Dr. Tod Mikuriya was a critical force in the successful and ground-breaking effort to legalize medical marijuana in California in the 1990s. Now his papers are available to researchers through a newly archived collection at the National Library of Medicine.
The Berkeley psychiatrist, who died in 2007, was hailed as the grandfather of the medical marijuana movement, backing up the activists with unimpeachable scholarly chops to the rage of the Drug War establishment. It was hard to assail his credibility, as he had actually headed up the National Institute of Health’s cannabis research program in the 1960s before defecting to the side of the people being studied, so to speak.
An ‘Inappropriate Attack of Curiosity’
Mikuriya was born in a rural part of
Pennsylvania’s Bucks County in 1933, to mixed German and Japanese immigrant
stock. This obviously made him the target of prejudice during his childhood in
World War II, an experience to which he would later attribute his rebellious
Mikuriya received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Reed College in Oregon in 1956, before serving a medic in the Army. He then went to medical school at Philadelphia’s Temple University, where the turning point in his life occurred.
As he would years later relate to video-journalist Ruby Dunes on the sidelines of a cannabis conference in Santa Barbara, in 1959 Mikuriya was “struck by an inappropriate attack of curiosity” after reading an unassigned chapter in a pharmacology textbook that mentioned the widespread medicinal use of cannabis in the United States before it was outlawed in 1937.
He was sufficiently intrigued that on summer break between semesters that year, he overcame his ingrained fear and traveled to Mexico to seek the stuff out, buying a small quantity from a street-dealer. Nothing would ever be the same for him.
In 1966, Mikuriya began directing the drug addiction treatment center of the New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute, at Princeton. That same year, he travelled to Morocco’s hashish heartland of the Rif Mountains, where he smoked kif with Berber tribesman who had resisted French colonial efforts to stamp out cannabis smoking.
It was also during this period that he discovered and immersed himself in the works of Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, the Irish physician who researched the long tradition of medicinal use of cannabis in India in the 19th century. Mikuriya came to view O’Shaugnessy as a “personal hero.”
Mikuriya was also among the first scholars to re-explore the findings of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report, the 1894 study ordered by British colonial authorities to examine the supposed cannabis problem in the subcontinent, which instead determined that use is “either harmless or even beneficial.”
In 1967, Mikuriya became a researcher at the Center for Narcotics & Drug Abuse Studies of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), itself a division of the National Institutes of Health. This agency was the predecessor of today’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). There, he headed up what he would later call the government’s “first overground cannabis research program.” (He would learn there was a “concurrent secret study” going on at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, linked to the CIA’s search for truth serums and psychotropic warfare agents.)
He was dispatched to California for the study, to observe the habits of the hippies who were then bursting upon the scene. But as Martin Lee writes in his book “Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana,” “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.”
In 1968, Mikuriya stepped down from his NIMH position and moved to Berkeley, where he took up a private psychiatric practice. The most important work of his life was about to begin.
Intellectual Force Behind Medical Marijuana Push
As this movement began to take off in California amid the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Mikuriya came to be seen as the intellectual prowess behind the activist efforts.
San Francisco’s cannabis crusader Dennis Peron was viewed as the key architect of Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot measure that made medical marijuana legal in California, but it was Mikuriya who helped draft the text. If Peron was the father of the medical marijuana movement, Mikuriya was its grandfather, providing guidance behind the scenes.
After the passage of 215, he founded Mikuriya Medical Practice, which lives on today and touts itself as “California’s original medical marijuana consultation service.” During this period, he was writing numerous medical marijuana recommendations for patients every day. He was fondly known to his following as “Dr. Tod.”
In the following years, he would found the California Cannabis Research Medical Group and its latter offshoot, the Society of Cannabis Clinicians.
But his open stance also attracted unwelcome if inevitable attention from the authorities. President Bill Clinton’s hardline drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, publicly derided Mikuriya’s medical practice and advocacy as “the Cheech and Chong show.”
Finally, in 2000, the Medical Board of California accused Mikuriya of unprofessional conduct for allegedly failing to conduct proper physical examinations on 16 patients for whom he had recommended cannabis. The case was based on the testimony of undercover agents, including police. He would tell the medical board at his disciplinary hearing, “Never before had a fake witness infiltrated my practice and created a fraudulent medical record. It’s most upsetting.”
None of his legitimate patients complained about his conduct — on the contrary, several testified to the Medical Board in his defense.
In 2004, the Medical Board gave Mikuriya five years’ probation and a $75,000 fine. He appealed the ruling, and was allowed to continue practicing under the supervision of the state-appointed monitor.
Mikuriya died of cancer in May 2007. His obituary in the New York Times noted that he was reported to have recommended cannabis for nearly 9,000 patients.
And he was quite out of the closet about his own use. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 2004, “He willingly acknowledges, unlike most of his peers in cannabis consulting, that he does indeed smoke pot, mostly in the morning with his coffee.”
As Mikuriya told Ruby Dunes in the interview the year before he died, “Cannabis is far less dangers than most any other medication you can think of, especially when dealing with chronic conditions. Cannabis should be looked on as a first-line medication, instead of it being something that you try when you give up on all the conventional treatments.”
TELL US, do you consider cannabis a first-line medication?