The young father from Salem was dying and he knew it.
The chemotherapy that tried to hold back the cancer made him so nauseated that he couldn’t eat, but he wanted to eke out as many days as possible so he could spend at least a little more time with his 2-year-old son.
At that point, his friends, family – and his doctor – agreed on what Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, calls “a conspiracy.” A benign one, perhaps, but a conspiracy that broke the law nonetheless.
The way Griffith tells the story, the man’s doctor left strict instructions: No medical staff was allowed to enter the man’s hospital room between 11 a.m. and noon each day – only friends and family. When lunch arrived, the staff was instructed to leave it outside the room; his visitors would get it to him.
So what was happening in that hospital room during that secret hour? The man was smoking marijuana, which gave him enough appetite to keep his food down – and his strength up – at least for a little while longer.
Griffith said he heard that story in the 1990s – he knew one of the family members involved – and that led him to a conclusion that still surprises many: He became an early advocate for medical marijuana.
Not the earliest, though. Virginia became the first state in the country to authorize marijuana for certain medical conditions – way back in 1979. The sponsors of that landmark legislation: then-Del. Clifton “Chip” Woodrum, D-Roanoke, and then-state Sen. Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon. (Disclosure: Boucher, who went on to become a member of Congress, is a member of our community advisory committee but committee members have no role in news decisions.)
In 1997,when Griffith was in the General Assembly, then-Del. Bob Marshall, R-Prince William County, tried to get that provision repealed. Griffith, the story of the dying Salem man fresh in his mind, rose to object. The provision stayed in place, and Griffith embarked on a niche interest in medical marijuana. Not long after he was elected to Congress in 2010 (replacing Boucher), Griffith spoke to an assembly of high school students in Wise County – he thinks Central High School but isn’t positive. When a question about marijuana comes up, Griffith tells them about the Salem family that smuggled marijuana to their hospitalized kin so he could live longer.
“I give ’em the story,” Griffith told me in a recent interview while he was en route to the recycling center in his hometown of Salem. “Five or six hands go up. Usually the question is about recreational marijuana – I’m not there on that.” Griffith calls on “this kid over on the left,” expecting that follow-up about recreational marijuana, and expecting to deliver his usual response about how “burning plant material and inhaling it” probably isn’t good for your lungs. Except that’s not what “this kid over on the left” had to say. “This kid says, ‘They did that for my daddy, too,’” Griffith said. “I went back to Washington and put in my legitimate use of medical marijuana bill.”
With that, he became the first Republican in Congress to introduce a bill that would do anything to legalize even just a little bit of marijuana. As with many things in Congress, it’s taken years to get any action. Earlier this month, though, the House passed – by a 343-75 margin – the Medical Marijuana Research Act, which would make it easier for medical schools to study the effects of marijuana. Griffith was one of the co-sponsors, but that understates his role in the bill.
The lead Republican sponsor was Rep. Andy Harris, R-Maryland, described by the website Marijuana Moment (and by Griffith, too) as an ardent marijuana prohibitionist. “Andy Harris and I were having a discussion at least six or seven years ago,” Griffith said. “This is the fourth Congress we’ve tried to pass this bill. He’s convinced as a former research doctor there’s no benefit [to medical marijuana]. I disagree, but I’m a country lawyer. I said, ‘Andy, what if you’re right? How do we know? We’re not doing any research. What if I’m right? We don’t know because we’re not doing any research.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, we can do that.’”
The result was the Medical Marijuana Research Act, introduced by what Marijuana Moment calls “an unlikely duo” of a pro-legalization Democrat (Earl Blumenauer of Oregon) and the prohibitionist Harris, with Griffith as one of the co-sponsors and main advocates.
Technically, there is some research going on with marijuana, Griffith said, just not much – and just not enough, in his view. “Right now, there’s only one licensed grower for research purposes – the University of Mississippi – and they use just one strand,” Griffith said. He and others don’t think that’s enough. “Part of the dilemma is marijuana is a very successful plant,” he said, producing “different strains, different races, and they have different levels of THC,” the chemical compound that produces the high. But getting more research into marijuana has been difficult, he said. “The DEA has made it so hard it just doesn’t happen.” Marijuana Moment reports that Mississippi researchers have complained about how the plants they have to work with are of “low quality,” with THC levels that often more resemble hemp than buzz-inducing marijuana.
Whether you’re for or against marijuana, Griffith thinks we need to know more about it. “Whether the government wants to admit it or not, more people have done research on heroin than marijuana,” he said. “Don’t you think we should at least find out whether we need a surgeon general’s warning?”
This, Griffith points out, requires some “intellectual honesty” on both sides. Pro-legalization advocates have to be prepared to accept that research might find some health hazards. Prohibitionists have to be prepared to accept that there might be some health benefits. Griffith is personally convinced there might be some conditions for which marijuana might be useful but concedes, “Who the heck knows? For some totally incomprehensible reason we have refused to do extensive research on a substance that is widely used.”
This bill could change that. The Medical Marijuana Research Act would establish research standards for the plant. “This would allow cannabis to remain classified as a Schedule I substance while increasing access for those wishing to study it,” Griffith said.
So what happens next? In Washington, nothing is certain. The bill obviously passed the House by a wide, and bipartisan, margin. (If you’re curious, every member of the Virginia delegation voted in favor of it except Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County.) This is actually the second time the House has passed the bill; the first time was in December 2020. A few weeks later, the Senate unanimously passed a slightly different version of the bill – but there wasn’t time for a conference committee to work out the differences before that Congress adjourned and a new Congress took office in January 2021. (Here’s my usual rant about how inefficient Washington is, in contrast to the General Assembly in Richmond. Virginia’s legislature works on a strict schedule that is usually followed, the current budget impasse being one notable exception. Washington, though, doesn’t.) The fact that the Senate has passed something similar once before suggests there’s a good chance this bill might get through the Senate. But again, Washington doesn’t operate like Richmond. In Richmond, a House bill would definitely get taken up in the Senate. In Washington, there’s no guarantee.
“I suspect if the Senate passed this bill that in five years we’d have research on some of the bigger uses,” Griffith said. Other findings may take 20 years or more to determine. He comes back to his original stories about the dying men who were smuggled marijuana in the hospital. “We’ve got at least 20 to 25 years separating those two incidents. You’ve got hospitals hours apart from one another, but doctors made the same decision: to let somebody sneak marijuana in, so somebody can eat to keep their strength up.” And they’re probably not the only cases. Griffith said he once was at a Republican convention when a delegate – perhaps in her 70s or so – talked to him about medical marijuana. Her sister had wanted her to do the same thing. The woman had refused, thought her sister was delusional, and now regretted whether that made her sister’s last days more painful. That’s why Griffith is such a proponent of medical marijuana and such a critic of the current restrictions on research. “It’s a crazy policy,” he said “We ought to let medical marijuana be used, but it ought to be researched.”
If it ever is, Griffith will be one of the people who made that possible.