John P. Morgan, a physician and pharmacologist who has played a prominent role in the drug policy reform movement for many years, died on Friday at the age of 67 from acute myeloid leukemia. I saw him at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in early December and had no idea he was ill. Perhaps he didn't either; this disease is often rapidly fatal after the symptoms are first detected. Morgan, a professor of pharmacology at the City University of New York from 1977 to 2004 and a longtime adviser to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, brought to the anti-prohibitionist movement the deep knowledge, openness to argument, and calm and measured manner of a careful scholar. These traits were evident in what he said (see above for an example) and in what he wrote. Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts, the 1997 book he co-authored with Queens College sociologist Lynn Zimmer, concisely and authoritatively debunked the major themes of anti-pot propaganda, but it's really not a pro-pot book. It could more accurately be described as a pro-science book. Morgan emphasized that every drug has its hazards but insisted that they be assessed dispassionately, without regard to the drug's current legal status.
Sometimes that's tricky, because making a drug illegal has a way of enhancing its dangers, a phenomenon to which Morgan frequently drew attention. In a 1990 speech at the Hoover Institution, for instance, he used the experience with adulterated ginger "jake"during alcohol prohibition to illustrate four features of drug prohibition:
1. Prohibition engenders criminal enterprises and criminal subcultures.
2. Prohibition generates more potent forms of the forbidden substance.
3. Prohibition enlarges drug toxicity by contamination and adulteration.
4. Those poisoned by interdicted substances in their potent or contaminated forms are blamed for their disabilities, or even their deaths, because they were engaging in outlawed conduct.
My last interaction with Morgan occurred at the conference in December, when I participated in a panel on methamphetamine. My presentation dealt with responsible, controlled use of amphetamines, a topic I broached with some trepidation, since meth has a bad rap even among critics of the war on drugs and even among illegal drug users ("Speed Kills" and all that). During the question-and-answer session, Morgan said he agreed that concern about the "methamphetamine epidemic" had made it difficult to talk about the drug's legitimate uses, which do not necessarily require a doctor's prescription to validate them. He said he had personally found methamphetamine tremendously useful during his education and career, calling it one of the safest drugs around when used responsibly. Coming from most people in most contexts, this would have been a startling admission. But coming from the eminently reasonable Morgan and delivered in his usual matter-of-fact tone, it cut through the hysteria and introduced a much-needed alternative perspective. Morgan made a career of doing that, and his well-informed skepticism will be sorely missed.