Richard Williams smokes marijuana regularly.
But he doesn’t consider himself a criminal, and doesn’t think he should be treated like one.
The 46-year-old Richmondville resident has been HIV positive for two decades. Smoking marijuana, he said, relieves the pain in his joints and helps him cope with persistent bouts of nausea. He has hepatitis C and a damaged liver, so he doesn’t want to take pain medication, which is processed by the liver.
Williams supports legalizing the use of medical marijuana in New York. He’s hoping the state Legislature will pass a law that does so before adjourning later this month.
“I don’t use other drugs,” Williams said. “I’m not a drug addict. … I’m speaking out because someone has to stand up for what’s right.”
Last year the Assembly passed a bill that would legalize medical marijuana; a new version of the bill has moved out of the codes committee, and another version is pending in the Senate. Those who support the bill are optimistic that this is the year New York legalizes medical marijuana.
The Assembly bill, sponsored by Rep. Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, would allow patients to use marijuana only if they have life-threatening or debilitating conditions, and only if their doctors believe it would be the most effective treatment. Patients and caregivers would register with the state and receive identification cards that would allow them to legally purchase marijuana for medicinal use. They would be allowed to grow up to 12 plants and to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, though a state-regulated distribution system would eventually replace home cultivation. This transition would hinge on the federal government’s approval of the state-regulated distribution system.
Last year, the Assembly passed legislation legalizing medical marijuana for the first time, and this year’s version of the bill attempts to address the concerns that derailed its chances in the Senate. Some legislators felt that last year’s bill did not provide for adequate regulation; the new bill mandates that registered organizations such as pharmacies, nonprofit organizations created for the purposing of selling marijuana to chronically sick people and local health departments handle sale and distribution of the drug.
Twelve states have legalized medical marijuana, with New Mexico, which legalized medical marijuana last summer, the most recent to do.
The Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that supports legalizing medical marijuana and overall reform of the country’s marijuana laws, is pushing the state to pass the Assembly legislation. Right now, television advertisements created by the group are running in the Capital Region, Long Island and the Buffalo area.
RELIEF FROM PAIN
Burton Aldrich, 45, a quadriplegic from Kingston, appears in the 30-second television advertisement. “I don’t know if I would be around if it wasn’t for marijuana,” he says, in the advertisement. “It shouldn’t be a crime to treat pain and suffering.”
Aldrich became a quadriplegic in 1999, when he crushed his spinal cord in a diving accident. He has limited use of his arms and fingers, can wiggle his toes, and remains confined to a wheelchair. “I’m very fortunate,” he said, in a phone interview. “It could have been worse.” His body is wracked by intense spasms, and he experiences searing pain in his extremities, as well as pounding headaches that disrupt his sleep. He said he can’t take painkillers because they cause constipation. But through marijuana and meditation, he said he’s found a solution.
Aldrich tried marijuana around two years ago, while returning from a sailing trip with a friend. He was in pain, and his friend offered him some marijuana. “My spasms went away,” he said. “My pain went away like a bucket of water dropped on me.”
“I don’t flaunt it,” Aldrich said, of smoking marijuana. “I’m only pushing it because I don’t think it should be illegal. It’s a medicine.”
Williams and Aldrich both said they would rather grow their own marijuana than go to state-regulated distribution centers to acquire their drugs. They said they think the federal government is more likely to raid state-designated distribution centers than individuals growing marijuana for their own use.
The Marijuana Policy Project would like the federal government to legalize the use of medical marijuana. In lieu of that, the group supports efforts to legalize medical marijuana at the state level.
“As long as the federal government is opposed, the states are left to deal with it themselves,” said Dan Bernath, the assistant director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project. He said the federal government has made it clear that it will not target and raid sick individuals who are using marijuana to reduce symptoms and pain.
“There are sick people in New York who are relying on medical marijuana,” Bernath said. “They’re using it with a doctor’s recommendation, and right now they’re criminals for doing so. Arrest is always on their minds. It’s a real fear. They’re forced to go on the street and deal with drug dealers.” People who grow their own marijuana also risk running into trouble with the law, he said. “One of the maddening things about the illegality of medical marijuana is that its safety and efficacy has been established. … Real people really do need this. It’s just unconscionable to let them suffer when we could be doing something to help them.”
Treatments for cancer and HIV are always improving — for instance, the side effects from AIDS drugs are not nearly as debilitating as they once were — but that doesn’t mean there’s no need for medical marijuana, Bernath said. “There’s always going to be a subpopulation that finds medical marijuana to be the best treatment,” he said. “I don’t think anybody sees medical marijuana as a cure for everybody. But there are always going to be some people who will benefit.”
Williams, who has purchased marijuana for himself and friends who are chronically ill, is all too familiar with the risks of buying marijuana. On one excursion to the Bronx, a friend was arrested after buying marijuana for him.
He said marijuana also provides him with mental relief. “There are so many good things it does, and so few bad things,” Williams said. Because he is on disability, he buys marijuana when he can afford to, “not all the time.” He said he’s been living on disability since being forced to retire from his job as a press room supervisor.
“When I was working, marijuana helped me work and deal with the pain,” Williams said. “If I could afford it, and I didn’t have to worry about being busted, I’d probably use it more.”
Bernath said it’s difficult to determine how many New Yorkers would register as users of medical marijuana if it was legalized. In Rhode Island, he noted, fewer than 200 people have registered, but New York is a bigger state.