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obert Randall did not attend the big symposium in February on the medical uses of marijuana, hosted by the National Institutes of Health. But if he had, the 49-year-old glaucoma sufferer would surely have thanked Uncle Sam for providing him with enough free pot to allow him to smoke ten joints every day for the past 21 years. "It has saved my eyesight," says Randall of the government-grown ganja that the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an offshoot of the NIH, has been shipping to his local pharmacy since 1976.

Randall receives his provisions under NIDA's Marijuana Project, a little-known federal program established in the 1960s to grow marijuana for research purposes. After learning about the government's hidden stash in 1975, Randall sued for access and became its first recipient. Soon after, he received his first shipment, paving the way for 13 others. Although the program has been closed to new applicants since 1992, it is still providing a ready supply of U.S.-approved reefer for its eight surviving patients.

That such people exist might come as something of a harsh toke to anyone who has followed the Clinton administration's latest exhalations on medical marijuana. Last fall, Attorney General Janet Reno announced she may prosecute doctors in California and Arizona who try to prescribe the drug, despite approval of pro-pot referenda in both states last November. And the White House drug-policy czar, retired army general Barry McCaffrey, calls medical marijuana "a threat to the national drug strategy'' that also sends "a very mixed and confusing message to the young.''

Uncle Sam's pot farm is located at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, behind a 12-foot-high fence bounded by four prisonlike watchtowers. The feds have been running the seven-acre patch, known to agency bureaucrats simply as the Farm, since 1968. Over the past ten years, the Farm has produced about 5,000 pounds of U.S.-inspected marijuana--worth roughly $22 million on the street.

Not surprisingly, when asked to reconcile the Marijuana Project's pro-pot message with recent White House policy, federal officials react as if they've just been handed a smoldering joint: They decline and nervously pass it along. "We just do what we're told," says Sheryl Massaro, a NIDA spokeswoman. "If we are told to provide marijuana to eight people, then that's what we do." She defers to the Food and Drug Administration, which granted the "compassionate IND" (investigational new drug) waivers that have made it possible for a few people to benefit from the program. "It's really not an FDA question," counters FDA spokesman Don McLearn, who says it was the FDA's parent agency, the U.S. Public Health Service, that decided back in 1992--due to a sudden surge in applications from AIDS patients--to close the program to all but the remaining eight participants. When pressed, he adds that "technically, these [eight] are research subjects," a convenient feint also picked up by McCaffrey's office. "The general has no objection to research," says McCaffrey's spokesman Bob Weiner. "Those are people who are being researched."

If true, then score one for medical marijuana. When Randall was diagnosed with glaucoma in 1972, at the age of 24, doctors told him that he would be blind within five years. More than two decades and countless joints later, Randall, a former college instructor living in Sarasota, Florida, says he now sees as well as he did on that dark morning in 1972. "Marijuana is clearly helpful in ways other drugs are not," insists Randall, who receives approximately $25,000 worth of pot a year. Indeed, research gathered by scientists such as Dr. Lester Grinspoon at Harvard Medical School suggests that marijuana can help combat any number of ailments, including epilepsy , multiple sclerosis, migraine headaches, menstrual cramps, and depression, in addition to nausea resulting from chemotherapy and AIDS treatments. "There is a mountain of evidence supporting marijuana's medical benefits," says Grinspoon. "It is foolish to ignore it."

Another government toker, Corinne C. Millet, a 65-year-old grandmother from Fremont, Nebraska, has been receiving NIDA pot, also for glaucoma, since October 1989. She still remembers the day she told her seven grown children that Mom was a pothead. "God love 'em. They said, 'Mother, if this will help you save your sight, you should do it,'" says Millet, who, though legally blind, is still able to read a newspaper, a luxury she credits to her five-joint-a-day regimen. "They did say, 'Please, Mother, don't do it in public.' So I just excuse myself, go into the bedroom, close the door, and smoke it."

And the Farm shows no signs of going fallow. Last spring, government farmers got the go-ahead to plant a fresh crop just as federal agents raided a San Francisco medical marijuana buyers' club. Last year, NIDA shelled out $290,000 to keep the place in seeds and pay the salaries of three full-time researchers and its part-time director, Mahmoud A. ElSohly. They expect to harvest roughly 1,000 pounds by October, mostly for research. Besides growing marijuana, the staff uses sophisticated gas chromatography equipment to analyze the potency of confiscated pot from around the country.

Though precious few have actually ventured inside the Farm, Ole Miss representatives will cheerfully provide a videotape that shows row upon row of bushy 12-foot stalks harvested there. One cluster is helpfully marked Jamaican. "It reflects what is on the street," explains ElSohly, who confesses he has little problem finding student workers to help during harvesttime. "They are told from the beginning that this is a high-security area and that they will have to be searched as they leave the garden."

Despite the Clinton administration's ominous smoke signals, U.S. officials say they have no plans to discontinue growing pot for their eight lucky beneficiaries (remarkably, after years of daily pot smoking, both Randall and Millet claim none of the loopy aftereffects normally associated with it). Meanwhile, the forbidden bounty--rolled into precisely weighed joints on an old cigarette-making machine in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina--continues to be packed, about 300 sticks at a time, into tin cans and sent on its way. And the quality? "Mediocre but effective," Randall reports. "About what you'd expect from the same government that runs the post office."

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potfarm.jpg (112916 bytes)

"The reality is that it works," says Randall (below) of the exquisitely rolled joints (above) he receives regularly from the government for his glaucoma.  "It's easy to joke about, but the government is causing people to suffer needlessly.  Imagine a doctor saying, 'I'd like to give you chemotherapy, but you have to wander the streets looking for it.'"

randall.jpg (36520 bytes)

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