Drugs

America Witnesses Turning Point for Pot Politics: But Will New York Legalize Medical Weed?

A New York Supreme Court justice, former NYPD cop and public opinion say medical pot should be legal -- but will the state risk federal intervention?

“Nausea and pain are constant companions,” wrote New York State Supreme Court Justice Gustin L. Reichbach of his experience battling Stage 3 pancreatic cancer. “One struggles to eat enough to stave off the dramatic weight loss that is part of this disease...Sleep, which might bring respite from the miseries of the day, becomes increasingly elusive.” With every prescription he took requiring another prescription or two to offset its side effects, Justice Reichbach turned to a medicine no doctor in New York State is allowed to prescribe: weed. “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.”

At the time Reichbach wrote that, less than a month ago, 16 states had adopted legislation to legalize medicinal marijuana. Since then, Connecticut has joined them. Said Governor Dannel P. Malloy upon signing the Connecticut legislation into law, “For years, we’ve heard from so many patients with chronic diseases who undergo treatments like chemotherapy or radiation and are denied the palliative benefits that medical marijuana would provide.”

Last week, New York’s State Assembly followed Connecticut’s lead and Justice Reichbach’s plea, passing A 7347 by a margin of 90-50. Its twin bill, S 2774, remains pending in the Senate, where it sits before the Health Committee. The Republican Senate majority is not likely to bring the bill up for a floor vote, but advocates are optimistic about the outlook for the bill next year. The legislation closely resembles Connecticut’s language, which seeks to avoid some of the regulatory grey area that has led to legal challenges and large-scale raids in California.

Under the bills, cultivators would be required to register with the NYS Department of Health, which would also have the authority to decide which registered organizations may serve as dispensaries. Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told AlterNet, “The Health Department will consider factors such as the ability of the provider to prevent diversion, whether the applicant has sufficient land and resources to operate the organization, and the moral character of officers.”

Though the specifics of each state’s medical marijuana laws vary in their minutiae, Health Department selection of providers is a common approach and has worked well in several states, such as New Mexico and Maine. “New York’s model,” O’Keefe said, “is close to the model for registering pharmacies in the state, and it is working well for them for those far more dangerous substances.” The federal government has generally not raided dispensaries where state registrations are well regulated.

Initially, the legislation allowed for limited home cultivation which, O’Keefe noted, “is important because, in the two years since New Jersey legalized medical marijuana, for instance, no dispensaries have gone up, leaving great numbers of people with dire conditions out in the cold.” Unfortunately, the provision was amended out ahead of Wednesday’s vote. Whether limited home cultivation will be in next year’s legislative effort remains an open question.

The good news for proponents of the measure is that they are many. A 2010 Quinnipiac poll indicated very high levels of public support for the proposed legalization. The proposal to legalize medical marijuana if doctors prescribe it  garnered 71 percent support overall, including majorities of white, black, male, female, Democratic, Republican and Independent respondents. As evidence mounts of marijuana’s palliative value, the measure has received widespread support among noteworthy institutions and individuals from the medical, religious, and legal communities, including the New York State Hospice and Palliative Care Association and the New York State Nurses Association.

A large number of groups are collaborating under the name New Yorkers for Compassionate Care to pressure the state legislature to pass the legislation and Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign it. “This year, there is a concerted effort to make sure that legislators hear directly from patients and healthcare providers about how this bill would affect their lives,” Drug Policy Alliance deputy state director Julie Netherland wrote in an email to AlterNet. “There are thousands of New Yorkers living with serious illnesses that could benefit from this bill. And it’s important that the public understands that and that our elected officials understand that. This is about alleviating people’s suffering.”

One of those suffering New Yorkers is retired NYPD officer Glenn Amandola, of Northport, NY. Amandola is one of a growing number of people sharing their stories as part of MPP’s citizen lobbying campaign. “In 1987,” Amandola wrote, “I was injured in a car accident while on the job as a New York City police officer. Since then, I've suffered from a seizure disorder and a herniated disk. I cannot work because of my extreme pain and no longer take pain meds because they either don't work or are highly addictive and make me ill. Please pass the medical marijuana bill, as my doctor and I feel medical marijuana could help me with both the pain and my seizure disorder. As a retired police officer, I am unwilling to break state law.”

An illness would be covered by New York’s legislation if it is "a severe debilitating or life threatening conditions, or a condition associated with or a complication of such a condition or its treatment (including but not limited to inability to tolerate food, nausea, vomiting, dysphoria or pain).” In such cases, the patient’s possession would be limited to two and a half ounces of pot.

Medical marijuana legalization is not the only pot-based legislation before New York politicians. Governor Cuomo recently called for the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana in public, which have led to 50,684 arrests in New York City last year alone, by far the largest number for any offense. As the Guardian noted, “Over 50% of those arrested were under 25 years of age and 82% were either black or Hispanic. Less than 10% were ever convicted of a crime.”