Once a month, a tin case of 300 joints arrives at Irvin Rosenfeld’s pharmacy in Florida.
Some people roll their own. Rosenfeld’s are rolled and shipped by Uncle Sam. Yep, that same Uncle Sam that considers cannabis a Schedule 1 drug with no medical benefits and locks up its own citizens for using it.
It’s ironic that Rosenfeld has been living for more than three decades, as one of just a handful of people to receive government-grown cannabis for a medical condition. The 10 joints he smokes a day ease his pain from a rare bone tumor disorder and let him live a normal life.
“I’ve not had a tumor grow develop since I was 21, and the doctors don’t know why, but I know why they haven’t developed. It’s cannabis,” said Rosenfeld, 62, a stockbroker. “Cannabis has saved my life.”
Today 23 states allow some form of medical cannabis, but those two words had rarely been used in the same sentence in the 1970s, when he discovered how much it could alleviate the pain and grant him mobility. He fought to become only the second person to receive government cannabis under the Compassionate Investigational New Drug program.
That program never reached more than a dozen patients, and only two are left, including Rosenfeld. But Rosenfeld believes the program, and the efforts of patients like himself to tell the American people about it, helped set the stage for cannabis law reform sweeping the nation.
“It helped launch the whole national movement. When we could stand up and say, ‘We are using this. We are legally using it and doing very well,’ people stood up and took notice,” said Rosenfeld, author of My Medicine, a book about how he “forced” the government to provide his medicine.
The government had only negative things to say for cannabis, but, Rosenfeld said, “If all that is true, if it’s so bad for you, explain me.”
Discovered by accident
Rosenfeld was 10 years old when, after throwing for the final out in a baseball game, he suddenly couldn’t move his arm. Movement returned shortly thereafter but he was eventually diagnosed with multiple congenital cartilaginous exostoses, which causes painful bone tumors.
He survived four major surgeries by the age of 18 to remove the tumors, but doctors said the possibility of death from internal bleeding related to a jagged tumor was real. He couldn’t attend school or play sports and took a cocktail of medications and painkillers that left him in a fog.
He moved to Miami for college and because he thought the warm climate would help his condition. A law-abiding citizen, he’d never smoked cannabis and once, he even kicked out a girlfriend for bringing a joint over.
But cannabis was everywhere in Miami in 1971, and he gave into peer pressure, not feeling a thing until the tenth attempt. Though not feeling sedated or euphoric, he noticed that he had been sitting still for a half hour; normally stiff joints forced him to get up every 10 minutes or so. And then he realized he hadn’t taken a pain pill in six hours—also unusual.
Maybe there was something to this. After all, he did some research that showed cannabis was used in many medications between 1850 and when it was outlawed in 1937. So he kept smoking and noticed his pharmaceutical use dropped by 80 percent. His sleep, appetite and movement all improved. He started playing sports again.
But questions nagged at him. Why did he have to go to a drug dealer to get this medication? And why did using it make him a criminal?
Fighting the power
In 1976, glaucoma sufferer Robert Randall defeated the federal government in court and won access to marijuana for his condition, which helped save his eyesight. The story inspired Rosenfeld, who had been conducting a scientific study with his orthopedic surgeon on himself and how cannabis improved his condition. He met Randall, who suggested he apply to the Compassionate IND program.
After years of stonewalling , the Food and Drug Administration gave him a hearing before a panel of doctors. Much to his surprise, the panel approved and in 1982 Rosenfeld began receiving government cannabis.
The little-known drug program survived the anti-drug furor of the ‘80s and expanded to 13 patients, many of them AIDS patients. Another 28 were approved but awaiting final enrollment when President George H.W. Bush ended the program. The 13 patients were grandfathered in but no new ones would be accepted.
Despite a campaign promise, President Bill Clinton never reopened the program, which might have vanished into obscurity but for the efforts of patients like Randall and Rosenfeld to tell the world about it.
Taking the fight to the states
Rosenfeld insists he doesn’t get high.
Maybe it’s tolerance, a side effect of his bone condition or the low THC content of the government cannabis, but he is able to take his medicine and live his normal life without being impaired. Supervisors and clients took some convincing, but they accept a stockholder smoking joints while working.
His tumors haven’t returned and he hasn’t taken a narcotic for pain since 1990. Cannabis has improved his life so much he has spent much of it fighting to help others gain access. When California voters went to the polls in 1996 to become the first state to allow medical cannabis, Rosenfeld estimates he did some 50 radio shows in support of the measure.
“My disorder had caused me lots of problems. I was able to take that disorder and make something good come out of it. I was able to help millions of people nationwide to help understand medical cannabis.”
It’s one thing to tell people how medical cannabis can help people. It’s another to show them. Medical cannabis passed in one state after another, with the help of patients like Rosenfeld.
“I felt exonerated. Here I’ve been saying for years that it’s medicine. Bob (Randall) and I had educated people to the point that the largest state in the country had recognized the use of medical cannabis and approved it,” Rosenfeld said.
He self-published his book (available at his website Irvinrosenfeld.com and on Kindle) in 2010 to spread awareness and has watched with pleasure as many states have approved recreational cannabis. His utopia is a world where anyone can grow as much cannabis as they want without fear of prosecution.
And he’ll keep supporting legalization efforts, because while some states have relaxed laws, most of the country has not. He remains the only legal cannabis smoker in the state of Florida, though activists hope to change that in the 2016 election cycle.
For Rosenfeld, it’s a very personal fight.
“My disorder had caused me lots of problems. I was able to take that disorder and make something good come out of it. I was able to help millions of people nationwide to help understand medical cannabis,” he said.
“It’s like me giving the middle finger to my bone disease. F*ck you, look what I’ve done because of you.”