Higher Profile: Dr. Tod Mikuriya (1933-2007)

Remembering the late Dr. Tod Mikuriya: From government mole to cannabis champion.

Many may be familiar with the late Dr. Tod Mikuriya as one of the architects and co-authors of Proposition 215, making California the first state to legalize cannabis as medicine. 

But many more aren’t aware that he was once hired by the U.S. government to discredit cannabis in a political move, as the psychoactive properties within the plant promoted critical thinking at a time in history when the people were rising up.

The year was 1967 and Mikuriya had been hired by the National Institute of Mental Health Center for Narcotics and Drug Abuse Studies to research marijuana for negative outcomes. The National Center for Drug Abuse would be created in 1974, solely funding studies on cannabis and other drugs for abuse, while shelving positive findings.

One such infamous study on pregnancy from the 1970s in Jamaica was slated to last 20 years, but was shut down after the five-year-olds given cannabis tea since birth were shown to excel in every area. This was after their mothers were monitored drinking the tea while pregnant, with positive outcomes noted.

“One of my assignments was to spy on the communes in California because at the height of the fear of the Vietnam War, the year of the Tet Offensive, and the total embroilment in the conflict in the United States, as well as Vietnam,” he shared. “They were fearing the fall of civilization as manifested by certain rebellious behaviors, principally on the West Coast.”

The Tet Offensive was an escalation of military campaigns during the Vietnam War against forces in South Vietnam, at a time when our failure to excel in the conflict was kept from the people, until The Pentagon Papers revealed the deceit.

The powers that be understood that psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, along with cannabis, were being used socially, and became a big part of the anti-war movement. The more Mikuriya learned of the campaigns against what he found to be beneficial and useful compounds, the more he rebelled.

“Frankly I was aghast at being part of this machine back in D.C. that could be so blind and mean-spirited,” he continued. “Their take on marijuana was, ‘how can we suppress it and prevent it,’ because this is something that promotes that dangerous trait of critical thinking. Because it was linked with the rebellion of the anti-war movement against the military machine, the military industrial complex.”

Third Eye Open

Dr. Mikuriya didn’t linger on the theories of demonizing hemp for industry or the plant’s potential competition with big pharma. He was trained in psychology and understood completely the government’s fear of psychedelics opening up the third eye, with critical thinking a threat to being a good soldier, being led into the jungle for a war that was little understood.

The same year Mikuriya was hired by the government to demonize the plant, Timothy Leary shouted out to 30,000 hippies in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” further cementing the theory that psychoactive plants and compounds don’t make good foot soldiers.

Interesting to note, in 1974, alleged MK Ultra survivor, Cathy O’Brien, was asked at a lecture podium what she knew about cannabis and why the government opposes the plant. Without a beat, she responded, “Because it blocks mind control.” This is poignant, as MK Ultra was said to have been a covert government mind control project.

“So, basically, I defected,” he said of his post that lasted less than a year.

At this point in the interview, von Hartman interjected, “Excuse me for interrupting, but you were told not to find any positive result in your research, is that true?”

“Correct,” Mikuriya responded, firmly. “They were interested in finding anything toxic, anything that could be used to dissuade the use of cannabis. But at the same time they recognized, although it couldn’t be admitted, that it was relatively benign. The big problem with dealing within the federal bureaucracy – or I suppose any bureaucracy – is the compartmentalization, that restriction on the flow of information.”

Mikuriya with his sisters and parents.

The Doctor’s Journey

There is no mention of Mikuriya’s gig with the federal government in his obituary in the New York Times upon his passing in 2007. They do go into great detail on his advocacy for the plant and subsequent persecution.

Mikuriya was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania on September 20, 1933, to parents who raised him and his two siblings as Quakers.

“The Quakers were proprietors of the Underground Rail[road], I’m proud to say,” he was once quoted, making reference to the underground route to safety for slaves in Colonial America.

His mother, Anna Schwenk, was a German immigrant and a special education teacher. His father, Tadafumi Mikuriya, was the descendant of a Japanese Samurai family, trained as an engineer. 

Mikuriya earned a bachelor’s degree from Reed College in Oregon in 1956, and his MD from Temple University in 1962 – where he stumbled upon a reference in a pharmacology textbook on the uses of medical marijuana.

Intrigued by the many medicinal applications listed, he decided he needed to experience cannabis first hand.

“… I was smitten by an attack of idle curiosity during my sophomore year in medical school during the pharmacology course,” he explained. “I happened to unintentionally read a chapter on cannabis in Goodman & Gilman, which described the medicinal uses and described also, fairly Draconian punishment for its use. This was consistent with what social attitudes existed back then in 1959.”

Reading up what was available at the library, he said that summer he traveled down to Mexico to score some weed. Using some slang words for cannabis on a street dealer that he said approached him upon crossing the border, he succeeded in his quest.

Mikuriya said he took the man up to his hotel room and at random picked one of the 10 hand-rolled marijuana cigarettes laid out, instructing the dealer, “Okay, light it up, take a few puffs.” When the man showed no hesitation to partake, Mikuriya was relieved to see it was not poisonous, and partook himself.

With his curiosity whetted, he said he quickly realized he should keep the experience to himself, and that this was not something he would submit to any department for a research project, because it would surely have been the end of his medical career.

“So, then I embarked upon my personal bioassay experience,” he continued. “I put this down after a while, having no one to communicate with and no source, until 1964. At which time, during my psychiatric practice training up in Oregon I became aware of it.”

After finishing his psychiatric residency at Mendocino State Hospital, he enlisted in the U.S. Army as a medic. Shortly thereafter, ironically, he became Director for a drug addiction treatment center of the New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute in Princeton, under the tutelage of Dr. Humphrey Osmond, who was well versed in psychedelic drugs.

“I then was headhunted by the National Institute of Mental Health Center for Narcotics and Drug Abuse Studies, with the specific assignment of research into marijuana,” he said. “Needless to say, this seemed to be right up my area of interest, and left New Jersey for the psychosis inside the Beltway.”

Reefer Madness, Part 2

The psychosis inside the Beltway refers to the Reefer Madness he experienced while working in Washington D.C. researching cannabis, then finding that the laws weren’t exactly copasetic to what he knew to be the plants full potential. 

He also came to the realization that cannabis had been part of the American Pharmacopoeia for at least 200 years prior to it being politicized in the late 1930s. Thankfully, the plant was added back to the list fairly recently in 2016.

“First stop was at the National Library of Medicine, where I ran across many more medicinal and pharmaceutical papers that motivated me to assemble what I felt to be the ‘creme de la creme’ and put it into a book, The Marijuana Medical Papers: 1839 to 1972,” he shared, of the compilation still available today.

Mikuriya became a consultant for the Shafer Commission, formerly known as the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, appointed by then President, Richard Nixon, with the report released in 1972.

The commission’s now infamous report, Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, called for more research and the decriminalization of cannabis possession. But, Mikuriya said it was “D.O.A.” and ignored by Nixon’s White House, who proceeded to add the plant to its failed War on Drugs.

“This was part of the Nixon administration’s distraction and palliation of the scientific and medical communities, as he put together the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, that classified cannabis as having no medicinal redeeming importance and being Schedule I, highly dangerous, to be avoided – which was a total lie,” he said. “But this is the way it is today. That federal law still is driven by this insanity, put together by the Nixon Justice Department apparatchiks.”

So good was the government’s campaign against the plant, that at the time a mere 12% of Americans supported its legalization, with public sentiment viewing cannabis users as dangerous. In reality, the committee found them to be more “timid, drowsy and passive,” concluding that cannabis did not cause widespread danger to society, further outing the political hoax.

“The use of cannabis goes into antiquity, as probably everybody knows, but what is not known, or what is not appreciated, is the fact that it was clinically available for roughly a hundred years in America and Western Europe for a variety of therapeutic uses. It was called ‘cannabis,’” he explained. “And the term ‘marijuana’ was described as a ‘mongrel word,’ that was applied to the Mexican use of cannabis, that very few agencies within the federal government at the time back in 1937 understood that it was the same as cannabis, so they thought that marijuana was really a separate plant, a separate material. And didn’t connect it with the medicinal uses.”

In the years that followed, Mikuriya would go on to document 200 case studies from his own clinical research from patients successfully using cannabis as a serious medicine for both emotional and physical issues. But, as long as cannabis was listed on the Department of Health’s Schedule 1, showing no medicinal value, he was shouting at the wind.

The Endocannabinoid System (eCS) wouldn’t be discovered until 1988 by researchers Allyn Howlett and William Devane at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, in a government-controlled study that also discovered the body’s CB1 and CB2 receptors; the pathway for plant compounds to distribute themselves throughout all human biological systems.

As they say, timing is everything. Having the knowledge of the eCS during the Shafer Commission’s work might have saved the plant from the crossfire of the failed War on Drugs, but we’ll never know.

California Medicine, Federally Illegal

The disappointment of the Shafer Commission’s report may have had the good doctor fleeing Washington D.C., but it only empowered him as an advocate once back in California, where the LGBTQ+ community had already championed cannabis as medicine for AIDS patients.

By the mid-1990s Mikuriya became one of the architects and co-authors of Proposition 215, with California voters giving a green light for residents to become cannabis patients. Mikuriya was the first physician in the state to write a script, recommending cannabis as medicine for the first cannabis patient.

A collective sigh of relief was heard throughout the world, as California became the leader in compassionate care and education on cannabis as medicine. Mikuriya thought it would be smooth sailing from then on, that the voters had spoken and the people would finally be educated on this powerful plant. But, the celebration was cut short.

“Within a month after we passed the law back in ’96, there was a meeting at McCaffery’s office in the White House,” he said. “The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, where they hatched schemes to nullify the state laws, either directly in court or through other means – and the other means would be to go after both the patients and the physicians.”

Barry McCaffrey was the first “Drug Czar” for the The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), established by President Nixon overseeing his War on Drugs. The position is still just one step down from the Oval Office, with it and its agency’s existence just one executive order away from the president’s pen. 

The State’s Attorney General, he said, opposed the proposition before it passed, and was dedicated to “blocking and suborning it.” With this, the DEA became empowered, embedding themselves into local law enforcement agencies in the state, in fiscally subsidized partnerships, causing a financial dependence that continues today, even in legal states.

Physician, Heal Thyself

Mikuriya became a thorn in the side of the DEA, claiming representatives from the privatized “prison-industrial complex, our version of the military-industrial complex,” were big supporters of the War on Drugs, funding the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (now, Partnership to End Addiction). 

“These are the subversives that are embedded in the civil service system,” he said. “The California Narcotics Officers Association believes that medical marijuana is a hoax, and have sponsored and organized statewide meetings within the criminal justice system for orientation and training, in actuality laying out templates of ways for blocking it.”

An outspoken patient himself, ordinances dictate that doctors aren’t allowed to touch the plant. They aren’t educated in medical school and they can’t prescribe cannabis as medicine, they can only “recommend.”

With the plant still federally prohibited, with no medicinal value admitted, Mikuriya was hotly criticized, with an attempt made to strip him of his medical license.

“In my case, an undercover agent was sent to infiltrate a clinic of mine, not even bothering with the niceties of the Medical Board, filtering and embellishing it, went directly to the AG’s office,” he said. “So, there’s been this clique of opponents who are doing their damndest to hurt the physicians and dissuade participation in the law.”

The incident happened in 2000, with the Medical Board of California giving Mikuriya five years probation and a $75,000 fine for what they called “gross negligence, unprofessional conduct, and incompetence” for failing to conduct proper physical examinations on 16 patients for whom he had written scripts. The truth was, Mikuriya had given out around 9,000 scripts all told.

The fact that they pinned 16 questionable scripts on him with probation and a fine seems to have been a weak attempt to slow him down, as he continued his private psychiatric practice, as a cannabis clinical consultant, until his death.

“I want to see cannabis defined as an easement, which is not a narcotic, not a psycho-stimulant, not a hallucinogen,” he surmised. “One of the things in managing chronic conditions with cannabis is the absence of side-effects as being the critical factor. Cannabis has a remarkable profile compared with any synthetic pharmaceuticals. In fact, it really enhances both the quality of life and rehabilitation from illness. Since cannabis both modulates and activates certain kinds of very positive healing functions of the body.”

Author’s Note: This profile was taken from transcript, The Lost Interview, Berkeley, California, 2004, Interview by Paul J. von Hartman.

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