer the deal it had: better
for a government agency to set the terms of his legal marijuana
than for a judge to do it.
Throughout 1977, in defiance of the government's wishes, Randall
began to speak out. He attended drug conferences and testified
on behalf of decriminalization in New Mexico (at the hearings
Chip Carter declined to address); he gave newspaper interviews
and appeared on Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show and even on
To Tell the Truth. Sometimes he became annoyed at the questions
reporters asked. "They always ask, 'Do you still get high?'
and not 'Can you still see?"' he says. Still, he realized
it was the controversy surrounding marijuana that got his medical
issue on the front pages.
All that year, Randall and his doctor were subjected to what they
regarded as increasing harassment from the government, and he
believed it was in direct retaliation for his speaking out. First,
in March, when he asked DEA for a letter stating that his marijuana
was legal, in case he was ever stopped by police, the DEA replied
that he had no immunity from prosecution. Randall took that as
an attempt at intimidation, discouraging his travels. Next, in
May, after he spoke at a drug-abuse conference in San Francisco,
the FDA said he must start receiving his marijuana daily instead
of weekly. That would have effectively stopped Randall's travels,
but he and Dr. Merritt refused to accept the change, and FDA backed
down. Next, FDA ordered him to stop smoking for two months, as
a "test"; again he refused, and the government backed
down. Next, FDA demanded that he sign a previously unmentioned
"consent form," one he feared would make him subject
to its "research" whims; he signed, but noted on the
document that he did so under duress.
Late in May, Randall wrote to Peter Bourne, protesting what he
viewed as the harassment of him by the various agencies. He hoped
that Bourne would intervene and force the bureaucrats to leave
him alone. That was not to be. Bourne, taking the side of the
bureaucrats, bluntly replied to Randall on June 6: "Publicity
in the case has forced consideration of tightening up the dispensing
of your supplies." He added, "We do not want to interfere
with your rights, but as a patient taking part in a research study
you have a certain responsibility to assure its success."
After that, Randall had no more illusions about Bourne or the
Carter administration. He was surprised only that Bourne would
put on paper what he viewed as a crude threat. Randall filed away
Bourne's letter for use in the lawsuit he expected to bring against
the government. He gave a copy to Stroup, however, who mentioned
it to his friend Gary Cohn, and Jack Anderson quickly broke the
story of White House indifference to a man who was going blind.
It was not long after the Jack Anderson story that Bourne made
public a letter he had written to officials at the Department
of Health, Education and Welfare requesting a study of possible
medical uses of marijuana and heroin. Bourne's action was well
publicized and seemed to express the White House's concern for
the Bob Randalls of the world. Unfortunately, his letter led only
to a series of meetings, which led to a report calling for more
The government's position throughout the medical-use controversy
had been to minimize the medical value of marijuana and to stress
the need for more research. In effect, when the Bob Randalls and
Lynn Piersons had asked for legal marijuana to treat urgent medical
needs, the government had told them to come back in a few years.
The government insisted this was necessary scientific caution,
because smoking might prove to have harmful side effects, although
it is difficult for the layman to see what side effects would
be worse than going blind or dying of cancer. Another explanation
is that the bureaucrats were simply afraid of the political controversy
surrounding marijuana, afraid that Congress or the White House
might think them "soft" on the drug, and they therefore
sidestepped the issue by endless calls for more research.
To NORML, Randall was a near-perfect personification of the medical-use
issue, and the government's treatment of him was an incredible
show of stupidity and/or malevolence. Stroup could never quite
believe that the government could be so dumb as to deny medicine
to people who were going blind. Medical use was a humanitarian
issue, but it was also a wonderful political issue. It put a friendly
face on marijuana; the Killer Weed became the Helpful Weed. It
also attracted a new pro-marijuana constituency of old people
and the ill. Randall had been quick to organize more than sixty
cancer and glaucoma victims to join in NORML'S medical-reclassification
suit against the government.
As 1977 progressed, Randall became absolutely convinced that the
research program the government had set up for him was a sham.
As he saw it, the government had decided to give him marijuana
to shut him up, but when he insisted on speaking outsaying
others should be allowed medical use of marijuanathe government
would threaten to cut off his medicine. He saw it as medical blackmail,
and he became increasingly outraged.
The climax came in January of 1978 when Dr. Merritt left Washington
for a teaching post in North Carolina. A year earlier NIDA had
helped Randall find Dr. Merritt. Now the government said he must
find his new doctor on his own, and until he did, and his new
doctor received government authorization to handle marijuana (which
could take months or years), he would be given no more marijuana.
Randall thought the government was gambling that he would give
up the struggle and return to illegal marijuana. (Time after time,
bureaucrats had told him it would be simpler for everybody if
he would only buy his dope on the street.) Randall searched for
a new doctor and found several who were willing to take him as
a patient but none who was willing to become involved with government
paperwork at best and government harassment at worst.
Desperate, Randall again wrote Peter Bourne, who replied, "That
issue should be resolved between you and Dr. Merritt." Randall
took this to mean he was supposed to persuade Dr. Merritt not
to leave Washington for his new job.
At length Randall decided his only hope was to sue the government,
but he already owed $12,000 in legal fees, and several lawyers
told him a new suit could cost $10,000 at the outset and perhaps
much more. Then he got a break. A leading Washington law firm,
Steptoe and Johnson, agreed to represent him pro bono. His
case was given to a young lawyer named Thomas Collier, who tried
to persuade FDA to give Randall a "compassionate IND,"
or "investigational-new-drug exemption." The negotiations
dragged on for months, and finally, on a Monday afternoon, May
6, Collier filed suit against FDA, DEA, and NIDA. He argued in
his brief that the government cannot pass laws that impinge upon
a person's constitutional right to maintain his or her health.
Moreover, Collier declared that freedom of speech was at issue
in the Randall case: "During his participation in Dr. Merritt's
program, repeated efforts were made to limit Mr. Randall's access
to marijuana in retaliation for his exercise of First Amendment
rights. Mr. Randall should not again be placed in a position where
he would have to choose between his right to protect his eyesight
and the exercise of his First Amendment rights."
The day after the suit was filed, the government agreed to a settlement.
It stipulated that Randall would get his marijuana allowance immediately,
directly from a federal pharmacy, and that no research requirements
would be made of him without his and his doctor's approval.
The settlement was a total victory for Randall, and yet he accepted
it reluctantly, because he knew it was unlikely that other glaucoma
patients would benefit from it. In theory, they could do what
he had done and force the government to grant them legal marijuana.
In reality, Randall had won his victory because of three special
circumstances: the fact that he had won his criminal trial with
a medical-necessity plea, and thus gained some legal leverage
over the government; the fact that he lived in Washington and
could thus keep after the government when it gave him the runaround;
and the fact that a major Washington law firm had taken his case
pro bono. He had won his case, but he also felt he had
reached a dead end in his crusade to help other glaucoma victims.
It was then that he met Lynn Pierson, who was able to build on
Randall's achievement and to carry the medical-use issue into
a new forum: state legislatures all over America.
Lynn Pierson grew up in Grants, New Mexico, the son of an accountant.
He planned to study accounting, then perhaps go to law school.
He served a two-year stint in the Army, returned to the University
of New Mexico, and was married. One day in October of 1975 he
noticed he had a swollen testicle. He feared it might be venereal
disease. A doctor informed him it was testicular cancer and he
might die within six months. He underwent surgery, and after that
In chemotherapy a cancer patient's body is injected with a great
amount of poison; the hope is that the poison will kill the cancer
before it kills the patient. Its side effects are excruciating:
nausea, vomiting, loss of hair, convulsions, depression. Hubert
Humphrey called it "living hell." After Pierson's first
chemotherapy, and convulsions that left him trembling, he did
what many others have done: He told his doctor he would not undergo
that treatment again. In response, the doctor gave him a medical-journal
article about recent studies showing that marijuana-smoking often
reduced the side effects of chemotherapy.
Pierson tried the chemotherapy once more, this time smoking marijuana;
it reduced his vomiting and convulsions and enabled him to take
solid food and liquid during the treatment. Within a few months
Pierson's cancer went into remission. By then he was becoming
interested in the politics of the marijuana issue. He attended
the New Mexico legislative hearing that Randall addressed early
in 1977, but the two did not meet. In October, Pierson's cancer
returned, this time in his lungs, inoperable and terminal. He
began chemotherapy again, smoking along with it, to prolong his
life. He bought his marijuana illegally, of course, and in November
he heard about paraquat and realized that even his marijuana might
be poisoned, and by the very government that would not allow him
legal marijuana. It was too much. The government was truly monstrous,
offering him a choice between illegal, poisoned marijuana on the
one hand and the agonies of chemotherapy on the other. And he
wasn't alone. He'd had a friend in the Veterans Hospital, a middle-aged
man who refused to smoke, because it was illegal, and Pierson
had watched his friend die an unnecessarily agonizing death. Lynn
Pierson wanted to act, to do something that would give meaning
to his death. He wasn't sure what, but something. It was then,
early in December of 1977, that he went to the NORML conference
and met Bob Randall and Alice O'Leary.
Randall and Pierson felt close from the first, peers in a select
fraternity. Randall felt as if he'd been waiting for a long time
to find Lynn Pierson. He'd fought his fight, taken it as far as
he could alone, and now he thought Pierson could take it further.
Pierson felt the same way. He confessed that he had clippings
about Randall at home on the wall beside his desk. "If you
hadn't done it first, I would have," he told Randall.
At first Randall wondered if Pierson would have the strength for
political action. He'd met other cancer victims who wanted to
fight the government but who lacked the physical or psychological
resources. But he soon saw that Pierson was a fighter, a hell
raiser, as determined a man as he'd ever met. "Lynn had the
critical element, a sense of rage," Randall said. "Rage
that he was forced to smoke illegally and that other people didn't
even know it would help them."
As they talked that weekend at the conference, Randall told Pierson
he faced a choice. He could petition DEA, as Randall had, for
legal access to marijuana, or he could take the issue to his state
legislature. The latter was what Randall hoped Pierson would do,
because if he succeeded, he would help not only himself but many
others. Pierson agreed to go the legislative route.
He already had allies in the New Mexico legislature. He had come
to the conference with two legislators, Tom Rutherford and Manny
Aragon, who had worked with NORML on decriminalization. When he
returned to New Mexico, legislative aides drafted a medical-use
bill. Randall and Pierson then rewrote it, in the long-distance
phone conversations they had almost every night. They made sure
that the bill's language was open-ended, allowing treatment to
others whom marijuana might help, not just cancer and glaucoma
victims, and they made sure it was defined as a program primarily
to help people, not a research program.
When the bill was ready, Pierson stalked the halls of the state
capitol, personally talking to each of the nearly one hundred
legislators. "Don't play politics with my life," he
told them. He stressed that he was asking only for medical use,
not for recreational drug use. The bill won widespread media support.
The state AMA backed it. It passed easily, thirty to one in the
state senate and forty-four to sixteen in the house. Gov. Jerry
Apodaca signed it into law on February 21, 1978, with Pierson
looking on. "Okay, Lynn, you can start smoking it legally
now," the governor said jokingly.
It was not that easy. The New Mexico program still had to obtain
federal approval, and that approval was very slow in coming. Pierson,
who had been so successful in dealing with the legislature, learned
the frustrations of dealing with the bureaucracy. He and Randall
continued to talk by phone almost every night. That was in the
period when Randall's legal marijuana had been cut off, after
Dr. Merritt left Washington, and they would joke about which of
them would get his legal dope first. But it was not a joke. Pierson
couldn't understand how the will of his state legislature could
be thwarted by federal bureaucrats.
"Lynn became more aggressive that summer," Randall recalled.
"He began growing marijuana in his backyard, and he invited
a television crew to come film it. He wanted to demonstrate that
he could grow marijuana faster than the government would provide
it for him. Near the end of July, he was on the Tomorrow show.
He looked a little betterhis hair had grown backbut he was
obviously in terrible pain. I called him after the show and he
told me he was bleeding internally but he felt it was important
to do the show and let the country know what the government was
doing to people.
"In the last conversation I had with Lynn, his state was
beatific. I had bad news that I decided not to give him: I'd learned
of another delay on the New Mexico proposal. But he felt good.
He felt he had changed things. This was August, and the Florida
medical-use bill had passed by then. Lynn felt a sense of personal
reward. He felt very satisfied with what he'd done. He died three
Three hours after Pierson's death, Randall added, an FDA official
called the New Mexico health department and said its medical-use
plan had finally been approved. Then, three months later, FDA
withdrew its approval. To Randall, this runaround was all too
familiar. "They decided that New Mexico was a small state
and they'd try to stop medical use there," he said. Finally,
nearly a year after the bill was passed, and after state officials
had angrily denounced FDA for the delays, the New Mexico program
was given federal approval. State officials named it the Lynn
Pierson Therapeutic Research Program.