Montel and Marijuana
After 17 years as a controversial talk show host, Montel Williams is no stranger to sparks flying. Now that he's a marijuana advocate, he's sparking something else altogether.
From 1991 through 2008, Montel Williams was a prominent daytime TV fixture with his Emmy-award winning talk program, The Montel Williams Show. But midway through the show’s run, he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and shortly after that began taking medical marijuana to help lessen the severity of the symptoms. Since his show went off the air, Williams has toured the country as a medical marijuana advocate, lobbying for states to legalize the drug and dispense it properly.
In this exclusive interview, the 56-year-old Baltimore native talks about how medical marijuana helps him to manage his MS, why he’s unhappy with President Obama’s hesitancy to talk about weed, and how far he's willing to go with his advocacy.
How did you get turned on to medical marijuana?
For six months after I was diagnosed with MS in 1999, I was given every prescription under the sun to help relieve some of the pain I was suffering with—Oxycontin, Vicodin, you name it. But none of it helped. A doctor suggested a lot of literature to me that discussed the benefits of cannabis on neuropathic pain. I started digging and realized there was something in all the anecdotal information, but it didn’t tell me if there was a difference in medical marijuana versus the kind you buy off the street.
I’m not saying we should make it so anyone can smoke whenever they want, but people who truly need this drug should not be punished.
When I used medical marijuana, I found a noticeable difference. It didn’t cause euphoria or anxiety and it took the edge off my pain. I’ve used it since then and will continue to use it until we can come up with a drug that will provide the same benefits.
A lot of the drugs you were given are considered just as addictive as marijuana, if not more so. Why do you think the government is so afraid of medical marijuana?
There’s so much tied up in the lie that’s been perpetuated for close to 100 years. How can a government now go back and say we’ve been wrong the whole time? We allowed a racist person, Harry Anslinger, to attempt to eradicate this drug off the planet. Marijuana was made illegal because of the Marijuana Tax Act, but if you look at the records, he was the biggest advocate for the act and said on the congressional floor that marijuana made white women want to sleep with black people and musicians.
Every study the government did from 1937 through 1964 unequivocally said it was a mistake to make marijuana illegal. Since then, you’ll get some studies that go back and forth, but even but even Gen. Barry McCaffrey said in 1980 that it was wrong to not have marijuana at least available for medicinal use. But the pharmaceutical industry can’t get their cut and until they find a way to do that and have medical marijuana regulated by the FDA, we will still have this problem.
Have you found that the perception of medical marijuana users has changed in the last 10 years?
Absolutely. It’s even changed in the last three to four years. I did a show with Dr. Oz on medical cannabis and 85 percent of the people there said they agreed that marijuana should be allowed for medicinal use. And you’ll find polls which are high as 88 percent. Not only that, but the world believes the perception has changed because we’re finding out more about this plant than ever before. Medical marijuana is legal in New Zealand and Spain and most of the EU. In Israel, it’s dispensed through state hospitals. And many of these countries are now testing out the cannabis-based medications that we’ll eventually be buying here for 100-200 times the price.
You helped open up and serve as a consultant to Abatin, a medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento. What about the current dispensary industry were you unhappy with?
Just to clarify, I no longer have an association with them. I was involved with helping this company move forward because they had a special paradigm. I helped them get the licensure they needed and I’m now doing my advocacy work more at the national level. I ultimately found that a lot of dispensaries aren’t concerned about helping sick people; they’re concerned about their pocketbooks.
But if it were up to me, I would shut all these dispensaries down and start again. Colorado and Washington have spoken obviously, but I would still be going to these states as an advocate because the marijuana they have truly doesn’t help patients. Medical grade marijuana is completely different from the stuff you get over the border in Mexico that is sold at a lot of dispensaries. And for someone like myself who has MS, that type of marijuana can cause seizures. There’s still a real need for a conversation about how to dispense what is truly a medical agent.
President Obama has said that he will not specifically target medical marijuana users with crimes. Do you agree with how he has approached this subject?
I don’t agree with it. If you look at the horrific nature of the school shooting in Connecticut, he spoke about all these initiatives that would be launched within two weeks to fix the gun issue. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people are going to jail for marijuana use and he’s not addressing this as an issue of national importance. It absolutely is. Their records have been permanently tarnished and many of these incarcerated people are true, legitimate patients. I’m not saying we should make it so anyone can smoke whenever they want, but people who truly need this drug should not be punished.
And he still hasn’t made an executive order to bring marijuana down from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II drug. Right now, it’s in the same category as heroin and crack cocaine. If it went down to Schedule II, it could be prescribed by a doctor and we could have a definite conversation about how to move forward.
Are there are any methods you use to lessen your symptoms besides medical marijuana?
What I do to manage my MS is a seven-prong approach that goes well beyond medical marijuana. I take 60 forms of supplements and hormonal replacements every day. I liquify about 60 percent of my daily intake. I’m part of a double blind study medical test at the University of Wisconsin. One thing will not fix this. I’m doing everything in my power to lessen and mitigate these symptoms and have the best quality of life possible.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years with your advocacy work?
Right now, we have 18 states and the District of Columbia which have allowed for doctors to recommend marijuana usage. In the next four years, I want to see more states do the same. Once we get up 25 or 26 states, people will ultimately have to start coming to their senses.
Ultimately, my advocacy for medical marijuana is no different than my advocacy for paralyzed veterans. I’m seeking everything I can to help mitigate my symptoms and live a better life, and I want to share that with everyone I touch. Marijuana is simply one of those things. It has a proven and viable use for a myriad of illnesses and it’s criminal we’re not allowing this for people who are truly suffering.
McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among many other topics, for The Fix.