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The Judge Who Recognized Marijuana Use as a 'Medical Necessity'

Judge James A. Washington’s 1976 decision was far ahead of its time.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Matthew Benoit


The fact that people of color are punished disproportionately by drug prohibition is now widely acknowledged in the United States. Just last week the editor of the New Yorker quoted President Obama stating: “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do. And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.”

Still unacknowledged, however, is the leading role that African Americans have played not as victims but as active opponents of prohibition. This being Black History Month, O’Shaughnessy’s is honoring some men and women whose contributions to the abolitionist cause have been underappreciated or overlooked. Starting with....

James A. Washington

A decision by Washington DC Superior Court Judge James A. Washington in the case of United States v. Robert Randall led to the federal government creating an “investigational new drug protocol” back in the Jimmy Carter era. The case was tried over the course of two days in July, 1976. Here are the facts as recounted by Judge Washington:

“The government has established, and the defendant has not attempted to refute, that on or about August 21, 1975, police officers in the course of their normal duties noticed what they believed to be cannabis plants on the rear porch and in the front windows of defendant’s residence... A warrant was issued and a search of the premises conducted on August 23, 1975. Several plants and a dried substance later identified as marijuana were seized and defendant’s arrest followed.

“At trial, the government’s evidence demonstrated that the substance seized at defendant’s residence was marijuana, possession of which is prohibited by D.C. Code Section 33-402, thus establishing all the elements of the crime charged. Moreover, defendant admitted that he had grown the marijuana in question and that it was intended for his personal consumption. He further testified that he knew that possession and use of this narcotic are restricted by law.

“Defendant nonetheless sought to exonerate himself through the presentation of evidence tending to show that his possession of the marijuana was the result of medical necessity. Over government objection of irrelevancy, defendant testified that he had begun experiencing visual difficulties as an undergraduate in the late 1960s. In 1972 a local opthalmologist, Dr. Benjamin Fine, diagnosed defendant’s condition as glaucoma, a disease of the eye characterized by the excessive accumulation of fluid causing increased intraocular pressure (IOP), distorted vision and, ultimately, blindness. 

“Dr. Fine treated defendant with an array of conventional drugs, which stabilized the intraocular pressure when first introduced but became increasingly ineffective as defendant’s tolerance increased. By 1974, defendant’s IOP could no longer be controlled by these medicines, and the disease had progressed to the point where defendant had suffered the complte loss of sight in his right eye and considerable impairment of vision in the left. 

“Despite the ineffectiveness of traditional treatments, defendant during this period nonetheless achieved some relief through the inhalation of marijuana smoke. Fearing the legal consequences, defendant did not inform Dr. Fine of his discovery, but after his arrest defendant participated in an experimental program being conducted by opthalmologist Dr. Robert Hepler under the auspices of the United States Government. 

“Dr. Hepler testified that his examination of the defendant revealed that treatment with conventional medications was ineffective, and also that surgery, while offering some hope of preserving the vision which remained to defendant, also carried significant risks of immediate blindness. The results of the experimental program indicated that the ingestion of marijuana smoke had a beneficial effect on defendant’s condition, normalizing intraocular pressure and lessening visual distortions.”

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