Story and Photo by Ken Krayeske • 10:00 AM EST
As originally published in the March 2002 edition of High Times, Lester and Betsy Grinspoon on a brisk walk in the autumn near their home in Wellesley, Mass.
Lester and Betsy Grinspoon first witnessed medical marijuana use in their own home. In 1971, doctors diagnosed their oldest son Danny with leukemia.
"Danny was torn apart by pain for hours," says Keith Stroup. The vomiting was awful. "Danny got to the point where he was not willing to go through chemotherapy."
Having no way to score weed, Lester asked one of Danny's high school friends to buy, Stroup relates.
"Danny smoked a couple hits of marijuana before chemo," Stroup says. "Instead of vomiting out the window on the way home, he stopped for a submarine sandwich. That's when Lester and his wife became sensitized to its importance as medicine."
Danny died January 13, 1973. Lester and Betsy spread his ashes at Nauset Inlet in Cape Cod, a place the Grinspoon family once caught a huge striped bass. "He and Betsy go there annually to remember Danny," St. Pierre says.
Danny's tragedy armed Grinspoon with the ammunition to spare the life of Kerry Wiley. In December 1989, Wiley, a 35-year-old Californian computer science teacher, faced the death penalty for marijuana possession in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Wiley, who at age 12 was crippled in a 60-foot fall, controlled muscle spasms and beat his addiction to opiates with marijuana.
Malaysian law bans medical marijuana. A 1983 edict commands death by hanging for possession of more than 200 grams of cannabis. Police caught Wiley with 500 grams. This law claimed more than 100 victims, including six British subjects. The prosecutor looked forward to the prestige of executing an American.
Wiley's mother contacted Grinspoon. He in turn called capital punishment opponent Ramsey Clark, President Lyndon Baines Johnson's attorney general. Grinspoon and Clark met in 1980 when Clark needed an expert witness to testify for the Ethiopian Zion Coptics, ganja worshippers persecuted by the U.S. government.
Clark, one of Grinspoon's heroes, agreed to help Wiley. Clark and Grinspoon flew to Malaysia. As Clark consulted a local attorney to craft a strategy, Grinspoon examined Wiley in the miserable Pudu Prison.
For all of Pudu's rats, malnutrition and overcrowding, Wiley found pot there easily. Guards encouraged its use because it prevents violence, Grinspoon says. The day of the trial, Clark called Grinspoon to the stand; he presented a medical necessity defense.
The prosecutor promised a three-hour interrogation and began by threatening to charge Grinspoon with practicing medicine in Malaysia without a license.
"In a very irritated voice, the prosecutor said 'Look, everything that you have told us comes from books, and from studies. Have you ever seen a patient who used marijuana as a medicine?' I then told the story about my son's use of cannabis," Grinspoon says. "This was a huge, beautiful mahogany courtroom built by the British. As the American Consul who was in the courtroom told me later ‘You could hear a pin drop.'"
The American consul escorted Grinspoon to the airport, fearing the prosecutor might arrest him. The judge reduced the sentence to ten strokes with a rattan. Since that might further maim Wiley, Grinspoon scribed a letter to the Malaysian premiere, who also was an MD. The premiere released Wiley. He now lives as a recluse in California.
Grinspoon's combination of his congeniality, simple friendliness and his profound knowledge won that case, Clark says.
"He is both a highly professional and an extraordinarily gentle, sensitive, humorous person," Clark says of his friend. "He seems to know and practice that humor is one of the best prescriptions we have."
That experience, coupled with reading Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine, showed Clark medical marijuana's power.
"It taught me that medical science, itself freed from its fears and prejudice, would not only condone, but prescribe, where indicated, marijuana," Clark says.
Clark, who also defended the survivors of Waco, supports legalization.
"My concerns came up on the criminal law enforcement side of the docket," he says. "I saw it tear up society, injuring young people who had potential to contribute to society and have had no criminal records. It was reinforcing to see that sound medical analysis would support the same conclusions."