Weed Warriors: Robert C. Randall, The Godfather Of Legal Weed

Here’s a short and probably incomplete list of people who owe Robert C. Randall a massive debt of gratitude:

  • People who use weed legally to alleviate chronic pain
  • People who use weed legally to alleviate the symptoms of chemotherapy
  • People who use weed legally to manage anxiety disorders
  • People who use weed legally to combat depression
  • People who use weed legally for any medical or therapeutic purpose
  • People who use weed legally to relax
  • People who use weed legally to have fun
  • People who use weed legally for literally any reason they want.

If every journey begins with a single step, in the case of marijuana legalization that step was taken by Randall. And it was a doozy. 

But let’s start at the beginning, why don’t we: Robert Randall was born in Sarasota, Florida in 1948. From a weed activism perspective, nothing much happened in Randall’s live until he was 19 years old and a student at the University of South Florida, when he tried weed for the first time. He liked it! But eventually he finished school, moved to Washington DC, and left weed behind to follow his career – he’d hoped to become a political speechwriter.

Nothing happened, again, for a couple of years – except a persistent vision problem that kept bothering him into his twenties. At 24, he was diagnosed with advanced glaucoma – a disease that damages the optic nerve, causes vision loss, and can result in tremendous eye pain and headaches. By 30, he would be blind. 

He couldn’t cure his glaucoma – it’s only treatable, not curable. But what he did do, just a few months after his diagnosis, was discover that marijuana could alleviate his symptoms. It was a eureka moment for him – as he was hanging out and smoking weed with some friends, he looked out the window to discover that the characteristic haloes around street lights, a familiar symptom of his illness, had vanished. 

He’d taken drugs before to alleviate his system, but they’d carried with them a serious set of side effects: Back pain. Chronic fatigue. Kidney damage. And guess what? They weren’t doing anything to maintain his eyesight. He was just trading one set of horrible symptoms for another. 

But the weed – the weed worked. He didn’t tell his doctor; he only told his wife. And he tried it again, and again, to make sure his hypothesis was correct: Weed solved his symptoms. 

Weed was also, of course, illegal at every level. It was still the 1970s. Everyone had weed, but nobody could get a prescription for it, exactly. So the best medicine for Robert Randall’s chronic condition was one he could be jailed for purchasing, owning or using.

And that’s exactly what happened – almost. In 1975 Randall and his wife Alice were busted for growing their own marijuana. But they discovered an extremely useful bit of information: The US government was researching the efficacy of cannabis as a treatment for (get ready) glaucoma. Randall engaged in his own study with the researchers, and learned that the marijuana treatment could prevent him from going blind. 

So he went to DC Superior court. He claimed that (a) his glaucoma was not his fault – as in, his glaucoma hadn’t stemmed from any kind of lifestyle choice he’d made; (b) that current methods of dealing with it were ineffective; and (c) that the pain he was trying to avoid was greater than his crime of growing and using marijuana.

That logic… doesn’t really hold up, does it? First off, it doesn’t exactly seem morally equitable to say that someone only deserves relief from pain they didn’t somehow, like, bring on themselves? And what exactly is the exchange rate between growing weed and being a random victim of severe eye disease? Anyway: He won the case and got his charges thrown out. And while that was happening, his lawyers worked with the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that he’d be given ten joints per day to alleviate his symptoms.

So in 1976, Randall became the first American to be legally permitted to grow, possess and consume his own cannabis. The Boston College Law Review called Randall’s case “the first successful articulation of the medical necessity defense in the history of the common law, and indeed, the first case to extend the necessity defense to the crimes of possession or cultivation of marijuana.” 

It would change the game forever – but it wouldn’t be easy and it wouldn’t happen overnight. 

In fact, it would be about two more decades before California would pass, by ballot initiative, Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act. Before ’96, Randall was the only person in the United States who could legally smoke weed. By the time Beavis and Butt-Head Do America was in theaters, Sunshine State residents could legally get prescriptions for weed. In later years, California (and other states) would open up broader and broader markets for legal weed, expanding its medical marijuana program and eventually making recreational weed use legal as well. 

Randall died on June 2, 2001, at his home in Sarasota. He had AIDS. But before his death, he remained a tireless and vocal proponent of medical marijuana, testifying in courtrooms and statehouses across America. He also founded the Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics, an organization supporting medical weed that still exists today. And he worked – unsuccessfully, in the end – to get AIDS patients to join the same federal program that provided him with cannabis. 

Today, Robert Randall’s legacy is felt by every patient whose glaucoma, chronic pain, rheumatoid arthritis or colitis is alleviated by pot. It’s felt by every depression or anxiety sufferer who finds that the perfect combination of CBD and THC can calm the mental storms.

Pour out some bongwater for Robert C. Randall, the father of medical marijuana. 

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