Legalization debate over medical cannabis in New York on fire
by Anne Pyburn Craig
Four days before his State of the State address, word got out that Governor Andrew Cuomo plans to establish legal medical marijuana in New York by executive order. Cuomo’s proposal, in which 20 hospitals would be authorized to treat a very limited list of extremely dire conditions, is quite a reversal on his part; to those who’ve been following the legalization struggle, it reads like a rather obvious effort to appease the left and get out of the way of an eight ball that’s already rolling.
Consider the case of Republican state assemblyman Steve Katz. Katz, who voted against the legalization of medical marijuana in 2012, was busted last March with three grams of cannabis in his car. People scoffed. The millionaire veterinarian, elected on a Tea Party ticket in 2012 to represent parts of Westchester and Putnam counties, said that he wasn’t a hypocrite—he’d been voting as he believed his constituents wanted him to vote.
But support for legalization of cannabis has jumped from a slim majority (51 percent) in 2012 to over eight in ten New Yorkers in 2013. Having figured this out, Katz is now as out of the closet as it is possible to get: he’s announced that he’s investing some of his millions in The Arc View Group, a San Francisco-based marijuana research and investment consortium, and has co-sponsored the reintroduction of the medical marijuana bill he voted against last year. In addition, Senator Liz Krueger introduced legislation in December 2013 that would legalize marijuana for both medical and recreational use.
A Medical and Human Rights Issue
Writing in the New York Times in May of 2012, the late State Supreme Court Justice Gustin L. Reichbach described his struggle with pancreatic cancer and the fact that medical marijuana helped when nothing else did. “When palliative care is understood as a fundamental human and medical right, marijuana for medical use should be beyond controversy,” wrote the 40-year veteran judge. “This is not a law and order issue, it is a medical and human rights issue…. 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. I implore the governor and the Legislature of New York, always considered a leader among states, to join the forward and humane thinking of 16 [now 20] other states and pass the medical marijuana bill this year. Medical science has not yet found a cure, but it is barbaric to deny us access to one substance that has proved to ameliorate our suffering.”
New York actually legalized medical cannabis in 1980, but the law required a medical review board to be put in place to determine who did and did not qualify for a prescription. The board was never created, leaving the law to languish. An updated medical cannabis bill, the Compassionate Care Act (AB 6357) has actually passed the state house of representatives four times, only to die in the senate; prominent supporters include the New York State Nurses Association, the Collaborative for Palliative Care, GMHC, New York State Pharmacists Society, and the Hospice and Palliative Care Association of New York, as well as the chief of medicine at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany.
Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the acceptance of medical marijuana at the national level is the change of heart experienced by rockstar doctor Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent. Gupta was front-and-center in an hour-long special entitled “Weed,” in which he explained that while he had formerly been opposed to all things marijuana, the evidence he was seeing—particularly from Israeli researchers—had changed his mind.
So what’s changing all of these minds? (Perhaps we should leave Katz out of the “minds changed” category, since he says he has personally favored legalization since the 1970s and doesn’t believe all the toking doctors and lawyers he knows should be considered “criminals”.) Simply put, now that the research can be done and publicized, what is being learned about cannabinoids and the human body is nothing short of spectacular. In the face of what is being discovered, the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic with no medical use whatsoever looks increasingly foolish.
Anecdotal evidence has long supported the truth that cannabis can soothe nausea, relieve pain, and has—unlike alcohol—a largely calming effect on those who indulge. But until medical marijuana states—there are now 20, plus the District of Columbia—could begin looking more deeply into the chemistry of its effects, much less was known, leaving the Reefer Madness crew free to suggest that it was all about a bunch of stoners making excuses for their degenerate habit.
The effectiveness of cannabis in treating seizure disorders is so well established that many parents of children with seizure disorders have pulled up stakes and moved to Colorado, where they can treat their children without risking custody of them. And beyond just alleviating the distress of chemotherapy, cannabis has researchers excited about its potential as an actual cure for cancer.
THC, the active ingredient so well loved by so many as a social lubricant, is only part of the story. Researchers are excited about the potential of cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive component, in treating a wide range of diseases. CBD studies in animals indicate therapeutic qualities that include anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, anti-epileptic, anti-cancer, and bone-stimulating properties; the November issue of the journal Neuropsychopharmacology announced that studies in the Netherlands and the UK indicate that CBD may treat schizophrenia and other psychoses just as effectively as common psychiatric drugs, but with far fewer side effects. And heeding the work of Colorado growers, the FDA has lightened up enough to approve trials of CBD for children with Dravet’s syndrome, a particularly awful and intractable form of pediatric epilepsy.
None of this means that children and airline pilots preparing for takeoff have to smoke cannabis and experience the mild euphoria, munchies, and generally spaced-out state of mind that was the mainstay of so many Cheech and Chong gags in order to benefit. CBD, as stated, is non-psychoactive. Anecdotal and scientific evidence is mounting that indicates health benefits of CBD, a wide range of potential uses for topical oils, and enormous nutritional value in juicing the whole, raw leaf—all without the least bit of a buzz.
Just Say No?
The National Institute on Drug Abuse and many professionals in the recovery field still object to any reframing of cannabis as benign. The website marijuana-addiction.net cites accident-prone tendencies and “speeding up the aging process just like methamphetamines do” as downsides to cannabis use, and suggests that users call them for an assessment and consider going inpatient at their posh seaside rehabs.
Many in the law enforcement business also take a dim view, though there are notable exceptions such as the nationwide organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). Although legalization decreases the possible probable causes and subsequent forfeiture profits of law enforcement agencies, which are substantial—there are some 40,000 pot busts in New York City every year—it is hard to find a cop who can argue with a straight face that more trouble is caused by cannabis than by alcohol.
All of which brings us to the economics of legalization. In states with medical marijuana laws, an industry that was once undercover has come roaring into the limelight; growers, grow shops, dispensaries, and vendors of paraphernalia take artisanal approaches. YouTube is riddled with how-to-grow videos in which earnest weed geeks explain the science of trichome production in the flowering phase. Growing effective medical marijuana is hands-on; producing strains targeted to specific ailments is an art not likely to be reproduced in Big Ag style, which could be good news for small farmers.
Public sector possibilities include $7.7 billion in savings simply from ending prosecution and $2.4 billion in tax revenues if taxed like ordinary products; taxing cannabis like alcohol or tobacco could add $6.2 billion to the public piggy bank. In Colorado, where recreational cannabis will be sold by the time you’re reading this, a 25% tax is anticipated to bring in $67 million a year.
Recent polling data indicates that, true to the predictions of prohibitionists, more teens are smoking or at least admitting it—and they’re using less alcohol, tobacco and synthetic substitutes like “spice”.
Assemblyman Katz anticipates legalization in NY within 24 months, just the sort of message the Office of National Drug Control Policy finds “confusing” and damaging—and until some shift takes place at the federal level, confusion is bound to continue. Putting the genie back in the bottle looks unlikely indeed—and whether you’re for or against, these are interesting times.
The outlawing of cannabis in 1937 was painted as a defense of civilized society against libidinous mayhem, but many see a direct line between an invention called the decorticator—which would have allowed inexpensive processing of industrial hemp into paper and cloth—and the interests of powerful timber and nylon barons with names like Mellon, Hearst, and Dupont. Industrial hemp has been re-legalized in four states, and the first legal hemp harvest happened this past fall in Colorado; besides cloth and paper, hemp has value as a food and energy source.
Even in 1937, the legislative counsel for the American Medical Association was telling Congress that he doubted that cannabis—restyled “marihuana” to tie it more closely to foreign influences and disassociate it from the medicine physicians had been using for years—was actually a cause of addiction, overdose, and violence. Gee, if legalization passes and people start actually using the stuff, maybe we’ll finally find out who was right.