Joycelyn Elders was never shy about speaking her mind as she consistently stirred public controversy while serving as surgeon general during her spirited – and short-lived – tenure with President Bill Clinton.
Now 82, Elders demurred just a bit when she was introduced Friday night at a reception at the International Cannabis Business Conference, a teeming marijuana politics and industry conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in San Francisco.
“Everybody in this room knows more about cannabis than I do,” Elders began. “Twenty years ago, no one would even say the word ‘marijuana.’ ”
Except perhaps for Joycelyn Elders. She built a reputation as a maverick on marijuana and other public health issues as she irked the Clinton Administration in publicly discussing legalizing drugs, and amid the depths of the AIDS crisis, considering marijuana as an effective medicinal relief.
On Saturday morning, Elders formally opened the weekend marijuana policy conference with a fiery condemnation of America’s drug enforcement policies.
The marijuana legalization advocate called for an end to federal policy that classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug with no accepted medical use – listed as worse than methamphetamine or cocaine.
She called for increased federally sanctioned medical marijuana research and decriminalization of marijuana for both medical and recreational use – as part of shifting resources from law enforcement to public health.
“We know that prohibition laws did nothing but waste money, waste lives and destroy opportunities,” said Elders, who decried racially disproportionate arrests and criminal sentences for marijuana and other narcotics. “It is not working. And marijuana has been the engine driving the drug war.”
Elders may have told the gathering that she didn’t know much about pot. But she spoke at length on promising medical medical benefits for chronic pain and nausea, and called for additional studies on whether “one of the oldest domesticated crops in the world” could also offer benefits for illnesses such as shingles or emotional disorders.
At the same time, she called for a cautious approach to learning more about potential impacts of pot on kids and developing brains. She urged research – “a health-centered approach for looking at drugs” – over police raids.
Elders was warmly greeted at the conference, which underscored marijuana’s evolution as a policy and economic issue as Californians are expected to vote on legalizing pot for recreational use in November.
Years ago, her policy statements on public health as well as marijuana weren’t so eagerly received.
Her outspoken views on drugs and sexuality prompted the Clinton administration to force her to resign as she faced withering criticism in 1994. She irked anti-abortion conservatives by declaring “We really need to get out of this love affair with the fetus and start worrying about the children.” She famously recommended masturbation as a way of avoiding the spread of AIDS and HIV.
And, as surgeon general, she said she didn’t understand why marijuana wasn’t accepted as medicine. She advocated studying negative impacts of federal drug policies.
“The evidence is overwhelming that marijuana can relieve certain types of pain, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms caused by such illnesses as multiple sclerosis, cancer and AIDS – or by the harsh drugs sometimes used to treat them,” she was quoted as saying. “And it can do so with remarkable safety. Indeed, marijuana is less toxic than many of the drugs that physicians prescribe every day.”
So she was back on stage Saturday, having never really left the cause.
“I was fired as surgeon general for saying I think we needed to study it,” Elders said of her marijuana advocacy. “I think we are beginning to open our eyes. It just takes a lot of time. Often I said politicians are slow learners.”