Merck Gets Whacked

It took a Texas jury only a day and a half to sock it to Merck on behalf of Carol Ernst, a widow whose 53-year-old Vioxx-taking husband died of a heart attack in 2001. Texas has a protect-the-corporations cap, so the $253 million award will be reduced to $26 million, which will then be appealed. Merck shares fell 8% on news of the verdict. Merck had chosen the venue, Angleton, Texas, in Tom Delay’s district, and the case, in which the autopsy listed the cause of death as irregular heartbeat. (Clinical trials had linked Vioxx to heart attacks, strokes and blood clots; irregular heartbeat can have other origins.) The jury saw right through Merck’s lies.

Merck killed 19 times as many Americans with Vioxx than the 9/11 hijackers did with their planes, according to David Graham, MD, of the FDA. And it was intentional. Early clinical trials had alerted Merck executives to the fact that Vioxx caused coronary damage. Their response was to exclude from future trials anyone with a history of heart trouble. Once Vioxx was on the market, Merck suppressed indications that it was causing strokes and heart attacks at twice the normal rate.

The jurors who found for Carol Ernst against Merck were speaking for the American people, who have become totally hip to the pharmaceutical companies in recent years. “Respect us, that’s the message,” a juror Derrick Chizer, told the media. “Respect us.” Forewoman Marsha Robbins said, “We expect accountability, we expect them to be open with us, we expect them to be honest with us.”

Marijuana is literally and figuratively an alternative to Vioxx. The medical marijuana movement has contributed -and could contribute much more- to exposing and discrediting the pharmaceutical industry. Doctors in the Society of Cannabis Clinicians report that a large percentage of their patients define their progress in terms of which pharmaceutical drugs they can do without (avoiding adverse side effects and, often, great expense). “How’s your back pain?” the doctor will ask. “I’m taking half as many Vicodin,” the patient will respond.

Dennis Peron’s famous line -“In a country where they give Prozac to shy teenagers, all marijuana use is medical”- was not some sophistry trick to achieve legalization, it was a putdown of the pharmaceutical industry and a challenge to the medical establishment and to a rightwing culture that “medicalizes” problems that are basically economic. Dennis had interviewed thousands of people seeking to use marijuana for medical reasons, and determined that they all had rationales as compelling as the rationale for prescribing SSRI antidepressants. For his brilliant and forward-moving generalization, Dennis took an endless ration of shit. To this day, in the high-level chatrooms, Dale Gieringer, Scott Imler and others bemoan Dennis’s line (truncating it, although they know better, to “all use is medical”).

If Gieringer, Ethan Nadelman and other second-rank movement leaders (no disrespect, the second rank is a high rank indeed) had not taken offense at Dennis’s line in ’96, if they had pondered and acted on its implications, maybe the public in 2005 would be giving the medical marijuana movement some credit for exposing Merck et al. as greed-driven manufacturers of dangerous drugs. And maybe the public would not be surprised by footage of seemingly able-bodied young men emerging from cannabis dispensaries But the second-rank leaders were in the process of taking over the leadership, and they acted as if Dennis Peron, that wild man, had outworn his usefulness. The pros from Dover were going to play by the rules from now now…

Dennis’s instinct was to break out of the single-issue trap. He had said all along he wanted Prop 215 to be a step towards something bigger -MUCH bigger than the “legalization” goal that the Drug Warriors accuse the medical-marijuana advocates of pursuing. “This isn’t about marijuana, this is about America, it’s about how we treat each other as people,” he kept saying during the Prop 215 campaign. After 215 passed he was in a double bind. He had built the prototype “buy-low, sell-high cannabis club model” but he didn’t see how that model could lead to social change.

2. Dispensaries Get P.R. Conscious

The following email was sent on behalf of the Drug Policy Alliance by Dale Giering of California NORML


The SF Board of Supervisors is being deluged with complaints against MMJ dispensaries through an organized campaign led by neighborhood activists. Their aim is to pressure the Board to push a tough anti-dispensary ordinance. In order to resist this effort, we need allies from outside the MJ community who are willing to speak up in favor of the clubs. It would be particularly helpful to enlist supportive businesses, neighborhood groups and health care professionals. Please let us know if you are aware of any ‘outside’ supporters of dispensaries from S.F. who would be willing to voice their support. We are aiming to organize a campaign in favor of the dispensaries. Please circulate among friends in the SF area.

This effort would not be necessary now if the clubs had been relating differently to their customers (aka “the patients”) all along. I don’t mean that they should have been “providing social services” (the phrase makes my skin crawl) which some are now trying to do. I mean treating people as comrades in a political/educational struggle for the consciousness of America. At Dennis’s club the primary transaction was political/educational. In the early-to-mid-1990s seven thousand people got cards there at a time when getting one was a subversive act in and of itself. Then the place became Prop 215 headquarters. Even DP’s misbegotten run for governor in ’97 meant that 1444 Market was a political beehive. You couldn’t get upstairs without passing the literature/petition counter on the mezzanine. What I’m really talking about, though, is unquantifiable -a vibe, a mood in the air. At 1444 Market the nature of the dialogue between staff and patrons and between patrons and patrons usually touched on our new collective discovery: marijuana has beneficial medical effects for an amazing range of conditions! (And I bet a proper clinical trial would reveal that political action has antidepressant and other beneficial health effects.)

At very few of the clubs today is politics in the air. The transactions at the counter are overwhelmingly commercial. You might say Well, the times are different, the freshness of our discovery is gone. It isn’t. Tashkin’s cancer study, the role of CBD, the marketing of Sativex, the rescheduling fight, the busts, all the news that interests you and me would interest a significant fraction of cannabis dispensary patrons if it was laid on them in the right way. That’s the role that I thought a paper could play. I told Ethan Nadelmann in December ’96 as he started tritzing off to the other states (anointed by the NYT as our leader) that we needed a paper to sustain the movement in California. I wanted to say it at ASA’s first conference when they wouldn’t let me speak on What is to be done. I tried to explain to Hilary McQuie the need for a paper and she cut me off: “That’s not politics, that’s media.”

Organizing the club members might have obviated the need to now fight a NIMBY backlash in another way: the more responsibility people feel towards the movement, the less they’ll tolerate loitering by knuckleheads, and some of the knuckleheads would have been transformed, just from having been treated with some intellectual respect, into better citizens.

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Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at