How marijuana became legal
Medical marijuana is giving activists a chance to show how a legitimized pot business can work. Is the end of prohibition upon us?
(Fortune Magazine) -- When Irvin Rosenfeld, 56, picks me up at the Fort Lauderdale airport, his SUV reeks of marijuana. The vice president for sales at a local brokerage firm, Rosenfeld has been smoking 10 to 12 marijuana cigarettes a day for 38 years, he says.
That's probably unusual in itself, but what makes Rosenfeld exceptional is that for the past 27 years, he has been copping his weed directly from the United States government.
Every 25 days Rosenfeld goes to a pharmacy and picks up a tin of 300 federally grown and rolled cigarettes that have been sent there for him by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), acting with approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Rosenfeld smokes the marijuana to relieve chronic pain and muscle spasms caused by a rare bone disease. When he was 10, doctors discovered that his skeleton was riddled with more than 200 tumors, due to a condition known as multiple congenital cartilaginous exostosis. Despite seven operations, he still lives with scores of tumors in his bones.
Rosenfeld is one of four people in the United States whom the federal government supplies with medical marijuana. Each is a living anomaly because, officially, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, NIDA, and the FDA all take the position that marijuana has "no currently accepted medical use."
That's the only way federal law can continue to classify marijuana, like heroin, as a "Schedule I controlled substance," forbidden from being prescribed by doctors. (Numerous dangerous, psychoactive, and addictive opium derivatives, by contrast, are more leniently classified as Schedule II drugs, allowing prescription use.)
Over the years the government's position has become progressively more embattled, if not untenable.
Thirteen states now have laws that let residents use marijuana medicinally, typically to alleviate chronic pain (particularly nerve pain caused by diabetes, AIDS, and hepatitis); manage movement disorders and muscle spasticity (especially for multiple sclerosis patients); as an anti-nausea and anti-vomiting agent (for those, say, undergoing chemotherapy); and as an appetite stimulant (yes, as in "the munchies") for those with wasting diseases like AIDS and cancer.
Another 15 states are weighing legislation or ballot initiatives that could turn them into medical marijuana states by next year.
The acceptance of medical marijuana has implications that extend far beyond helping those suffering from life-threatening diseases. It is one of several factors -- including demographic changes, the financial crisis, and the widely perceived failure of the war on drugs -- reopening the country's 40-year-old on-again, off-again shouting match over whether marijuana should be legalized.
This article is not another polemic about why it should or shouldn't be. Today, in any case, the pertinent question is whether it already has been -- at least on a local-option basis. We're referring to a cultural phenomenon that has been evolving for the past 15 years, topped off by a crucial policy reversal that was quietly instituted by President Barack Obama in February.
By Roger Parloff, senior editor
September 11, 2009: 4:20 PM ET