Ralph Seeley, attorney and advocate for medical marijuana, dies on January 21, 1998.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 12/18/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10282
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On January 21, 1998, Tacoma attorney Ralph L. Seeley (1948-1998) succumbs to a cancer that has tormented him for more than a decade. Diagnosed in 1986 with chordoma, a rare bone cancer that starts in the spine, Seeley endures a dozen surgeries and several courses of chemotherapy and radiation therapy that cause severe nausea, vomiting, and debilitation. He finds that smoking marijuana, which his doctors cannot legally prescribe, provides much greater relief than any of the medications that are permitted under the law. Seeley sues the State of Washington, asking that it be compelled to reclassify marijuana as a drug that can be prescribed. A Pierce County superior court judge rules in Seeley's favor, but the state will appeal. In July 1997, the Washington State Supreme Court reverses the ruling of the lower court, holding that the state's prohibition of medical marijuana was rationally related to the legitimate goals of preventing drug abuse and protecting the public from untested medications. Less than six months later, Seeley is dead, but the cause he fought for is not. In less than a year, Washington's voters will overwhelmingly approve Initiative 692, which permits qualifying patients to obtain prescriptions for "medical marijuana." Fourteen years later, voters will approve another initiative, this time legalizing the recreational use of marijuana by adults.

A Man of Many Parts

Ralph L. Seeley was born in Spokane, Washington, on December 6, 1948, one of three children of Air Force Major Karl Seeley and Peggy Seeley. He joined the navy after graduation from high school, serving six years on nuclear subs and singing in the Navy's renowned Blue Jackets Choir. Following his discharge, Seeley earned a journalism degree at Evergreen State College in Olympia and went to work as a reporter and columnist for the Bremerton Sun and Tacoma News Tribune newspapers. He was also a small-plane pilot and managing editor of Western Flyer, a regional aviation newsletter. His other interests included classical music and fly fishing.

In 1986, Seeley was diagnosed with chordoma, a rare cancer that afflicts only about one in a million people, mostly men, and mostly between the ages of 40 and 70. Tumors first appear somewhere along the spine between the skull and the tailbone. It is a slow-growing cancer, but often, as in Seeley's case, it metastasizes to other areas, including vital organs. The spinal tumors alone can cause severe pain, partial paralysis, and bowel and bladder dysfunction.

Seeley endured 12 years of treatment, including several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. He had eight surgical procedures on his spine alone and two that removed all of his right lung and a portion of his left. The cancer eventually invaded his liver, his sacrum, and even the gluteus muscles of his buttocks. His chemotherapy-induced suffering was graphically described in a law review article written shortly after his death:

"In the course of chemotherapy, Mr. Seeley became so violently ill that he considered discontinuing the treatment and allowing the disease to run its course. He described the nausea that resulted from the chemotherapy as 'the most debilitating pain I have ever experienced ... .  [C]hemotherapy-induced nausea is not an "upset tummy."  It is violent, unrelenting retching and gagging, often accompanied by an uncontrollable release of bowel control.'  Mr. Seeley's suffering from chemotherapy included hours of agony ending with minutes of lying helpless on the hospital floor, curled in a fetal position, covered with his own vomit and excrement, and unable to pull the 'nurse-call' cord a few inches from his face" ("In Memoriam: Ralph Seeley").

Despite his ordeals, Seeley decided on a career change, and in 1991 he enrolled in the night-school law program at the University of Puget Sound, graduating in 1993. He married one of his classmates, Judith Tuffias, and upon graduation went to work for veteran Tacoma attorney and former state senator Neil Hoff (1921-2005). Just two years later Seeley, in his first court trial, won a $9-million jury verdict against the state of Washington, representing a pharmacist who claimed his First Amendment right of free speech was violated when he was demoted at Western State Hospital after criticizing personnel policies. That verdict would be overturned by the state Court of Appeals the following year, but the case marked Seeley as an attorney to be reckoned with.

Marijuana as Medicine

Seeley's severe reaction to chemotherapy led his medical providers to prescribe various drugs to try to stem the nausea and pain, including the synthetic form of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary active ingredient in marijuana, marketed under the name Marinol and approved for prescription by the state pharmacy board. It was only mildly helpful and had several downsides. It took hours for the drug, in pill form, to be absorbed into the system and take effect. Since waves of nausea would hit Seeley at unpredictable times, Marinol provided little relief. In addition, once it did take effect, the "high" caused by THC would last for up to 14 hours. This compromised Seeley's reading comprehension and ability to speak with clarity, both skills that were integral to his ability to practice law. If that was not enough, Seeley would often be so nauseated when he took the Marinol pill that he promptly vomited it up. With a typical touch of humor, he summed up his experiences to a reporter for The Seattle Times:

"it makes you very high for a very long time. You take a tablet at 10 a.m., at noon the next day, you're still losing arguments with the doorknob" ("Selling Just What Doctor Can't Order ... ").

Finally, one of Seeley's physicians recommended that he try smoking marijuana to relieve his symptoms. Seeley consulted with other cancer patients who had found relief that way, then tried it himself. He obtained his marijuana from Joanna McKee of Green Cross Patient Co-op on Bainbridge Island, who risked prosecution by providing marijuana to a network of people suffering from AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and cancer. (McKee would eventually be charged, but the case was thrown out when a judge ruled that the search warrant used to seize 162 marijuana plants was faulty.)

The smoked marijuana gave Seeley relief that all the other anti-nausea agents, including Marinol, had failed to provide. The antiemetic effects were nearly instantaneous, unlike the pill form of THC. Almost as important to Seeley, the effects of smoking marijuana wore off much faster than those resulting from ingesting Marinol. He knew that his cancer was incurable and would eventually lead to his death, but smoking marijuana at least helped improve Seeley's quality of life and enabled him to continue in the practice of law. Quoted again in The Seattle Times, Seeley said:

"What I discovered is if I relied on legal medication, I would be very sick for a very long time and watch a lot of $3.11 tablets disappear down the toilet. And if I got one down, I'd ruin the next day, be so damned stoned I couldn't function. But if I smoked marijuana, five or 10 minutes later, I'm done. I'm fine" ("Selling Just What Doctor Can't Order ... ").

Taking On the State

Seeley no doubt could have continued to obtain marijuana, either from Green Cross Patient Coop or from other sources. After all, its use had been commonplace in America ever since the 1960s. Despite its illegality, it was readily available, and mere possession of the drug was rarely prosecuted aggressively in Washington state.  But Seeley was outraged by the Green Cross bust, and by the fact that both state and federal law continued to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug having "no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse" ("Definition of Controlled Substance Schedules").

Facing death, suffering greatly, and getting effective and reliable relief only from smoking marijuana, Seeley begged to differ. But the Schedule 1 classification put marijuana in the same category as heroin and other indisputably dangerous drugs (and a few others that, like marijuana, many believed did not belong on the list). This meant that Seeley's doctors were unable to prescribe marijuana for him, even if they were convinced to a medical certainty that it was the most effective treatment for his symptoms.

Barred from obtaining legally what he considered to be vital medicine, Seeley filed suit in the Pierce County Superior Court against the state of Washington. He asked the court to declare that the classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug violated the Privileges and Immunities clause and the Equal Protection clause of both the United States Constitution and the Washington State Constitution. In his brief to the court, Seeley said:

"The plaintiff is denied the privilege of ending his suffering by the use of a therapeutic drug while others are granted the privilege of ending their suffering with access to far more harmful and addictive drugs, such as morphine, cocaine, amphetamines, barbiturates and opium" (Brief of Petitioner, Seeley v. State, Pierce County Superior Court Cause No. 94-2-11862-1).

He asked that the court order the State Board of Pharmacy to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule 2 drug, which would allow medical providers to prescribe it for patients. Among the other Schedule 2 drugs were cocaine, amphetamines, and morphine, hardly harmless substances, yet available to patients with a doctor's prescription. Illogically, Marinol, the problematic synthetic THC that had failed to provide Seeley with relief, was classified as a Schedule 2 drug, whereas the plant that produced THC naturally was considered by the government to be of no medical value whatsoever and put in Schedule 1.

Seeley's suit was heard by Judge Roseanne Buckner, and it was widely anticipated that she would uphold the state's classification system. But Seeley had persuasive support. One of his  doctors, orthopedic surgeon Ernest Conrad, despite some concerns about its effects on Seeley's compromised respiratory system, stated that he would prescribe marijuana for him if he could. As he explained:

"I don't personally feel like withholding that from him. It's a matter of what you think is reasonable for a terminal patient" ("Selling Just What Doctor Can't Order ... ").

To the surprise of most court observers, Judge Buckner granted Seeley's request for a declaratory judgment, ruling that the state must reclassify marijuana and make it legal for doctors to prescribe to patients whom they believed would benefit. In her decision, Buckner balanced the interests of patients like Seeley, who claimed marijuana provided relief that no legal drug did, against the interests of the state in keeping it on Schedule 1. She found that the patients' rights should prevail, and ordered the State Board of Pharmacy to reclassify marijuana. Seeley was of course pleased, as was McKee of the Green Cross coop. In a prediction that would eventually be borne out, she told The Seattle Times:

"If Ralph lives long enough, marijuana will be a Schedule 2 drug in the state of Washington, in which case it will be the most advanced state in the country. Medical marijuana is the Achilles' heel of the drug war. Unless they figure that out and leave us alone, they'll keep losing" ("Judge Rules For Marijuana As Prescription").

A Reversal and an Angry Dissent

McKee's confident prediction seemed premature when the attorney-general's office appealed Judge Buckner's ruling to the state Supreme Court and won a reversal of her decision. Justice Barbara Madsen authored the opinion and was joined by seven of the court's other eight justices. Brushing aside all arguments to the contrary, the court ruled that Seeley and others like him had no "fundamental right" to obtain medical marijuana by prescription, and that the state's Schedule 1 classification was within its sound discretion and supported by a "rational basis" (Seeley v. State).

One justice disagreed, and wrote a scorching dissenting opinion that soon became legendary in the legal community. Richard B. Sanders, who in 1995 had been elected to fill a partial term in a vacant seat on the court, was a philosophical libertarian with an abiding suspicion of government overreach. His dissent opened with a quote from journalist Joseph Sobran: "When our rulers worry about our health, we should worry about our liberty" (Seeley v. State). This was to be about the most gentle comment Justice Sanders had to make, either about the  state's classification of marijuana or the ruling of the eight other justices. He opened with some general observations:

"[Seeley] comes to court on his own behalf to argue a matter of a very personal nature directly pertaining to physical pain which only he can experience. By contrast considerations of public need and necessity are at most lawyer-like abstractions. Refusing palliative relief to a dying man may please the politicians yet does great damage to Seeley's liberty and nothing for his health."

Justice Sanders was just getting warmed up, and he next lit into the state:

"the State purports to justify this total prohibition of marijuana by taking a 'larger focus.' It asserts absolute criminal prohibition, even as applied to Mr. Seeley, promotes legitimate governmental objectives associated with discouraging drug abuse and otherwise protecting the citizenry from itself by curtailing what it alleges to be the unknown consequences associated with the inhalation of marijuana. But these reasons even if valid have no particular application to Seeley, who is terminally ill, admittedly finds relief in smoking marijuana, and seeks  to follow the advice of his own physician who attests marijuana is medically advisable. From the perspective of one writhing in nausea on the tiled floor of an oncological recovery room, the State's justifications to withhold the blessings of relief are more sophomoric than substantive."

Nor did Sanders spare his fellow jurists:

"I wonder how many minutes of Seeley's agony the Legislature and/or the majority of this court would endure before seeing the light. Words are insufficient to convey the needless suffering which the merciless State has imposed" (Seeley v. State of Washington, dissent of Justice Sanders).

Sanders dissent was unusually direct, heartfelt, and powerful, but didn't rely only on the obvious emotional appeals of the case. He fully analyzed the legal issues and concluded, unlike the majority, that Seeley's arguments were not only morally just, but legally correct.

Death Comes to Ralph Seeley

It can be seriously doubted that Ralph Seeley lived out the few short months he had left without the relief he had found with marijuana. His suit against the state clearly had less to do with his ability to obtain marijuana than with the state and federal governments' classification of it as a Schedule 1 drug.

The Supreme Court issued its decision reversing Judge Buckner on July 24, 1997; Ralph Seeley died just less than six months later, on January 21, 1998, at the age of 49. He had endured a more than a decade-long struggle against a relentless cancer and the toxic treatments needed to keep it temporarily at bay.

The following November, voters in Washington state handily passed Initiative 692, which read in part:

"Qualifying patients with terminal or debilitating illnesses who, in the judgment of their physicians, would benefit from the medical use of marijuana, shall not be found guilty of a crime under state law for their possession and limited use of marijuana" ("Complete Text of Initiative 692").

Fourteen years later, Washington voters took the next step. On November 6, 2012, Initiative 502 was passed, legalizing the possession and use of marijuana by adults. The election was not even close. Although 20 Washington counties opposed the measure and only 19 approved, it received strong support in Western Washington and in Chelan, Okanogan, Ferry, Spokane, and Whitman counties east of the Cascades. The final vote tally was 1,724,209 (55.7%) in favor and 1,371,235 (44.3%) opposed. The long legal battles that Ralph Seeley's agonies had helped start had finally come to an end.


1998 Election: State Ballot Measures -- Complete Text of Initiative 692, Washington State Secretary of State website accessed December 5, 2012 (http://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/1998/i692_text.aspx); Wilson v. State of Washington, 84 Wn. App. 332 (Division Two, December 1996); Seeley v. State of Washington, 132 Wash. 2d 776 (1997); "Definition of Controlled Substance Schedules," Drug Enforcement Administration Office of Diversion Control website accessed December 14, 2012 (http://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/schedules/index.html#define); Brief of Petitioner, Seeley v. State of Washington, Pierce County Superior Court Cause No. 94-2-11862-1 (1995); "In Memoriam: Ralph Seeley," Equal Rights 4 All website accessed December 12, 2012 (http://www.equalrights4all.org/memorial2.htm); Carol M. Ostrom, "Selling Just What Doctor Can't Order -- Trial To Test Backers Of Marijuana As Medicine," The Seattle Times, May 29, 1995, p. A-1; Carol M. Ostrom, "Judge Rules For Marijuana As Prescription," Ibid., October 14, 1995, p. A-8; Jane Hadley, "State Marijuana Ban Ruled Unconstitutional," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 14, 1995; Bruce Rushton, "Ralph Seeley, a Columnist, Lawyer and Fighter, Dies at 49," Tacoma News Tribune, January 22, 1998; Aryeh Y. Brown, "In Memoriam: Ralph Seeley," Seattle University Law Review, Vo. 22, No. 175 (1998); Kristiana L. Farris, ”Seeley v. State: The Need for Definitional Balancing in Washington Substantive Due Process Law," Washington Law Review, Vol. 73, No. 3 (July 1998).

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