It's a story almost too weird to be believed, but it's true.
Every month for the past 35 years, the government has been sending Florida stockbroker Irvin Rosenfeld a tin can full of 300 joints for his chronic pain.
This strange situation has spotlighted the fact that, while parts of the government continue to claim marijuana isn't a viable medicine, other parts of the government have long known that it is. His was a rock-solid argument for legalization. If not for his story, told so well by Rosenfeld himself, there might not be legal cannabis shops opening on corners around the nation.
But the story could have been even weirder, and Rosenfeld nearly played a different role in American history.
Following a court decision 40 years ago in the case of Robert Randall — in which the government agreed to supply him with cannabis for his glaucoma — Rosenfeld told the government that nothing else besides marijuana helped the pain from his multiple congenital cartilaginous exotosis.
In fact, Rosenfeld neglected to mention that marijuana wasn't actually the most effective medicine for his bone disorder, another, more controversial drug was: LSD.
"As far as a pure analgesic, it's 10 times better," he says over the phone from his office in Florida. "It took away the pain completely — 100 percent. Marijuana takes it away 70 or 80 percent."
He was just experimenting with it for pain control, he emphasizes, he wasn't doing LSD for fun. And … it worked.
"I almost put in a protocol for LSD,” he continues. "Besides (LSD) being a great time, I didn't have any pain. I thought, if this thing is such a great painkiller, maybe I should try to get it legal."
Though he's given thousands of interviews in his lifetime, Rosenfeld, 62, almost never talks about his experiments with LSD — experiments that started and ended in 1971. He doesn't mention LSD once in his extremely entertaining and informative book, "My Medicine: How I Convinced the U.S. Government to Provide My Marijuana and Helped Launch a National Movement."
To be sure, LSD can be a seriously dangerous drug. Although Rosenfeld says he could still drive, go to class, and make the dean's list on LSD, it messed with his sleeping and eating habits. So he decided LSD wasn't workable on a daily basis as a pain med.
However, stories like Rosenfeld's are changing our picture of LSD. Increasing numbers of everyday people are telling us that LSD treats a range of maladies, from pre-menstrual cramps to spinal pain to cluster headaches, better than any other medicine, legal or illegal.
What if people like Rosenfeld had pressed for LSD's legality as a medicine 40 years ago? Would they have been mailing LSD to Rosenfeld all these years? We decided to ask the FDA.
"I couldn't speculate," says Michael Felberbaum, an FDA spokesperson. (He seemed slightly unprepared for the question.)
The program that allowed Rosenfeld and a few others to get marijuana from the federal government — the Compassionate Use Program — and could have, conceivably, let people use all kinds of drugs now believed to have positive effects, like medical mushrooms, medical ayahuasca, medical ibogaine or medical ketamine, ended in 1992. Basically, when Rosenfeld decided not to go for medical LSD, that door closed.
Rosenfeld is, right at this moment, sitting on a third-floor balcony at his office in Boca Raton, looking at palm trees, and burning down one of the 130,000 joints the government has given him — incidentally making him one of the most accomplished stoners of all time.
"It's a nice atmosphere to try and unwind and relax," he says on this 80 degree Florida day. "This job is very hectic." Coworkers come and go, talking of investment banking. "I'm one of the most hated people in the office," he says. "You know why? I won't share."
Rosenfeld is a talkative, open, excitable storyteller. As cool as Irv's story is, it's also clear that the government ain't that great a connect. It grows weak-ass weed at the University of Mississippi, mulches up the whole plant like some sort of noob, dries it out, then rolls it up in joints, and sends 300 joints a month — 8 ounces — to Irv in a tin can. It also sends 8 ounces to Elvy Musikka, a glaucoma patient in Oregon. He's tried other weed — it's almost always better: smoother, better tasting, and more potent.
"The government doesn't agree it's a medicine so they don't feel like they have to grow it very well," Rosenfeld says. "Compared to street marijuana, it's very low in THC. It doesn't taste very good. It tastes like a combination of old Mexican and Jamaican marijuana from the 70s."
Rosenfeld wants to be clear: even though the cannabis isn't fire, he's tight with Uncle Sam. "I am very appreciative of the federal government," he says. "I'm thankful for the government. I'm thankful to have what I have. It has kept me alive, and kept the tumors from growing."
Rosenfeld's problem is that his bones grow in ways they're not supposed to. His main medicine in the old days was Dilaudid, a powerful opioid. He was always on the lookout for alternatives. And, he says, "When you're in pain you'll try anything." Over about a six day period in 1971, he took hits of LSD that were "twice the size of a pinhead," perhaps 1/5th of a dose (although it's impossible to know). The world didn't go wavy and weird, as LSD does to some people. But the sleeping and eating problems were so disruptive he didn't think he could do it every day.
But if it were up to him, suffering people would have more leeway to try experimental drugs as cures, no matter how controversial.
"When someone has a debilitating disorder, and they've tried everything else, what's wrong with trying something new?" he says.
Was he the only medical patient experimenting with LSD? Maybe not. When, in 1975, the government raided the house of Robert Randall, the pioneer who paved the way for Rosenfeld, the government found, along with his pot plants, a few hits of LSD. Was he taking the LSD for his glaucoma? Rosenfeld says he doesn't know. Multiple attempts to reach Randall's widow, Alice, failed. One scientific paper suggests LSD wouldn't be a good treatment for glaucoma. Elvy Musikka, another patient who got medical weed from the government for her glaucoma, says she can't speak to whether LSD might help her ailment, too.
"I was lied to about LSD, just like I was lied to about all the other drugs," she says, also through a phone interview. "So I never had any idea it had any medical effects. I never tried it."
For now, marijuana is what's legal, not LSD.
In fact, Florida is a year or two away from having dispensaries.
But even after cannabis becomes more widely available in his state, Rosenfeld has no plans to switch dealers, and get his weed from Florida shop. Firstly, because he wants to be able to travel with weed anywhere, and his agreement with the fed lets him do that. And, secondly — and this is just a guess — we think he kind of likes his special place in American life, in American history.
"There are lots of medical marijuana patients now, but everyone else in the country has a 'recommendation' from their doctor for it," he says. "I'm one of one only two people in the U.S. who have a prescription."
Now that both patients live in states with medical marijuana, will the government stop giving Rosenfeld and Musikka marijuana?
"I don't know," says Felberbaum, spokesperson for the FDA, which helps administer the program. "We don't typically comment on [that drug program], or on specific patients."
It's overcast now in Florida. Irv, smoking his government weed on the work patio, inhales and exhales.
"I've smoked enough," he says. "Let's put this out, put the roach in my roach bag, and walk in."
He's off to broker stocks. Incidentally, he has suggestions for investments in companies that deal in — what else? — marijuana. Gonna grow better bud. More CBD. More THC. Fire.
To say it in street language: these companies could end up being the biggest dealer on the block. Not as big as the government, which will keep on slinging Prozac and antibiotics. But bigger, at least, in the world of marijuana, a world which used to consist almost completely of Irvin Rosenfeld, and now spans the country.
If things had gone differently, would the government be slinging LSD? Would there be medical LSD shops on every corner? Would Rosenfeld be a consultant for medical LSD, the way he's a consultant for medical marijuana now? Would he be giving investment advice for companies that develop LSD?
Who knows. It’s a strange world out there.