But before long, the idea had caught on not just in hippy-dippy California but in less fashionable places like Alaska, Maine, Michigan and Montana. Some 75 percent of Americans think doctors should be permitted to prescribe cannabis. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws reports that in 33 state referenda since 1992, voters have embraced liberalization 30 times.
Most of the time, the two major parties are about as different as Coke and Pepsi. But last year, they presented a stark contrast on this issue. Republicans denounced the use of marijuana as medicine, while Democrats lined up to criticize the prevailing federal policy.
Obama took a clear position, declaring it "entirely appropriate" for physicians to prescribe cannabis and pledging, "What I'm not going to be doing is using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue."
But as opponents of the Iraq war, "don't-ask-don't-tell" and Guantanamo know, a promise made by Obama is not exactly money in the bank. This time, though, he deserves full credit for doing what he said he would do, repudiating a bipartisan legacy of pig-headed stupidity.
What's more, Obama may not stop there. Some drug reformers expect the administration to agree to let a scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst grow cannabis for research on its medical potential -- something the Bush administration opposed, lest the research contradict its ideology.
During the campaign, he also indicated he favors scrapping a 21-year-old policy that forbids cities from using federal money to finance needle-exchange programs to block the spread of AIDS, and the House voted last summer to lift the ban. The White House drug czar has even solicited advice from critics of the drug war, whom previous drug czars saw as deranged.
Robert Randall, who died in 2001, might have been surprised to hear the federal government admit the possibility that it was wrong about marijuana. He probably wouldn't have been surprised that it took 33 years.