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.