Yesterday, after thirty years of stubbornly fighting Parkinson’s Disease, my father passed away. My father was a beautiful man. He was a true academic, an eternal professor and economist who always thought his next publication would revolutionize the world and pull it out of poverty. A man with an artistic soul who relished exploring the ugliest parts of the world to find beauty. An athlete who played basketball from Harlem to the Middle East to South Asia—never backing down (and never giving me an easy basket). Even in his last days with minimal mobility, he attempted a few last baskets leaning askew in a wheelchair.
When I was 16 I drove my father to the university hospital where, at the age of 48, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. It was the first time I heard the name of that disease but the grim looks on my parent’s faces told me everything I needed to know. The next three decades my father progressively got worse. An initial slight tremor became more pronounced and violent. Once an avid runner, he lost the ability to walk without assistance, and eventually became completely dependent on a wheelchair and caretaker. Parkinson’s robbed an ivy league professor and government advisor, respected for his sharp tongue and direct analysis, of his ability to speak, write and think. The once simple pleasure and luxury of food became an exercise in torture when he lost the ability to chew and swallow.
My father was loved by those who knew him, including those he worked with who always ensured he went to the best hospitals and saw the best doctors. Throughout the three decades between diagnoses and his ultimate mortality, my father went through three brain surgeries, had numerous falls and accidents, and spent countless days, weeks, and months in hospital both in the United States and Thailand. He was prescribed a plethora of strong medication with horrible side effects which rivaled the disease.
Our family spent endless hours researching the disease and trying to understand anything which would mitigate its devastating effects. Ten years ago, we started reading about cannabis’s promising effects on Parkinson’s Disease. We approached my father’s doctor here in Bangkok and asked him about its usages and application for my father. The doctor, normally a gregarious and pleasant gent, was cold and short and stated “no, not for consideration, it is illegal, no cannabis, this is not an option.” I nonetheless procured cannabis infused coconut oil and would administer a couple drops. As a result, he would calm down, but would also become incredibly lethargic, sleeping upwards of 14 hours a night. Frightened that we may be doing more harm than good, and that we may be contributing to his cognitive degeneration, my family decided to abandon our cannabis experiment.
Eight years later—when medicinal cannabis was legalized here in Thailand—I asked the same doctor again about using cannabis. This time he smiled calmly and said, “yes, it is good for Parkinson’s patients early in their symptoms and I use it for my patients now, but your father has deteriorated too much, and its down sides are greater than its upside”. I was initially upset with this answer and with the doctor for forgoing cannabis treatment for my father earlier when it could have potentially helped. But it is not the doctor’s fault—I cannot blame him for not wanting to treat my father when credible, safe, and legal cannabis was not available. That is not fair to the doctor. My ire turned to my father’s doctors in the US, those who prescribed severely strong medications and brain surgery. If they could prescribe these medications (some of which replicate some of the effects of cannabis with added side effects) why didn’t they contemplate cannabis? I can only guess that the answer has to do with the standard operating procedures of the hospital and related constraints, perhaps limits provided by insurance, and the ongoing Federal restrictions on cannabis in the US. This is harder for me to swallow, in particular the Federal restrictions on cannabis in the United States which effectively shut down all major research related to cannabis.
For close to a century—a century which has seen incredible leaps and bound in medicine—understanding cannabis and its potential has come from a few enlightened researchers outside of the US. Rather than focus on understanding and harnessing the potential of cannabis, the US Federal government stigmatized it, prohibited it, and then led an ill-conceived and destructive “war on drugs” which it shared with the rest of the world—including painfully here in Thailand. Make no mistake about it, cannabis was made illegal for reasons other than the effects of the plant. In fact, in 1937 the American Medical Association objected to its full ban in with the foresight that such prohibition would rob society of an effective medicine and a 1944 report from the New York Academy of Medicine found that cannabis prohibition was linked more to racism and ulterior motives than any concern for its abuse.
My father was kind and generous with those he loved and respected—but he was also impatient and had no time for stupidity or face-saving idiots. When I was 15 years old, I was summoned to my high school principal’s office for calling my “university advisor” a “bloody clown”. I was bewildered by the accusation, and vehemently denied it. This only further infuriated the principal who pulled out an answering machine and played evidence that the “university advisor” had indeed been called a “bloody clown who knows nothing about universities or her students and should be nowhere close to academia”. The familiar voice on the recording was not mine, but my father’s. Indeed, my “university advisor” was a “bloody clown”. Rather than give credible advice to students, she pushed obscure institutions and community colleges which may have incentivized her. At that time, I had already received a music scholarship offer to my in-state flagship university, but she still advocated vocational schools a thousand miles away. That may have been fine advice for someone but did not fit me nor most students at my high school. Soon after that encounter the school determined that the “advisor” was not a qualified “university advisor” and she was transferred to a different position. My father had advocated for me—he had protected me from an unqualified and perhaps corrupt member of the school’s faculty as well as the system which put her in place. He did this with love and knowledge, and an abrasive confidence which would not accept tolerating a school appointed “bloody clown” at the expense of my future.
I sit here a day after my father’s ultimate demise, thinking about that story and my time with him, thinking not about what could have saved him from Parkinson’s but rather what could have made him more comfortable over his last thirty years fighting the disease. Thinking about what could have made the thirty years he battled more livable and more human. I do not know that cannabis was that solution, but I strongly suspect that it may have been and that he, and many others, were robbed by “bloody clowns” who had other their own interests at heart. I love my Dad dearly, but it is too late to advocate for him now. It’s been too late for a while. But I will not stop advocating against corrupt, ineffective, and stupid “bloody clowns” who would try to set us back another century. If I can no longer advocate for my father, I will do it for my own son, for the rest of my family, and for everyone who has a loved one who has felt pain. Bloody clowns have no one’s interests at heart but their own—I have no patience for them.