In the winter of 1972, 20 young women took part in one of the weirdest scientific experiments in this country’s history.
For 98 days in a downtown Toronto hospital, their brains, hearts, kidneys, livers, blood and urine were rigorously tested and analyzed. A team of nurses kept round-the-clock records of their behaviour, logged at half-hour intervals.
Just how was marijuana affecting the 10 who had to smoke it every day?
Forty-one years later, these women are still wondering what exactly happened to them during their three-month stretch as human guinea pigs.
Doreen Brown, who now lives in Cambridge, is one of the women who took part in the study while in her 20s. She turns 63 this month.
In the late 1960s, Brown moved to downtown Toronto to live on her own after her mother died. She was 17.
“I was full of grief, a brick wall,” says Brown. “I did things I knew weren’t good for me.”
Acid, mescaline, marijuana.
Though high or tired, she never missed a shift as a department store secretary.
But by the time she was 21, the lifestyle was wearing on her. When a co-worker told her a group of scientists was looking for female volunteers to participate in a marijuana study for money, she saw an escape.
“It was a very split-second decision,” Brown says. “I didn’t like what I was doing. I wanted a change and thought, ‘Why not?’ ”
The research was part of a million-dollar program, the last in a series of provincially funded experiments designed to answer one of the country’s most pressing questions, raised when then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau entertained the idea of legalizing marijuana.
The study was lead by C.G. ( Bill ) Miles, a British psychologist working in Toronto.
In 1971, the Addiction Research Foundation opened a research and treatment hospital where Miles’ marijuana study, Project E206, would be held.
He assembled a team that included two behavioural psychologists, one doctor, a psychiatrist, a social worker and a full-shift complement of registered nurses and attendants.
The hospital welcomed the 20 women to the ward with a formal dinner on Jan. 31, 1972.
Brown, then 21, scanned the long table. None of the women, aged 18 to 35, looked familiar, though some seemed to know each other.
The ward was clean and modern, with blue carpet underfoot and the smell of fresh paint in the air.
It seemed an ideal place for a personal reinvention.
“I was hoping that maybe in there I would solve some of my issues – to be more open, happier,” Brown says. “I was definitely a lost soul at that point. Directionless. I needed help but I didn’t know where to go to get it.”
The women were quickly split into two groups in two different areas of the hospital. Half of them – the experimental group – were required to smoke increasingly potent doses of marijuana twice a night, while the other half – the control group – did not. Both sides could buy as many relatively mild joints as they wanted for 50 cents apiece at a store that also sold alcohol, junk food, toiletries, cigarettes and magazines.
And then they got to work.
A key element of the study was its microeconomy. The women were required to cover the cost of their existence, except for their bed and water, for 98 days. Whatever money they earned and did not spend on food, clothing or entertainment, they could keep. A $250 bonus awaited those who stuck with the experiment until the end. Those who quit early would lose the extra payout and up to 75 per cent of their savings.
They made their living on a primitive-looking wooden device, a Guatemalan backstrap loom, on which they wove colourful, fuzzy, woollen belts with knotted tassels. For every belt that passed inspection – it had to contain at least two colours and measure 132 centimetres in length – the women received $2.50.
After a few days of practice, the task got easier.
One participant bought chalk from the ward store to draw murals on the lounge walls. Another, a professional bartender, mixed drinks. Women in both groups were known to walk around naked. Living on locked, separate wards didn’t stop women from the two groups from communicating with each other or people in surrounding office buildings – like the men who were being held in the forensic psychiatry unit at the Clarke Institute, which was next door. The women wrote friendly, short messages on large placards and flashed their signs through the large windows that faced the street and an interior courtyard.
The carefree vibe didn’t last long.
The joints became so potent that some sought a doctor’s note to get out of their nightly obligations, saying they felt too sick to smoke.
“We were asking them to take it away,” Brown says. “They knew we wanted it taken away; there was no doubt. I felt comatose. I couldn’t do anything.
“It became torture,” Brown says.
In the last week, the women who were left on the mandatory smoking unit refused to continue.
On May 8, 1972, the women left the centre.
Brown expected relief, some sense of freedom, but she felt paranoid instead.
“It was very scary,” she says. “I thought, ‘Where am I going to go? What am I going to do?’ I was afraid to get on the subway.
“I was hoping that being in there for those 98 days might give me some perspective. But if anything, for me, it magnified my problems.”
She spent a few years in therapy and went to the University of Toronto to study political science and history.
In her late 30s, she got pregnant and moved to Cambridge to raise her son. She still works full-time at a local hearing clinic. She has a granddaughter.
She still wonders what became of the results of the experiment.
Brown says she made several inquiries during the ’80s and ’90s. She would have been more aggressive but feared she might lose her job at the time if word got out that she had taken part in a marijuana experiment.
She’s less concerned now.
“I want to know, I want to know,” she says. “The dosages. What they found psychologically, physically. I feel ripped off, taken advantage of. It’s just like it didn’t happen. I feel like, yeah, you gave three months of your life for what?
“Were the results that horrible that they didn’t give them to us? You wonder. I think they might have supported legalizing marijuana. That’s why they didn’t come out. I don’t know. It leaves you with a lot of questions.”
Miles died in 2009 at the age of 74, but there are still some people who can help fill in the blanks of the women-and-marijuana study.
Janet McDougall was one of the junior researchers on the project.
She recalls the group disbanding suddenly and being left virtually alone with a few binders and reels of brown data tape. On Miles’ instructions, she sent portions of it to economists at Texas A&M University.
Among them was John Kagel, now a professor of applied microeconomics at Ohio State University. “Our analysis showed these people were perfectly rational, worked their butts off. There was a beautiful, inadvertent event where they went on strike because they were making them smoke too much marijuana and it was interfering with their earnings, which appeared to be a primary motivation for some of them going into the thing.”
Research today indicates that while frequent cannabis smoking may well have harmful effects – including dependence and susceptibility to lung infections – motivation is not a problem.
Junior researcher McDougall does not know where the rest of the research data is today.
Dr. Harold Kalant, the renowned former director of biological and behavioural research at the Addiction Research Foundation who, at 90, still works for its successor, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, knew in general terms what Miles was doing and what he found.
Did politics get in the way of Miles disseminating the data into a final report?
“My guess is that it probably wasn’t yielding anything that was going to have a direct influence on policy,” says Kalant.
For all the questions it raised, the study did answer at least one question convincingly, according to Ohio State’s Kagel.
“In terms of the central issue, if you legalize marijuana, were you going to get a bunch of stoned people just hanging out smoking dope all the time and not doing any work? This is fairly convincing evidence that wasn’t going to happen.”
Source: Record, The (Kitchener, CN ON)
Copyright: 2013 Metroland Media Group Ltd.
Author: Diana Zlomislic