40th Anniversary of America’s First Medical Marijuana Law

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By Alice O’Leary-Randall

Today — Feb. 21, 2018 — marks the 40th anniversary of the nation’s first medical marijuana law, and unfortunately, the story of its passage is too often forgotten.
Jimmy Carter was president and for most Americans, marijuana was a dangerous substance that deserved to be illegal. Meanwhile, a handful of young Americans had discovered marijuana had some unique, beneficial properties, especially in the treatment of the side-effects of cancer chemotherapy. Among them was a lanky New Mexican named Lynn Pierson, who was losing his battle with testicular cancer and found the chemotherapy “cure” worse than the disease. When he told his oncologist he wanted to quit chemotherapy because of debilitating side-effects, the doctor shocked him when he asked if Pierson had tried marijuana. Anecdotal accounts of marijuana’s ability to reduce the chemo-induced nausea and vomiting had been written up in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1975 and some oncologists felt their patients had nothing to lose by trying the illegal substance.

Pierson took his doctor’s advice and was amazed. “It was a miracle,” Pierson would later say. “A few puffs of pot took the nausea away. And there was hardly any vomiting. Then I got real hungry. Hell, I ate so much I actually gained some weight.”

Pierson told other patients at Albuquerque’s VA hospital about this miracle. But one friend, an older patient, would not try marijuana because of its illegality. The man died a horrible death and Pierson vowed he would not let that happen to others. He contacted Robert Randall, a glaucoma patient who was then the nation’s only legal marijuana patient. In 1976, as the result of a successful court case, Randall had forced the government to give him federal supplies of marijuana and Pierson wanted the same privilege.

Randall knew that Pierson probably would not live long enough to make his way through the legal complexities imposed by the feds, but Pierson had something that Randall, a resident of the District of Columbia, did not have — a state legislature. He encouraged Pierson to approach New Mexico’s state legislature, reasoning that compassion would win out.

Pierson attacked the task with a passion that would not be denied. He lobbied all 96 members of New Mexico’s House of Representatives. Pierson also enlisted the press and, with their help, he was able to rally the help of other patients. Legislative committees began exploring ways to get marijuana supplies to cancer patients and it wasn’t long before Washington, D.C. heard of this uprising in the Land of Enchantment.

Bureaucrats from the DEA, NIDA and FDA were soon on the phone cautioning New Mexico that its actions were potentially in violation of federal law.

Members of the state legislature came up with a solution the feds — who were constantly harping about the lack of research — could not deny. New Mexico would establish a state-wide program of research, using federal supplies of marijuana to treat cancer and glaucoma patients. The result was the Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act, which became a model for more than 30 other states in the late 1970s and early 80s.

The bill passed in New Mexico by overwhelming margins (53-9 in the House, 33-1 in the Senate). It was signed as “emergency legislation” by Governor Jerry Apodaca on Feb. 21, 1978. The medical marijuana revolution had begun.

Despite Apodaca’s proclamation of an emergency, Lynn Pierson never benefited from the legislation. The feds blocked and obfuscated the state’s program, and Pierson died in August 1978 without ever receiving legal supplies.

But New Mexico hasn’t forgotten Pierson. In 2007, when the state once again legalized medical marijuana access, this time using state-grown marijuana to circumvent federal oversight, the legislation was entitled “The Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act,” recognizing both Pierson and another young cancer patient who picked up the battle flag in the 21st century, Erin Armstrong.

Today, we celebrate Pierson as one of the many patients who gave the last good days of their lives fighting to right the wrong of prohibiting access to medical cannabis and the man behind the nation’s first medical marijuana law.

Original Publication in CannabisNow.