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Currently, 16 states and the District of Columbia make provisions for medical use of pot. All except California require the patient to suffer from major illnesses. California leaves it to the patient’s doctor to decide if the condition would be helped by a joint.
In fact, California was not the first state allowing medical marijuana. New York passed a law allowing for medical use of marijuana in 1980, called the “Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substance Therapeutic Research Program” after a state assemblyman who died of brain cancer that year. That law, still on the books, says the program is limited to “cancer patients, glaucoma patients and patients inflicted with other diseases…approved by the commissioner.” The program also set up a “Patient Qualification Review Board,” but reportedly the program was inactivated in the late 1980s.
The United States maintains that the various state laws legalizing medical marijuana are invalid because of federal laws that categorize marijuana as a “Schedule 1” drug with no redeeming value whatsoever.
The Justice Department has threatened that it will no longer tolerate the unlicensed dispensaries and pot growers proliferating in California since voters approved a broadly worded proposition legalizing medical marijuana there in 1996.
On Nov. 18, New York City councilmembers met to hear testimony on the medical use of marijuana and fate of the medical marijuana bill collecting dust in Albany. The measure supporting the Albany bill was authored by Councilmember Daniel Dromm, who co-chaired the meeting and was joined by Councilmembers Gale Brewer, David Greenfield, G. Oliver Koppel — a former state attorney general — and Ruben Wills.
They heard testimony from Dr. Adam Karpati, executive deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; Ellen Brickman of the New York State Nurses Association; a former law enforcement official; an addiction medicine doctor; and Arlene Williams, known as the “Ganja Granny”; as well as Assemblymember Gottfried and state Senator Duane.
Dr. Kapati, the only speaker representing the city, expressed the Bloomberg administration’s opposition to the measure. His points reflected a circular argument that because medical marijuana lacks “clear, scientifically validated medical benefits” for medical use and numerous alleged drawbacks, it should not be legal. Activists and supporters of the bill say they welcome research but claim that scientists are being stymied by the government.
The joint oversight committee’s final report says that the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Agency have erected almost insurmountable hurdles to research into the medicinal properties of cannabis. Unlike almost any other area of research, a scientist looking into pot has to get permission from both the F.D.A. and D.E.A. to obtain a valid license to possess it, and then apply to access the drug, which is only available from government storehouses. According to the City Council oversight committee report, “Marijuana is the only major drug for which the federal government controls the only legal research supply.”
Brickman of the Nurses Association testified that, “The safety of medical use of marijuana has been firmly demonstrated.” She claimed that pot as a medicine is supported by “more than 100 articles on the therapeutic use of the drug” published in the 19th century before marijuana became politically controversial in the 20th century.
Brickman also cited positive reports published over the years, such as by the commission headed by former Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Schafer during the Nixon presidency that advised decriminalizing cannabis. Brickman added that marijuana as a medicine is also getting positive reviews in Canada, Britain and the Netherlands, where it’s prescribed by doctors. She concluded by asserting that, having been used for thousands of years, marijuana is probably safer and more effective than many drugs approved by the F.D.A.
Among the witnesses testifying before the oversight committee in City Hall’s ornate Council Chambers was Arlene Williams, a 74-year-old cancer survivor who has tirelessly advocated for legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana. Dubbed the “Ganja Granny,” she said she was buoyed by the “positive atmosphere” during the hearings and felt the Council would “have legalized it right there” if medical marijuana was brought to a vote.
Gottfried testified that his medical marijuana legislation is “sensible, strict and humane,” but that “political correctness run amok [is resulting in the] suffering of thousands of our fellow New Yorkers.” His bill would license and regulate “registered organizations” to dispense marijuana to certified patients. Gottfried’s system would allow a “practitioner” — someone licensed to prescribe a controlled substance — to certify that a person is sick enough to get pot.
Bridget Brennan, the New York special narcotics prosecutor, said she doesn’t oppose medical marijuana, but disagrees that Gottfried’s bill is strict enough in controlling access and distribution of pot. Brennan sent a letter to the committee stating her position opposing the bill with a fundamentally NIMBY stance that it, “Allows an unlimited number of unregulated marijuana dispensaries to proliferate anywhere, including next to schools, public parks and other highly inappropriate locations.” She also worries that the quality of the marijuana cannot be checked for pesticides and may aid Mexican drug cartels.
Whatever the problems delaying the bill, patients who say they benefit from marijuana are facing a bleak future. Barbara Jackson, another medical marijuana cancer patient, died a few years after she made headlines when she was arrested trying to buy her “medicine” on a Bronx street. Her case was soon dropped but illustrated what patients face without a legitimate supply of the drug that’s been proved to them as a lifesaver.
Arlene Williams, who will soon turn 75, said, “I think they should give us marijuana.” Speaking of the gay community that is beginning to support the Gottfried bill, she said, “We helped you get out of the closet, now you can help us get out of ours.”
DeRienzo is co-host of the public access TV show “Let Them Talk” on MNN