Tod Mikuriya

Savior of Prop. 215: Tod Mikuriya, America’s First Medical Marijuana Doctor

With the recent death of the father of medical marijuana Dennis Peron, we eulogized the San Francisco activist and remembered all the good he’d done for our cannabis community. Peron led the successful campaign to pass California’s Proposition 215 in 1996, the nation’s first comprehensive medical marijuana law and the precursor for all cannabis legalization since.

However, Peron wasn’t alone in his activism. Another marijuana hero assisted him in creating and promoting Prop. 215, and in making sure medical marijuana patients benefited from the law after it passed. His name was Dr. Tod Hiro Mikuriya, the Bay Area physician who for several years was the only legitimate doctor who helped Californians get the medical marijuana recommendation required by Prop. 215.

Mikuriya, who died in 2007, worked almost every day of the year, often up to 10 hours a day, at his Berkeley medical office. During his 10 years as a medical marijuana doctor, he provided Prop. 215 recommendations to nearly 10,000 patients.

Why were other doctors at first so afraid to join Mikuriya in helping medical marijuana patients?

Let’s start with the reality that back then, federal and state governments, the American Medical Association, state medical organizations, law enforcement, and state medical licensing agencies universally opposed cannabis. As soon as Prop. 215 passed, these organizations made it clear to physicians they’d be penalized if they gave out medical marijuana recommendations. Doctors were threatened with arrest, imprisonment, and loss of their medical and prescription licenses.

This attack on cannabis-friendly medical professionals first occurred during the Bill Clinton presidency. Clinton and his wife Hillary were among the army of politicians from both major political parties who campaigned against Prop. 215 before it passed, and who vowed to defy the will of California voters and sabotage Prop. 215 after its successful passage.

The Clinton administration attempted to officially block doctors from talking to patients about medical marijuana. When that tactic failed (because it infringed upon doctors’ rights to free speech), President Clinton threatened those same doctors with federal prosecution for alleged violations of the Controlled Substances Act.

Federal courts ultimately blocked Clinton from censoring or harming the careers of cannabis-friendly medicos, but officials and medical licensing agencies continued harassing these physicians — and in some states are still doing it.

Interestingly, Hillary Clinton lost crucial votes during the primaries and general election in the 2016 presidential race because she’s long been a reefer madness ant-drug warrior. She opposed federal decriminalization, and during the 2016 campaign, refused to offer unqualified support for state marijuana legalization.

Her rival political candidate Bernie Sanders, however, has long supported total federal marijuana decriminalization and fully supports state marijuana legalization.

When First I Found The Kind Weed Doctor

In 1997, as a California resident with medical problems, I spoke with half a dozen physicians after Prop. 215 became law, asking them to give me a medical marijuana recommendation. I had serious conditions of the type medical marijuana is ideal to treat, but these physicians were afraid to even meet with me to talk about it.

One physician asked if I was an undercover law enforcement officer or an agent of the California Medical Association trying to set them up and bust them for saying something favorable about cannabis. He explained that many doctors had experienced that kind of undercover chicanery already, and were justifiably paranoid.

Finally, I asked Peron how to find a doctor who recommends marijuana. “You have to see Tod,” Peron insisted, giving me a business card for Mikuriya. “He’s the only doctor who has the guts to help us.”

At the time, I was growing marijuana in California’s Emerald Triangle, and it was a long, arduous drive to Mikuriya’s Berkeley office. I knew nothing about him other than what Peron had told me, which is that Dr. Mikuriya was a brilliant physician and a fierce drug war opponent who was, at the time, the only option for patients seeking Prop. 215 recommendations.

While waiting in Mikuriya’s office for our appointment to begin, I studied his memorabilia and realized he was far more than a doctor who recommended medical marijuana. He was also an esteemed cannabis historian and scholar, with a statured professional and academic biography.

Mikuriya had been director of marijuana research for the National Institute of Mental Health Center for Narcotics and Drug Abuse Studies in the 1960s. His tenure led him to unearth obscure, often suppressed medical and cultural cannabis research dating back to the early 1800s, much of it contained in the National Library of Medicine.

Mikuriya spent many years studying and organizing these rare and mostly unknown materials, which he published in 1972 as the book Marijuana Medical Papers 1839–1972.

I found a copy of the tome in his waiting room, and was fascinated to read about the hidden history of medical marijuana. Remember, I was looking at this archival research book more than 20 years ago, when few people believed marijuana actually had any medical usefulness.

Even most of us who sought Prop. 215 registration and protection viewed the medical marijuana program as nothing more than a cover for “recreational” use of marijuana, sort of like a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The first thing I did when Mikuriya started our consultation session was ask him if I could buy a signed copy of his book. Anybody who’s interested in marijuana should get Marijuana Medical Papers.

Check out the below clip of Mikuriya talking cannabis, psychiatry and Big Pharm, courtesy of RestoreHemp:

Expert Advice On Using Medical Cannabis

Compared to all the other doctors I’d been to, Mikuriya was a genius and a saint. Although he was a trained psychiatrist, he knew more about physical health and illness than any physician I’d ever met. Indeed, he was an erudite, sophisticated, urbane, witty, compassionate healer.

I was his last appointment of the day, and was immensely fortunate, honored and grateful when he invited me back to his home so we could talk more about medical marijuana, and so I could view his cannabis history artifact collection.

Mikuriya’s house contained a veritable museum of historical cannabis items, such as legal cannabis medicine bottles from the 1800s; antique newspapers advertising cannabis medicines for children and adults; cannabis smoking devices; and obscure, centuries-old original manuscripts in which eminent British and French scientists, doctors, authors and artists discussed medical marijuana use across the world, particularly in India and the Orient.

One of the refreshing differences between Mikuriya and all the other doctors I’d ever met was he sincerely cared about me as a person, and wanted me to have ultimate health and happiness.

The other doctors I’d been to spent no time with me, didn’t listen to my concerns, and were willing only to suggest pharmaceutical drugs or surgery as my options. They had outdated ideas about marijuana, and refused to consider its medical usefulness.

Dr. Mikuriya and I spent a long time talking about the medical conditions I wanted cannabis for, which included depression and chronic pain. One thing I’ll always remember is that his explanation of depression was far more enlightened and comprehensive than current ways of thinking about and treating that familiar, dreadful feeling of desolation.

For one thing, he said depression isn’t solely the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain that has to be treated by chemical pharmaceutical antidepressants. Rather, he described the “chemical depression theory” as a claim lacking medical proof, promulgated by what he called the “chemical psychiatry” industry.

A depressed person may have insufficient levels of dopamine and serotonin, Mikuriya explained, and using chemical pharmaceuticals might increase those levels, while at the same time having severe side effects. Some people feel better because of antidepressants, but others feel worse, he noted.

Mikuriya explained the reason for why mood-related neurotransmitter levels are low can be found in examining the feedback loop involving a person’s physiologic responses to their environment and life, and their brain chemistry.

He said that far from being solely a brain chemical problem, depression is often a rational, evolutionarily programmed response to a severely unsatisfactory and unhealthy social, emotional and physical environment.

Depression is like when the “check oil” light is illuminated on your car’s dashboard, he explained. It’s a psychological warning mechanism telling you to evaluate your life circumstances and make changes.

He said his research showed that many depressed people lack close, positive relationships with a loyal and helpful lover, family and friends, don’t have meaningful, fulfilling employment, are justifiably worried about finances and their economic future, live in places with extreme levels of noise, traffic, crime, pollution and other negative factors, and were otherwise in a “bad physical or emotional habitat zone.”

In life circumstances of high stress, loneliness, lack of purpose, alienation, loss and fear, he explained, depression is a natural warning sign that should lead the sufferer to change social structures, environment and lifestyle choices.

Mikuriya acknowledged that, for some consumers, marijuana masks depression and makes them feel temporarily better while they’re high, Plus, cannabis is much safer than antidepressants, many of which come with FDA “black box warnings” because they can create more psychological problems than they solve.

He said some types of cannabis are also very useful for mitigating stress disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

However, cannabis won’t cure the life problems that cause you to be depressed or anxious, and Mikuriya cautioned me not to rely on marijuana or any drug to cure these mental health disorders.

Instead, he advised, I should develop close friendships with ethical people, develop an intimate love relationship, get a job I believed in, exercise outdoors in natural settings, and contribute to my community.

By being involved with good people and being a good person yourself, your body rewards you through its dopamine and serotonin circuitry, and your depression is likely to decrease. Mikuriya cited the success of this approach for many of his psychiatric patients.

Cannabis Consumers, Victims Of Discrimination

Mikuriya gave me a medical marijuana recommendation for my chronic pain, explaining that marijuana’s efficacy as a muscle relaxer, pain reliever, anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic made it the safest, most effective medicine for most types of chronic pain.

When I asked Mikuriya why he was so much more caring and informed than any other doctor I’d met, and why he was risking his career and reputation to be the only medical marijuana doctor in California (at that time), he said it was because he’d been brought up by ethically and spiritually oriented parents who taught him the highest purpose for a person is to reduce suffering, live with integrity, and help people have a better life.

He described growing up in a Quaker community in Pennsylvania and attending Quaker schools. Quakers are a religious group formed in the 1600s who espouse principles very different from those of secular society and mainstream American Christianity.

Quakers are pacifists who oppose war, weaponry, violence of any kind, racism, income inequality and corruption, and were instrumental in helping African-American slaves escape slaveholders during the 1800s. Today’s Quakers are active in anti-war movements, are pro-environment, and all for social justice.

Mikuriya described marijuana growers and users as an oppressed community besieged by the drug war. He saw parallels between the war on cannabis growers and users, and the persecution his Japanese-American family experienced during World War II, when the United States shamefully imprisoned tens of thousands of law-abiding American citizens of Japanese descent in secret concentration camps.

“We were rounded up, stripped of our homes and other possessions, and sent off to the camps like cattle,” Mikuriya recalled. “The Supreme Court backed this draconian order that came from President Franklin Roosevelt. Years later, the Supreme Court also backed the war against marijuana, ruling that the drug war is a ‘real war’ and that in wartime, civil and constitutional rights are void.”

Cannabis Carers, Persecuted For Caring For Patients

Mikuriya himself was a victim of the war on cannabis. When growers and consumers started using his Prop. 215 medical marijuana recommendations to force judges to throw out marijuana-related charges, police and prosecutors began to personally target him.

One of law enforcement’s primary harassment tactics was to subpoena Mikuriya to testify at trials of defendants who sought to use his marijuana recommendation as part of a Prop. 215 legal defense. Many of these trials were hundreds of miles from where Mikuriya lived, and he was offered no compensation for travel and hospitality expenses, or for loss of income.

He was hounded by local police when he visited jurisdictions to testify, and treated like dirt by prosecutors in court. Nevertheless, often without being paid for his expert testimony and at great personal cost, he testified for medical marijuana defendants and helped them get their charges thrown out of court.

By the year 2000, a handful of other doctors had started writing medical marijuana recommendations for Prop. 215 patients, but many of those doctors didn’t necessarily establish relationships with their patients. Many were known to run recommendation mills, where you’d walk in, pay a hefty fee, fill out paperwork, assert you had a qualifying medical condition, and leave with a recommendation in hand.

Despite the fact that Mikuriya had legitimate medical justification for recommending marijuana, he was relentlessly pursued by the state attorney general, police and prosecutors, who hoped to bust him for marijuana.

When that failed, the state of California’s medical licensure board came after him, accusing Mikuriya of medical misconduct for recommending the plant as a medicinal solution. The board’s actions were based solely on complaints from law enforcement, not from the complaints of patients or other doctors.

After a long and costly legal battle, Mikuriya retained his medical license, but was officially censured and had to pay nearly $100,000 in fines. He also endured harsh review of his medical practice and continued harassment until his death in 2007 at age 73. While he died of cancer, many wonder if the constant harassment contributed to his untimely demise.

The late Dennis Peron told me if it wasn’t for Tod Mikuriya, Prop. 215 might have been “killed in its cradle.”

“Tod helped us during the creation of Prop. 215 by providing medical facts that support cannabis as a medicine,” Peron said. “When the law passed, for a lot of patients Tod was the only physician who would help them. The man was quiet, reserved and professional, and he had the heart of a warrior and the soul of a healer. He saved lives and alleviated suffering. Prop. 215 couldn’t have succeeded without him.”

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