Column by Kevin M. Patten.
NOTE: Originally written just prior to Prop 19 in California
Montel Williams means business. He always has. His popular syndicated TV show which ran for 17 years was more or less the last real talk show in which he used his voice to connect real issues and real insight to an attentive public. There were no continual episodes in which loose women would plead desperately to find the father of their child, or an abundance of adulterers seen regularly on every other channel. Instead, topical, albeit somewhat sensitive issues, such as victims of warfare, abused women, persons with health problems, were on the forefront of his conversations, always with a depth and perspective unbeknownst to the audience. Today Montel continues his advocacy, widely renowned for his efforts in promoting a healthy lifestyle while also bringing awareness and charity to sufferers of Multiple Sclerosis through his MS Foundation, as well as being one of the most steadfast and most sincere proponents in helping our society to finally recognize the medicinal properties of marijuana, which has helped him manage his own MS diagnosis for over ten years.
“There has been study after study after study after study that has proven marijuana’s efficacy when it comes to MS and other diseases,” Montel tells me during a telephone interview. He’s never at a shortage of words, or facts, that showcase his conviction.
MW: …But MS in particularly. As a matter of fact, most recently, a California state-funded study that was completed at the University of San Diego just concluded unequivocally that marijuana helps reduce neuropathic pain and helps reduce some spasticity and pain related to neuropathy and MS. So I’m doing what, you know, if we had just paid attention along the way to every study that the Federal government has commissioned or accomplished, and paid attention to it . . . . This [illegality] is a legal joke for anybody with MS or other diseases.
KP: I see. Did you discover cannabis after your diagnosis, or how far afterwards did you . . . .
MW: You know, I will admit it one-hundred percent, when I was younger, I used marijuana socially and occasionally – till I was maybe 16, 17. [Then] I spent 22 years in the military and I was drug tested over and over and over in the military; so I put my uses on hold throughout that time, and then after I got out of the military, I was probably a casual – and by “casual,” I mean less than once or twice a month – user for maybe a couple years. (Montel then explained to me how he found out about his condition. He says that his neurologic pain came on from a bout – a single episode – which he says felt like his feet came on fire one day.)
. . . And they never went out. And I didn’t know what to do. I immediately started taking prescription medication, some really powerful pharmaceuticals – and I’m not going to say anything negative about them, pharmaceuticals work for some people – um . . . this did not help me, and my usage of those pharmaceuticals went so high that I started to become afraid, and so people said that marijuana can help. Especially with those twitches [that I have]. And I have really extreme night tremors. My leg twitches – not that Restless Leg Syndrome – I have twitching that is neuropathic blimps that are going on in my nervous system. Marijuana helps to calm that down. Then I started to realize that, it doesn’t take away my pain, but it makes it manageable, so on a scale of 1 to 10, sometimes if I’m sitting on a 5 ½ or a 6, it can bring my pain down to a 3 or 3½. [The pain] never goes away, but it makes me a contributing member of society.
KP: Good being a member of society again. Does it stagnate your condition, or does it curtail it a little bit, or is it just for pain?
MW: Marijuana has no efficacy in curing MS – let’s make sure we get this straight -- there are symptoms that it helps with. It helps with spasticity, with cramping; some people who have MS cramp up. I can go into a five or ten minute cramp while I’m sleeping, and cramp so hard that I wake up. What happens when I use marijuana – especially if I eat it before I go to sleep; that seems to give me this less-than-locking effect. If I eat it before I go to bed, I can sleep four or five hours without locking at all; if I don’t, then I’m kicking my wife out of bed.
KP: Okay, now, it’s not just for MS. Because I’m over here in California and I’ve interviewed people who . . . .
MW: Oh, no, I want to make sure we understand; there has been study after study after study that’s proven its efficacy not only when it comes to MS, but a lot of other illnesses . . . .
KP: Right . . . .
MW: . . . Anything that has to do with neuropathic or single degeneration, like spinal cord injury, who have phantom pains; with patients of AIDS or Wasting Disease. It also helps to settle the stomach for people who have cancer and are on chemotherapy.
KP: Or Crohn’s Disease also. I talked to someone who suffered from Crohn’s.
MW: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, eating it with Crohn’s really helps a lot too. If you can get it as an oil, it can help to coat the intestinal lining, I am told. There is now proof that it works with kids with A.D.H.D. . . . [even] some forms of autism. [While many activists are fighting for the recreational use of marijuana, Montel is certain that the substance is a powerful medication, and that it should be treated exactly as such.] Here’s the problem, you have a powerful medication, and it is a medication, let us not think otherwise in any way, shape or form – it is – and it should have been treated as such back in 1937 when it was made illegal . . . . And if we researched like we have for the past 100 years, by now we would have realized that there are probably about 60, 70, to 80 different anomalies that marijuana could work with, but instead we’ve decided to be as ignorant as we possibly can be.
KP: Absolutely. What do you think, though – 'cause you're probably out there more than me – are these patients, the ones who say “yes, marijuana really does help me,” are they getting the treatment they need and deserve? Or is the government really making significant strides in stopping the use of drugs?
MW: The whole issue is the most ridiculously ignorant issue that I think America has faced in the last, well, honestly since we’ve been a country. Let’s go back for a second: Marijuana has been a part of the American fabric since this country was born. Seventy percent of our forefathers grew marijuana and sold it. They grew it as hemp. This country was built with hemp. If we had not had hemp, we would not have had sails for ships, or ropes to pull those sails; or clothing in the colonial times. Hemp was one of the biggest cash crops of that time. We became so ignorant of the crop – post, the Civil War. Nobody even worried about it, and the only reason people got caught up in marijuana is because we were so caught up in opium. It’s amazing that we’ve come this far and haven’t gone anywhere.
(He then tells me about the first study ever done on marijuana, encouraging me to look it up. I did: In 1944, shortly after marijuana was made illegal, a study conducted by then-mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia – a fierce opponent of the ’37 Tax Act – came out and repudiated nearly everything that the Treasury Department had said about cannabis. That it did not, in fact, cause any significant harm.)
MW: [Expounding on the illegality] They thought it was something that only blacks and Latinos used more than anybody else. It wasn’t the fact that blacks and Latinos smoked it, it was the fact that a majority [of them] were here and were part of the work force, and not able to go into bars, not able to go and get whiskey – they were utilizing the crop off the field. Not only were they using it for the euphoria, they were using it for medical purposes also . . . . The study continued and said that marijuana is not going to be a threat to children, it’s something that’s not deviant . . . . This is back in 1944, and it said unequivocally that we should just be taxing it, and letting people use it. Now the truth is, after we’ve looked over the course of, now 90 years, I believe very strongly that marijuana is a drug. And we should treat it like one, without going through 30 [more] years of testing . . . . And the Federal Government has already tested it for 30 years, and has proven its efficacy. The federal government still dispenses marijuana.
KP: You had said that, and I had never read it before, that they give it out like ten times a year?
MW: No, no, no . . . sir. The Federal Government has had a program in place for 35 years, through the University of Mississippi, where every single month they dispense canisters of marijuana to now four patients – it started off with 20 patients – the four are left because the other 16 died . . . . Grown by the federal government, and paid for by your tax dollars.
(Montel says that under the first Bush Regime [my words!], George Herbert Walker was hit with the introduction of the AIDS epidemic, and decided to go ahead with a program called “Compassionate Use” to give marijuana to these patients. After 75,000 applications, they decided to cut it off after the first 20 or so. After only four years, they realized that, “Oh shit, a government that can legally do no harm, was distributing marijuana.”)
MW: They were sued, and were told that they couldn’t stop [giving it out]. So for 35 years, we’ve been doing it. So how ignorant is this: We have a government that grows it and sells it but locks other people up for doing the same.
KP: Oh my God. I wanted to ask you about the Drug War entirely, but let’s go back to the pharmaceutical aspect real quickly: It would seem that if there was this sort of wonder herb that helped people in all sorts of ways, then Big Pharma would lose profits from it being legal.
MW: Yeah, but they’d make the same profits off of pot. Look, let’s talk about this for a second . . . .
(From here, Montel went into a horrific real-life scenario. One in which a child can walk up to any counter in any store in America, and without any identification, purchase a product that would kill him instantly. “It’s one of the most deadly substances on the planet” he says, pronouncing the nightmare even more.)
MW: If you took it home, and ate about 20 of them, you’d drop dead. You know what it is?
KP: Actually, I don’t.
MW: It’s called Aspirin. It’s made from a tree. Called the willow tree. Right now today, there is not a doctor or scientist alive that can tell you how it works. They can tell you what it does, but not how it works . . . . If we can sell that, without knowing what it does, why can’t we have a doctor prescribe marijuana? It’s not the danger people have made it out to be. It’s time for the federal government to do what’s right. The President of the United States could change this entire insanity with the stroke of a pen. All he would have to do is change the schedule of marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug, to a Schedule 2 drug – of watch this – of heroin, of morphine, of opium. Because [those] drugs can still be prescribed by a doctor. (Not to correct Montel, but heroin is still a Schedule 1 drug, like marijuana – not suitable for any medical purposes under federal law.)
KP: Do you think we should just go down that route of prescription medication? Like over here we have a historic bill on the ballot that will legalize marijuana for full recreational use.
MW: You’re gonna lose it. And you’re gonna lose it big, and you’re going to lose it in such a way that it’s gonna embarrass the entire movement. It’s terrible for me to say, but I’m gonna say it, because here’s the bottom line: Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. And until that law is changed . . . . How is [the Feds] going to let one of the 50 states grow and dispense what would be an illegal substance for the other 49 states? It’s not going to happen. This law, you can pass it all you want, but I guarantee the federal government will step in and shut down any usage that way.
(This was depressing to hear, seeing as to how close we are. He did give me a glimmer of hope when he suggested that the federal government might allow it only if persons were allowed to grow and use it in their own home, and not engaging in any personal sales. At the same time, he said that we should take away the prohibition laws of marijuana, as we did with alcohol, and control a substance that, he feels, is a controlled substance. “I don’t feel this is a substance that should be sold at a 7-11 next to a bottle of beer.”) Let’s make sure we have it where someone can buy it with an ID, if you’re going to try and do it that way, but for me, I need this as a medication, and I’m not going to battle with the people who want it legal [for recreational use]. But I’ll tell you, I don’t think the California [initiative] will pass . . . . If the states had followed along with what they’re doing in New York right now, because I’ll tell you, I think the State of New York is gonna do it better than anybody.
KP: How come?
MW: The law works this way: First of all, they’re not going to let individuals grow pot. Period. If you want it, you have to go and get a prescription from a doctor, who has applied for a license at the State level, and you and the doctor will have to register . . . . Once the prescription is written, guess where you can get your prescription filled?
KP: Where’s that?
MW: Any licensed pharmacy. Any place that has a state license to hold and manage controlled substances . . . . Do I have to go to someone’s dirty backyard? Why can't I walk up to Duane Reed [a pharmacy chain on the East coast] and say “Dude, where’s my pot?” Let’s take this out of the playground, and put this into the real world, and all of a sudden the whole issue goes away. When you start making it a drug, people stop playing with it as if it is.
KP: You don’t think people will still be looking for recreational pot?
MW: Well, yeah. Go ahead . . . .
KP: Well, that’s my point, because over here, I can tell you Montel, the whole medical thing is a ruse. I walked in, paid $50, and he signed me out.
MW: You see, in New York, it’s not going to be that simple. You’re going to have to have a medical reason. Now, if anyone else wants to have it to where they can buy it at a liquor store, with a license, do it that way. [Montel made it rather clear that he is not an ardent supporter of recreational pot. While I disagreed, I respected that he was keeping it real. In fact, he says he’s been working very hard to formulate a company that will be nationwide, and will be able to cater to patients' needs.] I’m not playing. I’ve been doing this for ten years. I smoke pot every single day, several times throughout the day . . . . If you read General McCaffery’s study, who was the Drug Czar back in 1999, his report came out and said it helps people with illnesses like mine . . . . If you take a look at me in comparison with other people who have the same illness, my condition has not been in progression at the same rate as others.
(The last question I asked him was about the wars overseas. Having served in the Marines for 22 years, he should have an interesting thought . . . .)
MW: It’s a bigger question than that. We should really be asking what America’s role is in the future . . . . Every level of this government, from the Judicial branch to the Executive branch to the Legislative branch, from the Congress to the President, we can’t agree on what the direction of this country is . . . . How the hell can we set policy for the rest of the World? I’ll tell you this: I will support and defend the troops to my last dying breath. Period. That doesn’t mean I support the war, but I support them. Should we bring them home? My answer is absolutely yes.