The Need for Weed

It's a unique source of fiber, a natural painkiller, a valuable fuel source. So when Jack Herer talks about legalization, there's a method to his reefer madness.

Of all the people gadding about in the fire-hot sun baking the steps of the Dade County Courthouse, this guy is the most easily pegged as a narc. The others gathering around the display tables are a mix of Pearl Jam concert refugees, hippie-heyday leftovers, old ladies. Aside from those who are entering the courts, nobody looks like a cop except the short guy in the crisp suit and sharp tie, the guy sporting the neat, short-back-and-sides haircut and precisely trimmed reddish mustache glistening with perspiration.

On this bright Monday after Easter, as the stock market plummets, the overdressed dude on the courthouse steps stands right there in front of God and the Man smoking a joint.

It's not surprising that someone has fired it up on this occasion. But it's not Jack Herer. An author and outspoken advocate for the relegalization of hemp -- "cannabis" and "marijuana" being his other preferred synonyms -- Herer has been arrested 34 times at similar rallies around the nation. Because he's the main speaker and, as usual, the center of attention, Herer makes for a likely suspect, but during the next several hours at least, he goes smokeless. Members of the Cannabis Action Network, in town from Louisiana on the heels of the Grateful Dead tour, look like they could use a bowlful right now. And those Pearl Jammy kids, too. This event was organized and is mostly attended by people devoted to making the various uses of the hemp-family plants available to Americans. You'd think somebody would spark one up. But you would not think it would be this guy in the suit and tie.

His name is Irvin Rosenfeld and he isn't a cop; he's a stockbroker. And even as the bears march down Wall Street, he has taken time off and driven more than 100 miles to sweat and puff his herb on the steps of the courthouse. By luck and coincidence and the fact people are communicating, he is invited to take the microphone from Jack Herer and tell his tale, an impromptu guest no fiction writer could invent.

Before handing over the mike, Herer delivers a few quick blasts about marijuana's historical status in pharmacopoeias. "For 5000 years this was the number-one drug, and no one has ever died from using it. You overdose on marijuana and the worst thing that can happen is you get the munchies." Applause crackles from the couple of dozen listeners. Herer's voice becomes gruffer and his cadence quickens, as if he's running out of breath and time at once. "If you're dying of cancer, AIDS, you have anorexia or you're in an old folks' home, the munchies are exactly what you want" -- a uniformed cop walks past, into the courthouse -- "but the cops'll say, 'Don't listen to that old hippie. He just wants to get stoned.'"

Herer is so dead certain of the truth he speaks that he has a standing offer: $10,000 to the first person who proves otherwise. But if Herer is the truth, Irvin Rosenfeld is the light. Since the age of ten, Rosenfeld tells the crowd, he has been forced to take medication for problems with his bones, problems so severe his native Virginia refused to allow him to attend public high school for fear he'd injure himself while on government property and then sue. His body was riddled with some 200 bone tumors, 40 of which have successfully been removed, the rest of which could turn malignant at any time. His doctors offered him what they could, including an open prescription -- morphine, cocaine, Quaaludes, Demerol, anything he wanted whenever he wanted it. But even with the aid of powerful painkillers, he could not sit for more than ten minutes without pain.

He is a "very law-abiding" person, he adds, and then delivers his punch line: He was the second person in the nation to be legally prescribed marijuana. For the past eleven years he has smoked ten to fifteen joints per day. Somehow the stock market survives.

Back when he came to Miami for college Rosenfeld did not smoke pot, considered it "garbage." But some fellow students at Miami-Dade South turned him on. He says he got high about ten times. Then one day he realized he'd been playing chess for more than an hour. Sitting down. Without pain. He gathered together his brain cells and figured out which drugs he'd taken that day, what mix of prescriptions had brought him such profound relief. "The only thing I'd done that day," he says, "was smoke marijuana."

One man's garbage is another's gold. "Laws are made to be followed," Rosenfeld continues, encouraged by Herer to hold the mike closer so everyone can hear. "Jack here, he'll get arrested if he lights a joint. That's his problem. My problem is that I want my health decisions made by doctors, not the police."

Rosenfeld claims no expertise in any of the complex areas of hemp decriminalization or why it was made illegal by the U.S. in 1937, though he does venture that "if the drug companies could make money on it, if the fuel corporations could make money, it'd be legal tomorrow." But Rosenfeld asserts this: "I am an expert on the medicinal uses. Without marijuana I wouldn't be here today. It's very beneficial; it relaxes the muscles that go over the bone tumors and also has some analgesic effect. I hope you all get the right to use it socially, but I hope you never, ever have to use it medicinally. I hope that your parents or grandparents don't ever need it medicinally. But if they do, I hope they don't have to become criminals."

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