Published: Feb 07, 2011 7:26 PM EST
Updated: Feb 07, 2011 4:41 PM EST

FORT LAUDERDALE- On a recent chilly morning, Fort Lauderdale stockbroker Irvin Rosenfeld interrupted his client calls for a quick marijuana cigarette in the company parking lot. Then he went back to work.

The cigarette perfectly legal for him was one of about 120,000 the federal government has provided to him at taxpayer expense for the past 29 years. He's one of only four people who remain in a now-closed "compassionate" drug program that at its peak provided 13 patients across the country with daily doses of pot to help manage medical conditions.

For Rosenfeld, the 10 to 12 marijuana cigarettes he smokes every day help relieve a rare condition called Multiple Congenital Cartilaginous Exostosis, which causes painful tumors to grow from the ends of his bones.

He says the drug doesn't make him high or interfere with work, but it does ease his pain, make his joints more flexible and, for decades, has stopped the growth of tumors.

His new self-published book, My Medicine: How I Convinced the Federal Government to Provide my Marijuana and Helped Launch a National Movement, tells the story of his pot use, arguing that the federal government should be more aggressive in studying its medical uses. He praises the growing national push to legalize medical marijuana, as 15 states have already done. The federal government still classifies it as a controlled substance with no legitimate medical uses.

"The more places it's legal, the more people will see it's not dangerous and stop some of the hysteria," says Rosenfeld, 58.

He says cannabis has helped him stay healthy. He plays softball and teaches a sailing class for the disabled in Coconut Grove.

"I've never missed a day of work due to illness," he says. "I'm a very healthy disabled person."

He tells his clients what he's doing and has the blessing of his firm, Newbridge Securities Corp. of Fort Lauderdale.

Dr. Charles Goldman, the Norfolk, Va., endocrinologist who wrote the original application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for Rosenfeld's medical marijuana, says he believes it helped reduce his pain and thus improve his mobility by acting on his central nervous system.

"He had been taking another potent, controlled narcotic, Dilaudid, in significant amounts for severe pain," Goldman said. "He was off Dilaudid entirely within six months."

The physician says he regularly checked Rosenfeld to be sure he could safely drive after smoking marijuana and determined the drug didn't make him high: "I don't know why."

Goldman didn't follow Rosenfeld long-term, so he doesn't know whether the marijuana prevented the progression of his bone tumors nor whether he might be risking lung cancer or other smoking-related diseases. Rosenfeld's other doctors declined to comment.

Medical marijuana is illegal in Florida, but patients still seek its perceived benefits. Dr. Nancy Klimas, professor of immunology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, has prescribed Marinol, a legal, synthetic form of the Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that gives marijuana its buzz, to ease nausea in chemotherapy patients, increase appetite in cancer patients and combat a wasting syndrome in end-stage AIDS patients.

"It works," she says.

Klimas said she knows of patients who prefer the real thing and go out of state to buy medical marijuana, but she warns: "Smoking anything is a bad idea. It causes lung problems."

For Rosenfeld, the drug has been a help. He was diagnosed at age 10 with a hereditary, incurable disease in which growths form on the ends of the long bones and develop into caps of cartilage that reduce mobility and create pain.

"By 13, I was on Demerol for pain, and I couldn't walk on my own," the Portsmouth, Va., native says.

After Rosenfeld finished high school, his doctor suggested that a warmer climate might ease his pain. In 1971, he moved to South Miami and enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College.

Over the years, he treated his condition with prescription drugs including Percocet, Darvon, Dilaudid (synthetic morphine), Methaqualone and Valium.

His life changed when he smoked a marijuana cigarette at a party.

"Then I realized something astonishing: I had been sitting down for 30 minutes!" he writes in his book. "This was the first time in five years I had sat still for longer than 10 minutes. Just then, the joint was passed to me. I looked at it and a light bulb went off: I wonder if marijuana relaxed my legs?"

After that, Rosenfeld says, he bought marijuana on the street. Then, in 1977, he heard Washington glaucoma patient Robert Randall give a speech. Randall had been arrested two years earlier for growing marijuana to treat his eye disease and won his case by using a "medical necessity" defense.

Randall's search for a legal way to get marijuana led him to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which had a contract with the University of Mississippi to grow pot for biomedical research. In 1976, the government created an Investigational New Drug Compassionate Access Program and gave Randall's doctor access to marijuana from the university's farm.

Rosenfeld, who had been petitioning the FDA in vain, introduced himself to Randall and, with his help, got into the program, though he had to sign a release promising he wouldn't sue if he got lung cancer.

Every month since then, NIDA picks up the marijuana, sends it to a lab in Raleigh, N.C., to be made into cigarettes, packs 300 in a tin and ships them to a pharmacy in Miami where Rosenfeld picks them up. His cost: about $50 to cover handling.

But the program created an awkward situation for the federal government: NIDA was supplying marijuana to patients whose physicians had secured FDA permission at the same time the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration deemed marijuana illegal, without legitimate medical use.

In 1992, as HIV and AIDS patients began flooding the program with pot requests, President George H.W. Bush's administration closed it to new applicants.

Rosenfeld says that decision sparked campaigns on the state level to legalize medical marijuana. Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington have done so.

Nonetheless, marijuana possession remains a crime on the federal level and in many states, including Florida. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said his office would not bring charges against people who use marijuana for medical reasons, but some federal prosecutors have said they will continue to prosecute anyway.

Conflicting laws and policies put employers in a difficult position, says Mark Levitt, an Orlando labor and employment lawyer. If, for example, a truck driver who smokes medical marijuana in a state that permits it injures someone in an accident, the employer could be liable, he says.

"What effect does it have on my ability to do my job?" Levitt asks. "It may depend on the job. If I'm driving, if I'm a police officer carrying a gun, it could be a problem. ... There's a potential conflict between the state's right to implement these laws and federal laws prohibiting drugs."

Support for legalizing medical marijuana in Florida appears limited. After two years of trying, Orlando-based People United for Medical Marijuana (PUFFM) has about 26,000 of the 677,000 signatures needed to put the issue on a ballot, says president Kim Russell. It has raised $34,000 of the $5 million she estimates would be needed to run a successful referendum campaign and is still seeking legislative sponsors.

On the federal level, meanwhile, NIDA has announced it will set aside $10 million in grants for institutions to study the effects of the movement to legalize medical pot.

Says Rosenfeld: "Our new president has pledged to bring about change. Could there be a more dramatic change than ending medical cannabis prohibition? Cannabis works as a medicine. I'm living proof."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)