What Would Twain Make of Dr. Kush?

I had a Mark Twain, nineteenth-century moment at Venice Beach last week.

It was a beautiful February day and I took my thirteen year-old son to walk down the strand. I lived in Venice when I was a PhD student during the 1980s and always enjoyed bartering for t-shirts and watching the skateboarders. What I had not realized until we had parked and passed the first few incense sellers was that in the interim Venice has become the epicenter for "medical" marijuana dispensaries. As we walked by Dr. Kush, bikini clad "nurses" hailed us to come and get our medicine. My son helpfully pointed out that many "patients" were dosing themselves on the boardwalk. Just a wholesome mother and son outing.

While the Los Angeles Times regularly runs stories about the debate concerning the legality of marijuana dispensaries, I had never seen any in action. The amount of business that was being done that day looked impressive. When I returned home I checked out Dr. Kush's website and found that the office purports to treat the following maladies: "Sports Injuries, Auto Accidents, Stress, Anxiety, Insomnia, Asthma, Cancer, AIDS or any Illness for which marijuana provides relief." A cure-all if you please.

As I was reading Dr. Kush's advertising I recalled that I had read similar copy, but it was over a hundred and twenty years old. In the 1880s, a best-selling miracle nostrum offered relief from rheumatism, pneumonia, cancer, and tonsillitis. It also claimed to treat sleeplessness, nervousness, neuralgia, headaches, convulsions, colic, mania, typhoid, epilepsy, and irritability and was viewed as helpful for relieving alcoholism. Bromidia was an all-purpose patent medicine and an extremely potent tonic containing extract of marijuana, 10% alcohol, chloral hydrate (a sedative and hypnotic), extract of hyoscyamus (a powerful narcotic and hypnotic), and potassium bromide (salt used as an anticonvulsant and sedative). The recommended dosage was typically a stout 1/8th of a fluid ounce every hour until sleep occurred. With the volume of alcohol and narcotics contained in the mixture, it is little wonder that people taking it felt dramatic relief from their aches and pains.

Mark Twain was a Bromidia enthusiast. In his old age he frequently suffered from gout and chest pains due to his "tobacco heart" (actually angina). The idea that Twain was a devotee of a tonic consisting of pot and alcohol might surprise the public, however, he had a rich history with what we now would consider illicit drugs. In his twenties, Twain decided he would travel to South America to sail the Amazon and make his fortune in coca, a vegetable product of miraculous powers, asserting that it was so nourishing and so strength-giving that the natives of the mountains of the Madeira region would tramp up hill and down all day on a pinch of the powdered coca and require no other sustenance. His plan was to travel by river from Cincinnati to New Orleans and then set sail for Para (a port city in Northern Brazil) where he would establish himself in the lucrative cocaine trade. Twain never made it, abandoning South America and dreams of cocaine millions to become a Mississippi riverboat pilot.

What would Twain make of Dr. Kush? One hundred years after his death in 1910 at age seventy-four, Twain would doubtless envy his profit margin. As for the issue of maintaining one's health and treating illness, Twain commented in his Autobiography: "There are people who strictly deprive themselves of each and every eatable, drinkable and smokable which has in any way acquired a shady reputation. They pay this price for health. And health is all they get for it. How strange it is. It is like paying out your whole fortune for a cow that has gone dry."

Laura Skandera Trombley is the president of Pitzer College. Her book, Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years, was recently published by Knopf.