An Open Letter to NYC Mayor Bloomberg: Be a Leader on Medical Marijuana

Dear Mayor Bloomberg:

In June, New York State took a historic step towards one of the most cherished goals of America's founders, “a more perfect Union,” when the State Senate passed the Marriage Equality Act to legalize same-sex marriage, which Gov. Cuomo quickly signed into law. Two days later, I marched in the Heritage of Pride parade with a group advocating for New York City’s marijuana policies to be based on justice, science and compassion–another idea cherished by people who want to peacefully and freely express their preferences for what they want to put into their bodies, just as same–sex partners want to legally be able to share their lives with whom they choose.

We received an enthusiastic response from the crowd, many of whom are, have loved ones who are and/or are caregivers for people with HIV/AIDS, nausea, cancer and other serious medical conditions-all of which marijuana has been found safe and effective in treating. Unfortunately, last summer, you claimed that A. 9016, a bill that would have legalized the medical use of marijuana for patients certified to have a serious condition by a medical practitioner, “means everybody’s going to qualify” and “has nothing to do with medicine.”

And since your mayoralty began in 2002, you have marshaled law enforcement resources and presided over New York City’s transition into the “marijuana arrest capital of the world,” with arrests for simple possession of marijuana increasing from 41,000 in 2001 to over 50,000 arrests last year. Marijuana arrests are rising at an even greater rate this year. Despite that increase in the volume of arrests, New York City has taken an incongruous, but correspondingly widespread approach of having these low level marijuana arrests effectively dismissed at arraignment by means of an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal. As detailed in the New York Civil Liberties Union’s report, “Marijuana Arrest Crusade: Racial Bias and Police Policy 1997-2007, these arrests have been focused on young men of color, who suffer from collateral consequences of these arrests such as loss of financial aid and discrimination in housing and employment–all at a cost to New York City taxpayers of about $75-100 million per year.

How do you reconcile your administration’s marijuana policies with your quote in support of the Marriage Equality Act: “[g]overnment should not tell you what to do unless there’s a compelling public purpose”? Where is the “compelling public purpose” in arresting poor young marijuana users of color and denying sick people their right to use safe, effective and natural medicine? One of the more interesting features of your administration has been the “bullpen” set up at City Hall, where you are the vortex of New York City government, surrounded by your top aides, rather than isolated in a corner office. Above the bullpen is a clock counting down your remaining time in office. As of September 1, 2011, you have 853 days in which you could take three simple but effective steps to turn around your administration’s marijuana policy. Here’s how:

  1. Tell Commissioner Ray Kelly to have the NYPD stick to writing summonses for unlawful possession of marijuana under New York Penal Law 221.05 (a violation, not a crime, which is punishable by a $100 fine) rather than making arrests for criminal possession of marijuana in the fifth degree under Penal Law 221.10. This was the intent of the New York State Legislature when it passed the Marijuana Reform Act of 1977. That law was inspired by “Marijuana: Interim Report of the Temporary State Commission to Evaluate the Drug Laws,” a 1971 study of New York’s marijuana and other drug laws, which stated: “[b]y reducing the offense to a violation it is our intention not only to lower the maximum penalty for minimal possession … but to remove the stigma attached to a person because of his [arrest and] conviction for a ‘crime.’”

  2. Reconsider your opposition to, and lobby for, medical marijuana. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted medical marijuana laws. Most of these laws tightly regulate and control both the conditions for which medical marijuana can be recommended and the system for distributing it to qualified patients. A. 7347 and S. 2774 would allow qualified patients, who have been certified to have a serious condition by a medical practitioner, to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana. Unfortunately, the Senate bill has no traction due to the lack of a Republican sponsor. Some lobbying from your Albany office would go a long way in changing Albany’s inability to pass medical marijuana legislation, especially now that Gov. Cuomo has indicated a new open mindedness to the issue.

  3. Support Congressional bill H.R. 2306, the “Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011.” In the spirit of the 21stAmendment, which repealed Prohibition, H.R. 2306 would end federal penalties for the production, distribution, and possession of marijuana, leaving New York and other states free to regulate and control (or continue to prohibit) marijuana as they see fit. The federal government’s role would be limited to preventing importation of marijuana into states that continue to ban it. In one fell swoop, H.R. 2306 would end the uncertainty that has plagued states trying to permit medical marijuana dispensaries (such as New Jersey and Rhode Island), as well as states considering broader taxation, regulation and control of marijuana (such California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington state) by setting states free to chart their own marijuana policy. There would be no more need to guess at the implications and ramifications of the federal government’s prosecution policies as outlined by the U.S. Department of Justice in the “Ogden Memo” of 2009 or the “Cole Memo,” which was released on June 30, 2011. These memos raise more questions than answers about what the federal government will and won’t permit states to do when it comes to medical marijuana. Even more importantly, there would be no more raids in those states that have enacted medical marijuana (which have been running higher under Obama than under Bush II) as the federal government would no longer be making decisions about what local medical marijuana users and caregivers “. . . are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana” (quoting the Ogden Memo).

In 1939, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, in reaction to the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act that prohibited marijuana under federal law, commissioned the New York Academy of Medicine to study marijuana use in New York City. Released in 1944, the report concluded that:

  1. The practice of smoking marijuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.

  2. The use of marijuana does not lead to morphine or heroin or cocaine addiction and no effort is made to create a market for these narcotics by stimulating the practice of marijuana smoking.

  3. Marijuana is not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes.

  4. The publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marijuana smoking in New York City is unfounded.

Unfortunately, 67 years later, the federal government still fails to acknowledge these scientific findings and instead continues to mislead the American people about marijuana. As a politician, you’ve aspired to national leadership. You seriously considered an independent run for President in 2008, and you work across jurisdictions and party lines to forge consensuses on issues like gun control and climate change. Although there are a few Democrats (i.e. Reps. Barney Frank, Jared Polis, Steve Cohen, John Conyers and Barbara Lee) and Republicans (i.e. Rep. Ron Paul and Gov. Gary Johnson, both candidates for the Republican presidential nomination) who openly dissent from marijuana prohibition, this issue cries out for bold, independent action from leaders like you. Can you reconsider your past statements and policies and follow in the path of your predecessor Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia? Quo vadis on cannabis, Mayor Bloomberg?


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