This article is adapted from Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational and Scientific by Martin A. Lee
Tod Mikuriya, c.1960s
Tod Hiro Mikuriya was a man on a mission. At a time when the therapeutic use of marijuana had been abandoned in the United States, Mikuriya rediscovered the forgotten medical literature and brought it to the attention of physicians and scientists. The tall, handsome psychiatrist sought to remedy a historical injustice by fighting to restore cannabis to its proper place in the Western pharmacopeia. Almost singlehandedly, he kept the issue alive while very few Americans — even cannabis smokers — were aware of marijuana’s medicinal history.
Born in 1933 and raised on a small farm in eastern Pennsylvania by his German mother and his Japanese father, Mikuriya experienced double-whammy bigotry as a child during World War II. Although his father, a convert to Christianity, worked at a defense plant, the Mikuriyas were visited by the FBI and threatened with confinement in an internment camp. “My sister and I were shot at, beaten up, spat upon, called names. The local kids chased us like a pack of dogs,” Mikuriya recalled. “I realized that people could be brainwashed and trained to hate. The same thing has been done with marijuana and marijuana users. I learned to fight back.”
Mikuriya earned his medical degree from Temple University in Philadelphia. His interest in marijuana was piqued when he perused an unassigned chapter in a pharmacology textbook, which included a brief reference to the curative qualities of cannabis. A voracious reader, he scoured the library at Temple for more information about the herb. During a break between semesters in the summer of 1959, he traveled to Mexico and purchased a small quantity of mota from a street dealer. He smoked his first reefer after watching his guide take a few puffs “just to see that it wasn’t poison,” as Mikuriya later explained.
Mikuriya in Morocco
In August 1966, Mikuriya traveled to North Africa to investigate what proved to be spurious claims of kif-induced madness. (Kif — pronounced “keef ”— is a potent form of hashish powder.) Dr. Mikuriya wrote articles for several academic journals on traditional kif-smoking communities in the rugged Rif Mountains of Morocco. “They had never seen any Westerners there before,” Mikuriya reported. He shared pipefuls of kif with Berber tribesmen, who had resisted previous attempts by the French colonial government to stamp out cannabis smoking. Mikuriya dined with the local chief of police who stated, “My policy is, if it’s under two kilograms, it’s for their own personal use.”
After visiting Morocco, Dr. Mikuriya returned to his job as director of the New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute Drug Addiction Treatment Center, a detox facility for heroin and barbiturate addicts, in Princeton. A casual cannabis smoker, Mikuriya had never ingested an oral preparation of Indian hemp, so when opportunity knocked he volunteered for an experiment conducted by the Princeton-based researcher Carl C. Pfeiffer. Hooked up to various instruments in Pfeiffer’s laboratory, Mikuriya was given low-, medium-, and high-dose hashish extracts. His brain waves, blood pressure, and pulse were monitored through each session. Mikuriya later learned that Pfeiffer had been secretly contracted by the CIA to undertake mind-control experiments involving LSD and other psychoactive drugs.
Mikuriya’s respectful relations with Pfeiffer and other well-connected drug scientists at Princeton helped smooth the way for his next job. In July 1967, Mikuriya was recruited by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to direct its marijuana research program. He was rather idealistic at the time, thinking that all he needed to do to reform government policy was to make a fair and rational case for marijuana as a safe and effective medicine.
At the NIMH
While employed by the NIMH, Dr. Mikuriya undertook a thorough survey of all the scientific and medical reports on cannabis that were archived at the National Library of Medicine. He discovered a long-ignored copy of the seminal 1838 study of Indian hemp by Sir William O’Shaughnessy, the Irish physician who introduced “gunjah” to Western medicine. Mikuriya found various papers that confirmed O’Shaughnessy’s findings and reported several additional uses for cannabis. He combed through 3,281 pages — all nine volumes — of the 1893–94 Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report, which indicated that cannabis had been used as a therapeutic substance on the Indian subcontinent for millennia. Mikuriya learned that cannabis tinctures were commonly prescribed for a wide range of maladies in the United States, Britain, and France during the nineteenth century. But since the U.S. government effectively outlawed marijuana in 1937, the American medical establishment had forgotten what was once known about the herb’s valuable therapeutic attributes.
Mikuriya soon became mired in bureaucratic quicksand at the NIMH, which authorized research that sought only to justify the total prohibition of cannabis. “The government wanted bad things found out about marijuana,” Mikuriya stated, “and I didn’t find them.” Away from the office, he smoked cannabist with several NIMH staffers, who were sympathetic to Mikuriya’s views. But few had the temerity to risk their careers by offending the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. “One also had to worry about antediluvian congressional types that had it in their power to smite us mightily where it hurt — right in our appropriation,” explained Mikuriya, who saw that the game was rigged. Every marijuana-related grant proposal was screened by a series of squeamish, politically correct committees that hewed to an “ethic of inoffensiveness.” Therapeutic-oriented research was not on the agenda.
Mikuriya crafted a detailed position paper on marijuana calling for major policy changes. He emphasized that cannabis was not a dangerous drug and he urged the U.S. government to fully research its versatile medicinal properties. But Mikuriya’s superiors at the NIMH were less interested in marijuana’s therapeutic applications than in its impact on wayward Sixties youth. He was dispatched to Northern California on an undercover operation. “I was assigned by the NIMH to spy on hippie communes to find out what influence marijuana was having on this subculture. My colleagues regarded these communes as the potential end of civilization,” said Mikuriya, who added: “If you think a hippie commune is strange, you ought to work for the federal government. The hippies ask, ‘What’s your [astrological] sign?’ Within the government, they ask, ‘What’s your GS [government service] level?’ ”
Mikuriya realized that as far as cannabis was concerned he had more in common with the reefer rebels he visited in Northern California than with the “repressed bureaucrats” who debriefed him when he returned from the West Coast. The NIMH shirts “seemed obsessed with the image of hippie chicks without bras,” Mikuriya recalled. After less than four months in the belly of the beast, Mikuriya went native, so to speak, and resigned from the NIMH.
Not long after he defected from the NIMH, Mikuriya was contacted by Dr. Van Sim, medical director of the U.S. Army’s secret chemical-warfare research program at Edgewood Arsenal during the late 1950s and 1960s. Sim said he wanted to get the army’s THC research declassified because of the medically useful properties the Chemical Corps had inadvertently discovered. While searching for an antidote to nerve gas, the Edgewood crew had stumbled upon marijuana’s powerful anticonvulsive properties. Sim concluded that cannabis “is probably the most potent anti-epileptic known to medicine.” But the army studies were never declassified due to bureaucratic inertia and the hostile official climate toward marijuana.
Mikuriya moved to Berkeley, California, and went into private practice as a psychiatrist. In March 1968, he participated in a panel discussion, “Current Problems of Drug Abuse,” hosted by the California Medical Association. He provided an overview of the medicinal history of cannabis, citing examples from ancient China, India, Greece, and the Muslim world, along with recent scientific studies conducted outside the United States, which found that THC controlled epileptic seizures in children more effectively than approved pharmaceuticals (that had serious side effects). “Because cannabis does not lead to physical dependence, it was found to be superior to opiates for a number of therapeutic purposes,” he stated. Mikuriya also noted favorable results in treating opiate addiction withdrawal and alcoholism with cannabis.
An early proponent of what would become known as “harm reduction,” Mikuriya advocated the use of nonlethal, nonaddictive marijuana as a substitute for heroin or booze. In 1970, he published a report in Medical Times about a patient who weaned herself from alcohol by smoking cannabis. After medical marijuana was relegalized in California, Mikuriya treated hundreds of alcoholic patients who got their lives back after switching to cannabis. In general, he found that an increase in the consumption of marijuana correlated with a reduction in the consumption of alcohol. As far as Mikuriya was concerned, marijuana was not a gateway drug to addiction — it was an exit drug.
Mikuriya, meanwhile, had compiled a definitive bibliography of scholarly writings on every aspect of cannabis. The most important articles were included in Marijuana: Medical Papers, a groundbreaking anthology edited by Mikuriya, who wrote in the introduction: “In light of such assets as minimal toxicity, no buildup of tolerance, no physical dependence, and minimal autonomic disturbance, immediate major clinical investigation of cannabis preparations is indicated in the management of pain, chronic neurologic diseases, convulsive disorders, migraine headache, anorexia, mental illness, and bacterial infections.” It was intended as an “everything-you-never-learned-in-med school” type of textbook for fellow physicians.
The publication of Mikuriya’s compendium in 1973 marked the beginning of the modern renaissance of medicinal cannabis. For several years, he would carry on his shoulders a nascent social movement that subsequently grew into a widespread populist revolt against conventional medicine and extraconstitutional authority.
Martin A. Lee is the director of Project CBD and the author of Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana — Medical, Recreational and Scientific.
Tod Mikuriya photo credit: National Library of Medicine.
Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.