“It’s your health. It’s your life. You manage it; no one else can manage it for you,” Alberto says. He knows from personal experience: In 1989, he was diagnosed with HIV. In addition to his prescribed HIV medicine, he self-medicates with marijuana. He likes to smoke when working; certain strains of marijuana energize him and allow him to work long, concentrated hours. “It’s just another medicine,” he says. Plus, he points out, it doesn’t come with the same nasty side effects “chemical” medication does.
Alberto knows many people who have smoked to alleviate their medical symptoms, sometimes to dazzling effect. One man, diagnosed with MS, began to lose his vision. “One eye went like this and one eye went like that,” Alberto says, his fingers pointing in opposite directions. “He can’t drive, he can’t even walk without someone helping him… When he smokes, though, he’s able to see.” He filmed the man smoking medicinal marijuana with a vaporizer; a doctor was present. Ten minutes later, the doctor performed an eye exam. The man was able to clearly read the writing on the prescription bottle.
He prescribed cannabis to relieve Queen Victoria’s menstrual cramps
Documents espousing marijuana’s medical benefits first appeared in 2900 B.C. in China, but medicinal cannabis in Europe is indebted to one over-achieving Irishman. Born in 1809, Dr. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy invented the modern treatment for cholera, laid the first telegraph system in Asia, contributed inventions in underwater engineering, and effectively pioneered the use of medical cannabis in Europe. Inspired by the use of cannabis in Ayurvedic and Persian medicine, O’Shaughnessy conducted the first clinical trials of marijuana, treating rheumatism, hydrophobia, cholera, tetanus, and convulsions.
Influenced by O’Shaughnessy, Sir J. Russell Reynolds prescribed cannabis to relieve Queen Victoria’s menstrual cramps. “When pure and administered carefully, [cannabis] is one of the most valuable medicines we possess,” he wrote in 1890. But the widespread use of the syringe a few years later, which allowed drugs to dissolve quickly into a patient’s blood stream, ended medical marijuana’s popularity in Europe.
Following an international drugs conference in Geneva in 1928, marijuana was banned in the UK after allegations from the Egyptian delegation that the plant was as dangerous as opium and a threat to society. Hashish was already illegal in Egypt, where it was negatively associated with Sufis and the fellahin, urban and rural poor, who used it both recreationally and medicinally. “Hashish addicts,” delegate Mohammed El Guindy declared, “are useless derelicts.”
Between 1912 and 1953, multilateral drug control treaties were negotiated around the world. The United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs consolidated these in 1961. The convention classified marijuana at the same level as opiates and cocaine, Schedule I, as drugs “having strong addictive properties” and “a risk to public health.” While the UN permitted medical use, in 1969 the World Health Organization determined that “medical need for cannabis as such no longer exists.”