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Josh: A Reagan-Era MMJ Miracle 30 Years Later

Medical Marijuana

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Josh: A Reagan-Era MMJ Miracle 30 Years Later

Illustration by Daniel Garcia

Josh: A Reagan-Era MMJ Miracle 30 Years Later

A child plays a role in a historic hearing concerning the potential to reschedule cannabis. We revisit his story three decades later.

Today’s cannabis activists are well aware of children who require medical cannabis, usually for rare forms of pediatric epilepsy. But in the earliest days of state-level medical cannabis decriminalization, there was Josh Andrews, a 3-year-old with Wilms’ tumor cancer.

It was November 1980 and Ronald Reagan had just been elected president. Meanwhile, in Idaho, a young couple with two small boys were about to see their world turned upside down.

Josh, their oldest, complained of a stomach ache, so his mother Janet bundled him off to the pediatrician thinking it was a “bug” or maybe just gas. How could she know that by nightfall she and her husband Jack would be driving to the hospital in Spokane, Washington to see the only pediatric oncologist for miles?

The cancer diagnosis was confirmed with exploratory surgery and the surgeon removed Josh’s right kidney along with a 2.8-pound tumor. The doctor also discovered the child’s abdomen was “packed with cancer,” and Josh had his first chemotherapy treatment on the operating table.

Over the next four weeks, the chemo took its toll; Josh’s weight collapsed from 45 pounds to 27. He was unable to eat or keep any food down. The prescribed anti-nausea drugs did nothing for him and by December Josh was so dreadfully ill that even he began to ask the obvious question — “Am I going to die?”

Then Janet’s stepmother sent her an article about cancer patients using marijuana to stop the nausea and vomiting. Such articles were appearing more and more throughout the country: It was 1980 and in the preceding three years there had been a phenomenal spurt in state laws that acknowledged the medical value of cannabis and tried to establish statewide programs of research — programs that were blocked by the federal government.

Washington was one of more than 30 states that had this type of law, but that didn’t help Josh — or anyone else in the state. Even if the program had been fully operational (which never happened), Josh would have been too young to qualify.

Janet and Jack were furious at this news — Josh was already on all kinds of experimental chemo drugs; why not cannabis? So they did what any rational parent would; they procured marijuana and Janet began learning how to bake cookies laced with cannabis.

“The first batch was really bad,” she said with a laugh. “But they worked!”

The results were “miraculous.” While other children on the cancer ward vomited into buckets, Josh would ride his tricycle up and down the halls.

“When your kid is riding a tricycle while his other hospital buddies are hooked up to IV needles, their heads hung over vomiting buckets, you don’t need a federal agency to tell you marijuana is effective,” she said. “The evidence is in front of you, so stark it cannot be ignored.”

After many months, Josh’s condition finally stabilized and Janet started looking for a place to channel her anger at a system that would deny her son the one drug that kept him alive. She called NORML looking for help and was referred to the newly formed Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics, founded by Robert C. Randall and myself in 1981.

Janet joined the Alliance advisory board and provided testimony in the historic DEA rescheduling hearings before Judge Francis Young in the late 1980s. The judge was clearly moved by Josh’s story and extensively quoted Janet’s affidavit in his decision that cannabis should be re-scheduled.

In the 30 years since Judge Young’s decision much has happened: Josh beat his cancer and the Andrews family resumed their lives. I lost touch with them, but frequently thought about the little boy riding his tricycle on the pediatric cancer ward and wondered what had happened to Josh.

So, with the help of social media, I located Josh and Janet.

Josh is now 40 years old, a father of one and stepfather to four. He is a union plumber and pipe fitter. He remembers little of his treatment days but says, “I don’t like hospitals.”

He does recall the cannabis cookies and tea.

“They weren’t very good,” he says with a chuckle that is quickly amplified by the laughter of his mother and father. He has little interest in cannabis and never used the drug while in his teens.

Did cannabis cure Josh? His parents don’t think so and it is doubtful that Josh received enough cannabis to have any effect on the cancer tumors. But Janet and Jack are adamant that cannabis saved the life of their son.

“Without marijuana, Josh would never have completed the chemo and the chemo killed the cancer,” Jack says.

When asked why cannabis is still illegal federally, Janet offers a simple explanation.

“[Cannabis] is being legislated by people who have no understanding,” she says. “If they had ever been through it or seen someone….”

Her voice trails off, lost in the emotion of her memories, but then she looks at her grown son Josh and smiles.

Originally published in Issue 28 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE

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