09/01/13 Tom O'Connel

Dr. Tom O'Connel, 84 year old retired Army thoracic surgeon and my "pot doc" re failure of drug war, benefit of medical cannabis

Century of Lies
Sunday, September 1, 2013
Tom O'Connel
Download: Audio icon COL090113.mp3



Century of Lies September 1, 2013


DEAN BECKER: The failure of Drug War is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors and millions more. Now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century of Lies.


DEAN BECKER: Hello, my friends. We’ve got a great show lined up for you. This is Dean Becker. Thank you for joining us on this edition of Century of Lies. We’ve got a great interview, basically the full half hour with Dr. Tom O’Connell, a retired Army thoracic surgeon, 84-years-old who now is a “pot doctor” in California.

It was back in October of 2001 I invited our next guest to be a participant on the New York Times Drug Policy Forum. Here we are 12 years later and the same questions are still up in the air. With that I want to welcome my good friend, Dr. Tom O’Connell. How are you doing, Tom?

TOM O’CONNELL: Well, my standard answer to that is pretty good for an old guy.

DEAN BECKER: You’ve been doing a lot of work, a lot of investigation about how this medical marijuana situation has unfolded. You want to tell us what you are up to?

TOM O’CONNELL: Really surprised to find myself in this position. I never intended to become a “pot doc” in my medical career but I became one after Prop 215 passed in California. What I now realize is after 215 passed nobody knew exactly what to do with it.

The Drug Czar had threatened the license of any doctors who dared to speak to a patient seeking a recommendation. That chilled the atmosphere for a while. Fortunately the Supreme Court shot him down on First Amendment grounds.

Gradually a small amount of physicians began writing recommendations for applicants who were all pot smokers. That set up a demand for outlets where people could buy cannabis and it attracted money, investment capital and the first so-called “buyers’ clubs” were established.

I wasn’t invited to become a “pot doc” until 2001. I really had never been a pot smoker in my early life and I was unaware of what now is called the movement. The first thing I learned is pot smokers were of a certain age. They had all been born or almost all of them had been born right after World War II – they were baby boomers.

I’ve since figured out it took a critical mass of Baby Boomers who had along the way become pot smokers before the medical marijuana tactic was employed by what we now call reform. These are organizations like NORML, Americans for Safe Access and several others that now exist all over the country. It’s a grass roots (pardon the pun) movement supporting use of cannabis.

I’m old enough to remember the 30s...and actually the 40s, 50s obviously. We knew that marijuana was illegal, my peers and I, but we had no interest in it because there was no market in it. You wouldn’t know where to get it. It wasn’t a drug that kids tried.

That didn’t begin to happen until the 60s. It took the maturation of the Baby Boom and it took something else – a market. How did that get started?

To answer my own question a small group of writers, literary genre that was active in San Francisco when I was an intern (1957/58) ...I was reading about these interesting people who were called Beats. The Beat generation authors (relatively small group) Jack Kerouak, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey (who wrote “One who flew over the cuckoo’s nest”) – probably about 20 people all together – they were the first white people to try cannabis themselves.

Why did that do that? As best I can figure they were rebels. They were upset by the advertising culture that was emerging in the wake of World War II and they somehow got the idea that blacks were the only free Americans. They were outside of American culture. So they tried weed themselves and along with that they tried a lot of other drugs – notably LSD and peyote.

The best way to understand this is the Beats turned on the Boomers. When the Boomers, who were the biggest generation ever in American history, when they began to mature as teenagers they tried marijuana too. I wouldn’t say it was an overnight success but a rapid success.

Of course cannabis can be grown locally. It can be grown indoors, outdoors. So the pot industry to supply these early pot smokers began developing at the same time in rural California and around the state.

Gradually it came to the attention of good ‘ol Richard Nixon in a way that most people don’t recall or realize. Timothy Leary, who was one of the gurus of the counter culture, was traveling down to Mexico with his then wife and two adolescent children and crossed the bridge at Laredo and low and behold Leary was turned back by the Mexicans for reasons that are not clear. That’s sort of a “man bites dog” experience.

So here Leary is stuck with a relatively small stash of his own marijuana that he brought from New York and he crossed the bridge back again and he was arrested at the border. I’m not sure whether he was tried in federal or state court but there were savage anti-marijuana laws that had already been passed.

He was found guilty. He copped to the marijuana found in his daughter’s luggage as his and he was sentenced to 30 years. He appealed the sentence and the Warren court eventually overturned Harry Ansliger’s Marijuana Tax Act in 1969.

So that was good news except that the recently elected president, Tricky Dick Nixon, elected in the very close election of 1968, he was the sitting president and he had the obligation (not just the opportunity) but the obligation to suggest a remedy for any law that had been declared unconstitutional.

He and his good buddy, John Mitchell, his campaign manager, his appointee to Attorney General put their heads together and came up with the Controlled Substances Act which has proven to be diabolically efficient. It was a set of criteria pulled out of the thin air that declared any drug (not just marijuana) that was “dangerous, habit forming (whatever that means) and of no recognized value in American medicine”....now remember this is 1969/70 – this law froze American medicine in time. A couple of lawyers who are practicing medicine not just (as it turned out) for themselves but for the whole world. They got this abominable law called the Controlled Substances Act through congress with very little trouble and low and behold it became a standard almost immediately. How?

We already had the Single Convention Treaty of New York which was pushed through by Harry Anslinger in 1961 and it was a global standard through the UN and somehow Nixon’s new update of American drug prohibition became the world standard almost overnight and police forces loved it. It gave them the right to arrest “druggies”. It also gave the Attorney General of the United States incredible power because he didn’t have to go to congress to get a new law. He could, all by himself, declare that any new illegal substance or any new substance that he didn’t like met Nixon’s criteria.

He could create new illegal markets willy-nilly without any real knowledge. He had the authority but he had no knowledge. So it was in quick succession that we had markets for heroin were intensified, coke, pretty soon crack was invented and that became a monster illegal drug in the mid-80s.

So we’ve had self-righteous jackasses (my opinion) creating illegal markets which succeed because they command higher prices.

DEAN BECKER: We’re speaking with Dr. Tom O’Connell, a thoracic surgeon who is now a “pot doctor” in California.

Tom, I wanted to back up just a little bit. I was born in 48. I heard about marijuana through Kerouac, through Life magazine but I didn’t know where to get it. Me and a buddy drove to Mexico and purchased our first bag of marijuana down there.

I’m a Viet Nam era veteran. I and all my cohorts that were set for the draft – there was a rebellion and marijuana was, indeed, part of that rebellion.

TOM O’CONNELL: But at one point in my life I was stationed in El Paso, Texas as a member of the U.S. Army. I returned to San Francisco where I had interned and that put me right in the middle (that was 1967) of the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco. The hippie revolution – the Haight-Ashbury was known around the world.

When I left San Francisco as an intern I had said to many friends that this town must be the alcohol capital of the free world. When I came back it was the drug capital of the free world and the center of the so-called hippie movement. The most popular drug was no longer alcohol – it was marijuana/LSD.

I had taken care of casualties from Viet Nam in both Japan and in San Francisco. It was a war that I, at first, supported because it was my country’s war but getting a close up look at the casualties and these were draftees (18/19-year-old kids) who had terrible wounds and it was a war that seemed completely pointless to me.

DEAN BECKER: You mentioned that you weren’t a youthful pot smoker, it wasn’t on your radar so to speak, and there’s been another doctor who gained a lot of attention here recently who has been awakened to the possibilities of medical cannabis and that’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta. What do you have to say in regards to his “coming out”?

TOM O’CONNELL: It’s a remarkable change in Dr. Gupta because I read an article that he had written quite a few years ago (I think in 2006 or so) in which he was flatly opposed to cannabis use at all. I watched Pierce Morgan fairly frequently and I think I even heard the first session in which they both admitted to recently trying cannabis.

DEAN BECKER: I wanted to come back to that study by Dr. Gupta. There was that young girl as you mentioned who had 300 seizures a week and through the use of cannabis they were able to diminish that to maybe one or two per month. The Stanley brothers growing that high cannabinoid cannabis have made it available to other infants who are suffering from that Gervais syndrome. 43 of them, I think, they have shown 41 of them have had substantial progress and the other 2 are realizing some progress as well.

It is an abomination before God, in my perspective, for people to prevent analysis and study and use of these products. Your thoughts?

TOM O’CONNELL: That is a rare syndrome. Another case surfaced in New Jersey one week after Gupta’s program aired. They were the ones that gave me my first insight. I didn’t know a thing about medical use when I started interviewing these sessions. I knew I didn’t like the drug law and knew the drug war was absolutely stupid because I had edited an online newsletter between 1997 and 2001 in which I had to review hundreds of news items every week. I learned that had been my undergraduate education.

I got my medical education when I started talking to patients. To tell you the truth the drug war in the trenches turns out to be a lot worse than it did in the newspapers because you’re talking about real people with real problems and they’re being harassed and frustrated and blocked.

My profession to its great discredit has been passive. Worse than that the psychiatrists, as a group, almost to a person support Nixon’s law that they have classified “marijuana use disorder.”

The problem psychiatry is they’re wandering in the desert. They don’t have an organized, coherent plan for the conditions that they attempt to treat. In some respects I’ve come to think that this is Nixon vs. Darwin which is utterly simplistic but it’s the difference between enlightenment and enforced fascism because our drug laws are fascist.

They start with a doctorate at the top. Everybody’s got to adhere to it or you’re in trouble. I see the DEA as Hitler. Nixon was their Hitler. He prepared the doctrine which is utterly false but it allows them to prosecute/persecute the whole world.

Every police agency around the world is supportive of Nixon’s doctrine. You try to bring an ounce of weed with you anywhere to an UN signatory nation and they discover it you are going to be treated very, very badly. You’ll be arrested.

DEAN BECKER: Tom, I see it as a great parallel to the Mexican proverb, “plata o plomo”. Nations around the world have the option of signing on to that UN Convention on Drugs Treaty or not. If they sign we’ll keep them on the “favored nations” list if they don’t we won’t trade with them and punish them.

TOM O’CONNELL: We’re shameless arm twisters in terms of supporting our own domestic policy. Every president has gone along with it.

Speaking of Mexico, I mentioned Juarez before, now what the Mexicans are doing to each other in competing to smuggle low-grade marijuana (what kids call bammer) there’s a huge market for it. Of course we don’t mention the Mexican border because it would embarrass them. The carnage on the border is a disgrace.

I can’t remember what magazine it was in but I saw a picture of a corpse hanging. His face had been taped so he had no facial identity. He was a young, healthy male hanging by the neck. It had been taken down in the interior of Mexico – it wasn’t even on the border.

Here’s a young, vibrant man who was killed horribly over marijuana. It wasn’t crack. It wasn’t heroin. It wasn’t black tar heroin. It was marijuana. Why is that? Well, if you think about it the domestic marijuana market in the United States which has been underground since 1937 and which didn’t really start to grow until the mid-60s is now enormous. How big is it? We don’t know.

The government doesn’t know. Nobody knows. Why is that? It’s a drug that doesn’t have to be imported from the Middle East or from Colombia. It can be grown at home and it is far more beneficial medically than most of its supporters even realize because it treats the mind and the body. The government is preaching against the use of marijuana. They have no idea what goes on because they haven’t talked to pot smokers like I have.

The same kids who are trying weed also try alcohol and tobacco. How do I know that? I ask them about it. 96% of my applicants tried cigarettes by inhaling at least one cigarette and 100% of them have tried alcohol by getting drunk. Most of them got drunk enough to get sick. The ones who liked alcohol and were on their way to becoming alcoholics changed that behavior once they became pot smokers.

So pot is not a gateway into trouble with drugs it’s a gateway out of trouble with drugs. I’ve got a panel of drugs that I ask everybody about. It includes LSD, cocaine, MDMA, meth and heroin. That’s a pretty good panel for looking at...it profiles pot smokers by the intensity of their need.

When you know that somebody’s tried all the drugs on my list and is now applying for a pot recommendation I can tell how intense their emotional trauma was because why do people use illegal drugs? Why will they try drugs at all?

It seems to be that they’ve been traumatized as children. That’s a general rule. The biggest source of that is (and this surprises a lot of people. It surprised me when I stumbled into it) absent fathers. If your biological father was unknown to you during childhood you are a prime candidate to try drugs. It doesn’t matter what color you are, what your cultural level is – this is perceived as a trauma.

It’s not recognized, obviously, but it makes perfect sense because childhood is when we develop our emotional intelligence. We are emotional creatures long before we are rational creatures. Rationality begins sometime around 11, 12, 13 but before that we’ve been conditioned emotionally.

A major influence is our parental acceptance. In that group it seems that “daddy” is very important. If “daddy” didn’t approve of you and he might not have known that. It doesn’t have to be because he’s gone. One of the most common reasons to be gone is early death or early divorce.

The clue is people who were adopted who didn’t know either parent they stand out in my database like a sore thumb. Their emotional needs were obviously great. One such person who is very famous and recently in the news is Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs was a very successful guy. He was born to a couple graduate students at the University of Wisconsin in the early 50s. His parents had wanted him to be adopted by people like themselves who had college degrees. For that reason his mother traveled to San Francisco and had Steve in San Francisco. Amazingly the couple that had agreed to adopt him had decided at the last minute that they wanted a girl.

Since Steve wasn’t a girl he was rejected yet again. An adopted kid is rejected but he wasn’t aborted – a mixed blessing. His adopted parents were found. They were both high school dropouts as a matter of fact living in Mountain View but they supplied Steve with a loving home. They nurtured him. Obviously they were successful because he became one of the richest men in the world.

But if you read his biography, which is written by a guy named Walter Jacobson, when that biography became available I bought it as soon as I could because I knew Steve would have been a pot smoker for sure and it was also a good guess that he used LSD.

He was a hippie. He toured India with a friend of his called Dennis Cocky. Steve could be very cruel. He was an erratic guy. He was impatient with people who he thought were bozos. He was not a kind man or a particularly friendly one but he was incredibly successful.

DEAN BECKER: Dr. O’Connell you have a very interesting perspective on this. I’m sure a lot of folks listening on the radio would like to tune into your blog where they can learn more about your understanding. Would you want to point them in that direction, please?

TOM O’CONNELL: It’s http://doctortom.org

DEAN BECKER: Dr. O’Connell as we’re wrapping this up I just want to say that you were one of the first people with the experience and you helped very early on the New York Times Policy forum to awaken me and many others and I hope we’ve done some of that as well today.

Your closing thoughts.

TOM O’CONNELL: The resistance to medical marijuana is still very powerful. I just discovered this morning researching on the word moratorium that there is a new moritorium campaign going on in the state of California. They want to close dispensaries.

It has the support of the California Supreme Court which shocks me but doesn’t surprise me. The forces of orthodoxy, repression, police – think about how many police forces we can be arrested by in this country – state, local, and federal – and they’re all funded by tax dollars and, generally speaking, they’re deaf on marijuana.

I could tell in some shocking detail what’s happening to me right now. I can’t get police protection to save my life, literally.

DEAN BECKER: Once again, that was Dr. Tom O’Connell, a retired Army thoracic surgeon who now writes pot recommendations in California. He’s done a great deal of study on this – certainly a lot more than the U.S. government.


DEAN BECKER: Look folks, the rules of the drug war are changing towards common sense, logic and science. It’s time for you to step up, contact your elected officials and newspaper editors. Let them know what you think on this. There is no justification for this whatsoever. It’s a sham, scam, flim-flam. It’s a fraud.

Prohibido istac evilesco!


For the Drug Truth Network, this is Dean Becker asking you to examine our policy of Drug Prohibition.

The Century of Lies.

This show produced at the Pacifica Studios of KPFT, Houston.

Transcript provided by: Jo-D Harrison of www.DrugSense.org