Forty-five years ago, a tenacious glaucoma patient named Robert Randall made history, becoming the first person in the U.S. under prohibition to secure a legal supply of cannabis that was grown, processed and delivered by the federal government itself.
Now his widow, Alice O’Leary Randall, a lifelong reform advocate, is marking the anniversary by releasing a digitized “Factual Record” of the case, preserving the legacy of the marijuana pioneer and the work and sacrifices of early activists who helped build the foundation of the modest cannabis legalization movement.
Randall had already achieved something extraordinary just two years before the settlement. After being charged with unlawful cannabis possession, he fought the case and convinced a superior court judge that his use of marijuana constituted a “medical necessity,” a common law defense that protected him from prosecution.
Then 28 years old, Randall argued that cannabis offered a treatment for his glaucoma that could potentially preserve his sight that other federally approved pharmaceutical medications could not. The judge agreed that the situation met the standards of a legal necessity.
The landmark 1976 ruling from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia gave advocates one of the first and most meaningful victories in the history of the federal government’s war on drugs, paving that path for future reforms that recognized the therapeutic benefits of cannabis and the importance of preserving civil liberties for patients who sought it out.
Randall didn’t stop there, though. Backed by the law of necessity, he went on to petition the federal government for legal access to the Schedule I plant—and he won that right, too. The government became legally bound to provide the patient with a supply of medical marijuana—hundreds of joints rolled into standardized units and delivered in a large tin.
He was later joined by other patients who were brought into the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) “Compassionate Investigational New Drug (IND) program. But the work didn’t stop there.
As remarkable as it might have been that federal officials had agreed to supply the patients with cannabis, justified as a research program that has since been discontinued, Randall committed to affecting comprehensive change for all patients who wanted cannabis as an alternative treatment option.
Naturally, his activism didn’t earn him any favors with the federal government. At one point, as he welcomed interviews with an eager, international media who’d followed the case, he received a tacit threat from President Jimmy Carter’s told drug adviser Peter Bourne, who warned Randall in 1977 that “publicity in your case has forced a consideration of tightening your supplies.”
The federal government was a salty dealer, but Randall ignored the message and kept pushing.
Today, Alice O’Leary Randall, a professor at Pacific College of Health & Science, doesn’t want that legacy to fade. Not just because it represents a fascinating chapter in this decades-long reform movement, but because she subscribes to the old adage: “Those who don’t know the past are condemned to repeat it.”
“I see a lot of people in the marijuana issue now that are, you know, they’re a little bit cocky. They think it’s solved,” Randall told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Friday. “It’s still Schedule I. And we still have people who are being denied medical access to cannabis.”
The other reason that she decided to curate this online library is because “so many people in this issue—not just my husband, but I can name dozens of other patients between 1976 and 1995 who literally gave the last good days of their lives trying to get people to understand that this drug should be available legally through prescription so that they could access it just like any other drug.”
“It’s really important to remember those people. A lot of a lot of big bucks are being made on the backs of those people,” she said.
Asked what she thought her husband would think about the marijuana policy landscape that’s evolved in the two decades since he passed, Randall said that he’d be “torn.”
On the one hand, “he’d be thrilled that there are literally millions of people in this country who are getting their certificates for medical need and being able to go to a dispensary—and the choice of products is absolutely wonderful.”
On the other, “he’d be really angry about the adult-use situation.” Its not that her Randall or her late husband opposed legalizing for adults outside of a medical context, but she said that he’d be upset to see the consolidation of medical and recreational market, with policies being driven by profit and not the needs of patients and consumers.
“In 1996, with Prop 215 [in California], he worried even then that, because he just felt that the people that were promoting it at that time, their intentions weren’t as pure as Robert would have liked them to be,” she said. “Bob worried that it was going to be leading to this situation that we’re in now, frankly. So he’d be torn. I think I think he’d really be torn.”
Randall will be releasing the documents—which include court records, media clips, letters and more—online over time as they’re digitized and annotated. She also put together what she described as complementary “monographs” that focus on specific topics like the “early days of the medical cannabis movement.”
Finding the documents proved more challenging than she’d expected, but the work has resulted in a detailed recounting of events that might otherwise have been lost to history. Those events offer critical lessons in advocacy that Randall hopes the next generation of reform leaders studies up on.
Her advice to that next generation? “Look to the past, read the history and find out how it is that you got to where you—find out how you got your job,” she said, laughing. You know, even 20 years ago, you wouldn’t find these jobs. And have respect for the people that came before you. That’s really that’s why I’ve undertaken this project. And there’s going to be a lot more coming.”
“It’s important to understand that the people that fought for medical cannabis in the 80s, they were just up against so much, and yet they didn’t stop,” Randall said. “They knew it was right. They always knew it was right. And that sense of righteousness really came through.”
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Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.