In 1973, Robert Randall was going blind from glaucoma when he discovered that smoking marijuana seemed to help his condition. That didn't matter to police when they found the Washington, D.C., resident growing cannabis and arrested him. Preferring to keep his sight, Randall sued the federal government, arguing that he was entitled to smoke pot as a "medical necessity."
It was a far-fetched argument -- but it worked. In 1976, a court ruled in Randall's favor. Before long, the federal government found itself in the strange position of supplying marijuana to him and a handful of other patients under a "compassionate use" program.
The compassion didn't go very far. The first President Bush stopped the acceptance of new patients into the program in 1992 rather than admit all those annoying AIDS victims, insisting that it sent a dangerous message to young people.
The real danger, of course, was the message that government policy on cannabis was ignorant and irrational. But since then, one president and one drug czar after another has furiously resisted efforts to allow therapeutic use of the drug no matter how helpful it may be to the sick and dying.
Until now. This week, the Justice Department kept a promise made by candidate Barack Obama when it announced that henceforth, "it will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana."
The change is not only historic but humane and intelligent, two adjectives rarely applied to federal drug policy. Science has established that cannabis has useful properties for the treatment of various diseases, countless physicians have endorsed it, and 14 states have allowed sick people access to marijuana. But for three decades, the people in charge of drug policy in the federal government didn't give a rat's bottom.
In 1996, after California voters approved a medical marijuana law, the Clinton administration fought it every step of the way -- filing lawsuits to close cannabis buyers clubs, threatening to strip the licenses of doctors who recommended marijuana to patients and denouncing the entire program as "a Cheech and Chong show."
The Bush administration stuck to the same course. It raided California dispensaries and went all the way to the Supreme Court in a successful effort to crush the notion -- the conservative notion, come to think of it -- that states should have the power to set their own policy on pot.
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.