With advocates energized and the tide of public and scientific opinion turning in their favor, New York state considers legislation to legalize medical marijuana
It was snowing on the evening of March 9, 2001, as Dave Lawson was driving his band’s GM Astro to a gig in Vermont. Carrying the instruments and one other band member, Lawson was going a cautious 40 miles in Troy when another vehicle pulled into the intersection directly in front of him. Unable to stop on the slick road, Lawson says that he hit the car on the passenger side. Everything that happened directly after that is fuzzy. Mostly what Lawson remembers are the years of rehabilitation and persistent pain that followed.
“The bass guitar came flying up from the back of the vehicle. It hit the back of my head, fractured my skull and forced my face into the steering wheel so that, at the point of impact, I hit at 120 mph. The bone that separates the eye from the temple basically disintegrated. I fractured my sternum, both clavicles, C5 and C6 in my spine and all of my ribs,” Lawson said. “My left arm came out of the socket and went back in the wrong way. I should have died.”
The accident, which was found to be the other driver’s fault, left Lawson with some brain damage and chronic pain caused by damage to his nerves.
“I could barely talk,” he recalls. “I felt like I was relearning the language. I had to think about making my limbs move. I had to think about what I actually had to do to get out of bed.” The painkillers he was given did little to dull the worst pain, according to Lawson, but they did dull his mental faculties so that communication and recovery became even more difficult. “Aspirin is it. That’s as much pain medication as I can take, otherwise it’s like I’ve taken a rufee,” he says, referring to the notorious date-rape drug.
The pain was still debilitating seven months after his accident when, “all of the sudden, one day I had a flash,” Lawson says. He remembered a day about a year earlier when he had been helping to make marijuana brownies for a friend who had skin cancer and used the cannabis plant to deal with the side effects of his treatment. As he handled the mixture of marijuana and butter that went into the batch, his hands went numb. Lawson, who has arthritis from decades of playing the guitar, suddenly felt no pain. “I think there’s a reason that I had that memory when I did.” He pauses. “And I’m glad that I did.”
“At the time, I happened to have some [cannabis-infused] oil that had been given to me. I put some on my shoulder and for the first time in seven months, I felt relief.”
“There is a danger,” he adds, chuckling at the memory. “I jumped up and down and hurt my arm again because I was so excited. I literally cried.”
Lawson is just one of many New Yorkers advocating for legislation that would allow for the legal prescription of medical marijuana to patients suffering from severe or chronic ailments in New York state—legislation that already has been passed by two state Senate committees this year and is currently included in the much-contested state budget. Some of these advocates are patients, some have watched a friend or family member suffer, and some simply believe that the benefits of medicinal marijuana far outweigh any of the perceived dangers. And they argue that many of the prescription drugs that are currently legal have far more deleterious effects on patients and pose much greater potential for abuse.
The idea of legalizing medical marijuana in New York state is nothing new. In 1980, New York actually passed a medical marijuana bill at the urging of Manhattan Democratic Assemblyman Antonio Olivieri. After being diagnosed with a brain tumor, Olivieri began smoking cannabis in 1979 to combat the adverse effects of his chemotherapy treatments and lobbied other politicians by phone when he was too sick to leave his home. Federal law required states to distribute marijuana exclusively through research channels, and the New York State Health Department dispensed thousands of joints to more than 200 patients suffering either from glaucoma or cancer between 1982 and 1989. Twenty-four other states ran similar research programs during the same time. The Reagan administration’s renewed preoccupation with America’s “war on drugs” in the mid- to late ’80s, along with inadequately organized programs and the appearance of Marinol—THC in pill form, which is now widely considered ineffective—led to the closure of every state-run medical marijuana program by 1990.
State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, from Chelsea, raised the issue again in 1997. Already a proponent of the use of medical marijuana, he took a cue from the 1996 legislation passed in California and became vocal on behalf of the many AIDS patients in his district. Opposed in the Senate by Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, and on the federal level by the Clinton administration, the idea of legalization was still too politically controversial for the bill to achieve any measurable success. While champions of its medical use continued to lobby, the stigma of marijuana as a “gateway drug” loomed large and continued to overshadow any discussion of its medicinal benefits.
More recently, as public perception has shifted back toward cautious acceptance and scientific curiosity, advocates in New York state are organizing once again. Encouraged by the successful passage of similar legislation in 14 states (from Alaska and Oregon in the late 1990s to Michigan and New Jersey in the last two years), local grassroots supporters have joined forces with national lobbying groups in an effort to convince legislators to support their cause. The Internet has helped to make the benefits of medical marijuana more generally known and accepted, while the possible economic boon that taxation could provide for states has made legalization far more attractive in recent years. Lending legitimacy to the movement, but doing little more than reinforcing what many people claim to have known for years, results from the first comprehensive research done in the United States on the medical efficacy of marijuana since the ’80s were recently released by the University of California at San Diego. The results are in keeping with generally accepted wisdom from earlier research as well as research done in other nations—some of which spans an astonishing amount of time—and focus primarily on pain, neurological issues and different delivery methods.
Documentation on the medical uses of marijuana dates back to the 28th century B.C.E., according to literature provided by the organization Marijuana Policy Project, which is based on a book by Ernest L. Abel called Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years. “Emperor Shen-Nung prescribed it to treat beri-beri, constipation, ‘female weakness,’ gout, malaria, rheumatism and absentmindedness. It’s use as a medicine was well documented in China, but its use as a recreational drug was not condoned.” Five thousand years later, the arguments are pretty much the same.
Dr. Abraham Halpern, a psychiatrist from Westchester County, read about the uses of medical marijuana a few years ago, but he began looking for more credible information when his son, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, “insisted that there was merit to the use of marijuana in certain illnesses.” Halpern’s interest increased when he learned that the Drug Enforcement Administration had been raiding homes of seriously ill patients.
“I am interested in its use to treat patients suffering severe symptoms, such as the intolerable pain in patients with meta-static cancer, symptoms that have not responded to conventional treatment but do obtain relief from marijuana,” Halpern says. “The notion that such use can be dangerous is utterly ridiculous. Raising the issue of ‘danger’ is just a red herring. Some experts succeed in using scare tactics by raising issues such as the possible adverse effects on young people, the possible eventual shift from marijuana to the use of dangerous illegal drugs, possible cognitive impairment in some users, et cetera. None of these things have anything to do with medical marijuana. In fact, studies have shown that in states that have legalized medical marijuana, the incidence of marijuana use in young people has dropped. What I am interested in is the legalization of medical marijuana, properly regulated.”
Halpern is one of 1,170 doctors in New York state who have signed a statement “supporting the right of doctors to recommend marijuana for medical purposes, and the right of patients to use marijuana for medical purposes without fear of incarceration.” Medical organizations that support legislation include the American Academy of HIV Medicine, American Public Health Association, Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Lymphoma Foundation of America, Medical Society of the State of New York, New York State AIDS Advisory Council, New York State Chapter of the Oncology Nursing Society, New York State Nurses Association and the New York State Hospice and Palliative Care Association. The biggest concern of these medical professionals is the quality of life available to patients who are suffering from acute and debilitating conditions, suffering that they believe could be dramatically alleviated through the regulated use of cannabis.
“My wife had ovarian cancer and passed away in 2007,” says Dr. Dominick DiFabio of Cortlandt Manor, N.Y. “While she was on chemotherapy, she had no appetite, she was nauseous all the time, and the doctor recommended marijuana but could only give it to her in pill form—Marinol—which was pretty useless. It made her feel weird but didn’t do what smoking marijuana would have done, which would have been to help her appetite and decrease the nausea. It was just such a terrible thing in a country like this where doctors can write prescriptions for much more dangerous drugs that are legal for medical reasons. I guess one could go out illegally and get it, but we never thought of that.”
“It was very frustrating and, living through the experience, it just didn’t make any sense. I’m not necessarily for legalizing marijuana in general, but for someone who is sick and can benefit from it, for someone who’s suffering . . .” DiFabio’s voice trails off as he remembers his wife, Susan. “With most of these politicians, my understanding is that they know people with cancer, that they’ve seen this. But they don’t have the political courage to do what’s right because they’re afraid, I think, of getting blamed for things that might happen once they do it, if it does get abused.”
DiFabio worries that the current national push to legalize marijuana for general use will have the unintended effect of jeopardizing support for medical marijuana. He is concerned that any perception that medical marijuana legislation could lead to the legalization of its recreational use would only provide ammunition to the same people who “are going crazy over a health care bill that’s going to benefit them because it’s been distorted by the extreme right.” He worries that such distorted perceptions could impede the acceptance of marijuana as a medication.
“The suffering, you know, I’ve seen it firsthand, and that’s really why I’ve become involved with this. Anything that can keep you on the medication, if the medication is working, is great. My wife was so sick that they had to change the treatment protocol for us, eventually. It limits the amount of treatment a doctor can give, because a patient can’t be so sick all the time. The quality of life gets so bad that you just want immediate relief.”
Joel Peacock, a Conservative Party member from Buffalo, is an advocate and potential beneficiary of the legalization of medical marijuana. Like Lawson, Peacock was in a car accident in 2001. He was rear-ended by someone who was talking on a cellular phone, and he sustained severe spinal injuries (he had three discs removed from his neck), which have left him in chronic pain. Peacock encountered marijuana as a painkiller by accident.
After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf of Mexico, Peacock found part-time work as a consultant evaluating damage to the area.
“While I was down there,” he says, “I ran out of my prescriptions and there weren’t any hospitals open in New Orleans, there weren’t any clinics, nothing. I couldn’t get anyone to write my prescriptions, and I ran out.” Peacock was going through a painful withdrawal when he was sent to Miami. He was sent to survey a damaged home where he says the resident kept asking if he was a police officer. “About halfway through the inspection,” Peacock remembers, “he asked me what was wrong with me. He said I looked pale, that I looked sick.”
Peacock explained his situation to the man who, after reconfirming that he was not a cop, said, “I’ve got something that will make you feel better.” He offered Peacock a small bag with marijuana in it. “As sick as I was, I went back to my hotel and sat in my car and smoked some, and the pain went away. I waited for something to happen—because I hadn’t smoked marijuana since I was 21—and I couldn’t believe it, that the pain was just gone. My normal medicine gives me cramps and lots of other side effects and there was none of that.”
Peacock has not smoked marijuana since he returned from his trip. He can’t. He is drug tested for recreational drugs by his doctor and, if he ever tests positive, he will be ineligible for treatment under New York state law. “I can’t take that chance. I have to stay on my prescriptions. I’m 59 years old, I wouldn’t even begin to know where to buy that stuff in Buffalo,” he says, adding that he believes it would be considerably less expensive than the prescription drugs that he is currently struggling to afford. “The retail cost of my pain medication is $3,200 a month, and this marijuana I had did the same thing and probably costs a fraction of the narcotics that I take. So, am I an advocate? You bet! I hope they pass it, I really do.”
Unlike Lawson, who is able to obtain enough cannabis (though he will not say how) to alleviate his pain and allow him to attend school and continue to play in his band, Peacock is unable to work due to his pain and the side effects of the prescription drugs that he currently takes. “The pain just got the best of me,” he says resignedly. “I just finally ran into a wall, and I couldn’t do it anymore. I can’t travel. I’m stuck in the house most of the time because the pain is brutal.” Currently, Peacock says his wife is unable to retire, as her insurance is the only way that they can manage the medical bills.
Currently, marijuana is approved to treat a limited number of severe conditions in states that have legalized its medical use. Glaucoma is an accepted condition in nearly every legalized state (excepting only Vermont) because of marijuana’s ability to reduce pressure in the eye and slow, if not completely halt, progression of the disease. Other widely accepted conditions include: cancer, AIDS, cachexia, severe or chronic pain, severe or chronic nausea, seizure disorders and muscle spasticity disorders. Although approved by fewer states, other conditions for which marijuana has been deemed useful include: Crohn’s disease, hepatitis C, arthritis, migraines and the agitation of Alzheimer’s disease. Some interesting studies suggest that proper use of medicinal marijuana can dramatically slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Every legalized state has different legislation dictating possession, access, fees and so on. Most states allow for the possession of small amounts of marijuana and a certain number of plants. Many charge fees to patients for required ID cards. Organizations that are allowed to disseminate the drug are also regulated by state law. Comparatively, the legislation under consideration in New York is quite strict in terms of access and possession.
The bill currently under consideration requires that patients must be certified by a medical practitioner, have a severely debilitating or life-threatening condition, and stand to benefit from the use of medical marijuana. Certifications will be good for only one year and must appear in the patient’s medical record. Doctors may not prescribe for themselves. And the Department of Health, for a fee that has yet to be announced, will issue ID cards. Patients (or their designated caregiver) are allowed up to only 2.5 ounces at any given time and will not be allowed to keep any plants. Organizations registered to distribute the prescribed cannabis must apply for and receive approval by NYS-DOH after meeting strict qualifications. The law also provides for research into the effectiveness of the prescribed marijuana, with a report to be submitted at the end of one year. Subsequent reports are expected biannually.
Dave Lawson gets emotional when he talks about the many people in pain who be believes could be helped by the legalization of medical marijuana. He knows that, without it, he would likely not be in school or still playing with his band. Lawson considers himself fortunate to be able to manage his pain in a way that allows him to continue to live his life, and he has dedicated himself to efforts to make the same relief available to others. “Marijuana shouldn’t be illegal,” he says with passion. “The fact that there are people out there dying and that marijuana would help them. What is this country scared of? That they are going to get better or that it might kill them? So many of these people are already dying, for god’s sake. And this would only make it easier. It just makes me angry.”
As American as Pot Brownies
In a telephone poll conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post in January, support for the legalization of medical marijuana in the United States was found to have increased significantly in the last 10 years:
• 81 percent of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical use, up from 69 percent in 1997.
• 56 percent believe that, if legalized, medical practitioners should be able to prescribe medical marijuana to any patient that they think would benefit; 21 percent think it should be limited to the terminally ill; and another 21 percent would limit it to those with serious, but not necessarily terminal, illnesses.
• 68 percent of conservatives and 72 percent of Republicans are in favor of legalization for medical purposes, as are 85 percent of Democrats and independents, and about 90 percent of liberals and moderates.
• Only 69 percent of seniors favor legalization of medical marijuana, compared with 83 percent of adults under the age of 65.
It Depends What State You’re In
Conditions: Cachexia, cancer, chronic pain, epilepsy, seizures, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and other disorders characterized by muscles spasticity and nausea.
Regulations: 1 ounce and no more than 6 plants, of which only 3 may be mature.
Conditions: AIDS, anorexia, arthritis, cachexia, cancer, chronic pain, glaucoma, migraine, persistent muscle spasms, multiple sclerosis, seizures, epilepsy, severe nausea and other chronic medical symptoms.
Regulations: 8 ounces and/or 6 mature plants, unless recommended by a physician.
Conditions: Cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, cachexia, severe pain or nausea, seizures, epilepsy, persistent muscle spasms, multiple sclerosis. Other conditions are subject to approval.
Regulations: 2 ounces and no more than 6 plants, of which only 3 may be mature.
Conditions: Cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, cachexia, wasting syndrome, severe pain or nausea, seizures, epilepsy, severe and persistent muscle spasms, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease. Other conditions subject to approval.
Regulations: 3 mature plants, 4 immature plants, and 1 ounce of useable marijuana per mature plant.
Conditions: Cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s, nail-patella syndrome, chronic intractable pain, cachexia, wasting syndrome, severe nausea, seizures, muscles spasms and multiple sclerosis.
Regulations: 2.5 ounces.
Conditions: Cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s, nail patella, cachexia, wasting syndrome, severe and chronic pain or nausea, seizures, epilepsy, muscle spasms and multiple sclerosis.
Regulations: 2.5 ounces and up to 12 plants, kept in a locked facility.
Conditions: Cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, cachexia, wasting syndrome, severe or chronic pain or nausea, seizures, epilepsy, severe or persistent muscle spasms, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and any other condition adopted by the department by rule.
Regulations: 1 ounce and 6 plants.
Conditions: AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, cachexia, persistent muscle spasms or seizures, severe nausea or pain. Other conditions subject to approval.
Regulations: 1 ounce, 3 mature plants, 4 immature plants.
Conditions: Seizure disorder, epilepsy, intractable skeletal muscle spasticity, glaucoma, severe or chronic pain, severe nausea or vomiting, cachexia or wasting syndrome resulting from HIV/AIDS or cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, terminal cancer, muscular dystrophy, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, terminal illness if the prognosis is less than 1 year, and any other approved medical condition.
Regulations: Prescribed. Maximum amount is 2 ounces in 30 days.
Conditions: Severe chronic pain, painful peripheral neuropathy, intractable nausea/vomiting, severe anorexia/cachexia, hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease, PTSD, ALS, cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with intractable spasticity, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS and hospice patients.
Regulations: 6 ounces, 4 mature plants and 12 seedlings.
Conditions: Cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, cachexia, severe pain or nausea, seizures, epilepsy, persistent muscle spasms, multiple sclerosis. Other conditions subject to approval.
Regulations: 24 ounces and 6 mature plants.
Conditions: Cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, chronic or debilitating disease (or medical condition or treatment) causing cachexia, wasting syndrome, chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, epilepsy, muscle spasms, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s. Other conditions subject to approval.
Regulations: 2.5 ounces and up to 12 plants; primary caregivers may possess up to 5 ounces and 24 plants.
Conditions: Cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, or any other disease resulting in chronic, debilitating symptoms producing severe pain, nausea, seizures, cachexia or wasting syndrome.
Regulations: 2 ounces, 2 mature plants and 7 immature plants.
Conditions: Cachexia, cancer, Crohn’s disease, Hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, glaucoma, intractable pain and multiple sclerosis, diseases that result in nausea, vomiting, wasting, appetite loss, cramping, seizures, muscle spasms or spasticity. Other conditions subject to approval.
Regulations: 24 ounces and no more than 15 plants.