In late February, I was relaxing on a bench outside the New York state Senate conference chamber when I met and spoke briefly with Air Force veteran Amy Rising. Rising told me she was in the state Capitol to lobby on behalf of service members who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder for the legal right of every veteran to consume medical marijuana.
We were interrupted by Sen. James Sanders Jr., D-Queens, who had taken an interest in Rising’s camouflage jacket. “Are you a bill collector?” Sanders joked when she asked the senator to repeat his name.
“No, I’m a bill supporter,” Rising replied. She had traveled from Ithaca to join nearly a dozen medical marijuana advocates who were eager to speak with state senators.
Sanders, a veteran himself, told Rising that he is concerned about reports of veteran suicides from across the nation. So she mentioned to him how scientists have identified the “endocannabinoid system” in the human body, and tried to impress upon Sanders how that research relates to veterans diagnosed with PTSD.
Rising asked Sanders to vote in favor of the Compassionate Care Act, a controversial bill that has passed in the state Assembly several times but is being held up in the Senate.
The CCA would impose tight regulations on every individual who applies to grow, distribute, sell, prescribe and consume medical marijuana through a program administered by the state Department of Health. Advocates estimate that, statewide, hundreds of thousands would count themselves in at least one of those groups.
But that’s the problem.
For years, state leaders have strongly opposed any proposal that would legalize the cultivation of cannabis plants in New York. My guess is that 76 years of aggressive marijuana law enforcement have rendered most officials incapable of recognizing the medicinal properties of cannabis.
Between 1850 and the 1930s, cannabis plant extracts were routinely published in the U.S. pharmacopoeia — the official list of medications available to doctors. And it was common for doctors to prescribe cannabis remedies. Then, in 1937, federal “marihuana” prohibition kicked in and halted cannabis research as well as its production.
Today, the chemical compounds in cannabis plants, called cannabinoids, are being studied by some scientists. According to a November 2013 article in The Nation magazine, the federal government issued a patent in October 2003 to its own Department of Health and Human Services. The patent was titled, “Cannabinoids as Antioxidants and Neuroprotectants.”
Many anecdotal accounts indicate that medical cannabis can alleviate a wide variety of symptoms and ailments: the depression and insomnia of PTSD; the nausea and appetite loss of cancer, especially following chemotherapy or radiation treatments; the debilitating weakness of arthritis; chronic neck and back pains; the hideous seizures of epilepsy; the muscle spasms of Parkinson’s disease and Multiple Sclerosis; the confusion and anxiety of Alzheimer’s disease; and more.
Much of the advocacy for New York’s Compassionate Care Act is born out of personal experiences with such illnesses. Patients say pharmaceutical drugs often prescribed for treatment can produce harsh physical side effects, compelling them or their loved ones to break the law and obtain marijuana.
Still, opponents of the CCA in the state Senate assume that there will be illegal diversion of marijuana, which Sanders had called a “street drug.” They argue that legalizing another intoxicating substance seems absurd when so many citizens already struggle with addictions to heroin, alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, etc.
Lawmakers have valid concerns about public safety. Yet, maybe they should consider how legalizing the production, distribution and sales of medical cannabis could actually serve to diminish the illegal market. Do they really prefer forcing sick New Yorkers to purchase their marijuana from unregulated street dealers?
More importantly, federal leaders may be on the verge of amending marijuana’s status in the Controlled Substances Act. Ever since that law was passed by Congress in 1970, marijuana has been in Schedule I, the strictest category, which is for drugs deemed to have no medical value and a high potential for abuse.
“Classifying marijuana as Schedule I at the federal level perpetuates an unjust and irrational system,” wrote 18 U.S. representatives in a letter to President Barack Obama on Feb. 12. “Schedule I recognizes no medical use, disregarding both medical evidence and the laws of nearly half of the states that have legalized medical marijuana,” they said, and advised moving the drug to Schedule III or lower.
“We believe the current system wastes resources and destroys lives, in turn damaging families and communities. Taking action on this issue is long overdue,” the representatives concluded. Their letter was prompted by Obama’s comments in January to The New Yorker magazine, in which the president had described marijuana as less dangerous than alcohol and other drugs “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.”
Among the strongest Compassionate Care Act advocates are parents whose children endure life-threatening seizures; breast cancer survivors; people living with HIV; experienced nurses; and hundreds of doctors familiar with the potential role of cannabis in medicine.
They are grateful to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for publicly supporting medical marijuana in January by invoking a similar 1980 law, and to several Republican state senators who recently announced their approval of the CCA legislation and are pushing for a vote. In the month of March, advocates lobbied for the bill to be part of the state budget process, calling it “March for Compassion.” But they were unable to convince enough senators that marijuana does, in fact, have medical uses.
“Momentum is definitely building for this comprehensive bill. We know that when a vote is taken, the Compassionate Care Act will pass with strong bipartisan support,” said Gabriel Sayegh, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in a press release. Sayegh added that Senate leaders should “let the bill come to the floor for a vote and end the needless suffering of the seriously ill.”
Stubborn obstacles remain, though. On March 3, Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, claimed that marijuana is not medicine during a televised interview with Liz Benjamin, host of the cable program “Capital Tonight.” He stated that marijuana should be dispensed by hospitals and pharmacies like other drugs, only after the proper federal review process is completed.
Apparently, DeFrancisco does not know that same process has been stymied for decades by Drug Enforcement Administration officials, and other federal agents, who denied most of the applications for cannabis research.
“I believe wholeheartedly that marijuana is a harmful and carcinogenic gateway drug,” wrote Sen. Greg Ball, R-Brewster, in an email to me in early February. He was the only state senator among dozens who responded to previous emails of mine regarding the CCA.
Ball sits on the Senate Health Committee, which must approve the Compassionate Care Act before it can advance. He asserted that passing the CCA “will create an enormous and uncontrollable black market; it will ensnare millions more young children into a lifetime of habitual drug use and all taxpayers will flip the bill for even greater social-services expenses, as well as the loss in brainpower and lives.”
Obviously, New York’s state senators care not a whit that their continued opposition is viewed by Amy Rising and every other CCA advocate as pure tragedy.
Lawrence Goodwin lives in Amsterdam. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.