Sick Judge on Medical Marijuana: It's a "Human Rights Issue"
A New York state supreme court judge has written an impassioned plea to legalize medical marijuana in the state, potentially taking New York one step closer to becoming the 17th state in the nation to allow use of the drug as a palliative.
In an op-ed piece in last Thursday's New York Times, justice Gustin L Reichbach writes eloquently of his three-and-a-half-year long battle with prostate cancer. He describes enduring chemotherapy, brutal surgery, radiation, constant nausea and insomnia. The only remedy that has given him a modicum of relief has been marijuana.
"I find a few puffs of marijuana before dinner gives me ammunition in the battle to eat. A few more puffs at bedtime permits desperately needed sleep," he writes.
"This is not a law-and-order issue; it is a medical and human rights issue."
Reichbach, who was not immediately available for comment, goes on to "implore the governor and the legislature of New York" to pass a medical marijuana bill currently before the state senate.
"This is a huge thing," Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance, an activist organization promoting alternatives to criminalization, told the Guardian. "To have an active judge sitting on the bench dealing with a fairly serious form of cancer, it's a remarkable turn of events."
New York's bill A7347-A/S7283, which would decriminalize medical marijuana, is currently before the state senate, having passed in the assembly. The bill requires a patient to have a licensed health care professional authorized to prescribe controlled substances certify a need for marijuana to treat a "severe, debilitating or life-threatening condition."
A Siena College survey released last Wednesday found 57% of New York voters support legalizing medical marijuana, with 33% opposed.
But governor Andrew Cuomo, the former state attorney-general, does not appear prepared to join the majority of his constituents.
"I understand the benefits, but there are also risks, and I think the risks outweigh the benefits at this point," he recently told reporters.
The current session ends June 21, and even the bill's sponsor, state senator Diane Savino, is sceptical it will make it to the floor before the next session. But she did find Reichbach's piece remarkable.
"Every time somebody who is unexpected would be in support of medical marijuana, it moves the ball down the field in terms of support," she said.
There are thousands of people who fervently hope she's right.
"The Senate needs to act," said Jamin Sewell, an attorney who works for the New York city council. "It is an issue of compassion."
Sewell, 44, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 10 years ago, but because he works as a lawyer in the public sector, he said he has never smoked marijuana to provide relief from some of his symptoms.
Being able to smoke marijuana, he said, would alleviate the severe tingling and numbness in his legs ("the worst pins and needles when your legs fall asleep, magnified tenfold") and the neuropathic pain that shoots from his jaw down his back for up to 45 minutes at a time.
"There's nothing I've found legally that my doctors have prescribed," he said. He has spoken to other MS patients who have benefitted from smoking marijuana, but as long as it remains illegal, he said he will refrain.
"I've worked in public service my entire life and I want to continue to be able to do that," he said. "Because MS is progressive in nature, if the symptoms I live with currently continue to get worse, I really hope I'll be able to use the best medicine that will help alleviate them."
For Reichbach, marijuana has become too necessary a medicine to wait.
"Given my position as a sitting judge still hearing cases, well-meaning friends question the wisdom of my coming out on this issue. But I recognize that fellow cancer sufferers may be unable, for a host of reasons, to give voice to our plight," he wrote.
"Because criminalizing an effective medical technique affects the fair administration of justice, I feel obliged to speak out as both a judge and a cancer patient suffering with a fatal disease."