March 22, 2006
Timothy Bolger, Long Island Press
At first glance, it would appear as if there is nothing that could get in the way of Jesse, an intimidating, 6-foot-plus, longhaired Nassau County man one could easily picture on a Harley or using a jackhammer. But since the 41-year-old salesman was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1999, he has been injecting himself with some powerful drugs to slow the degeneration the incurable disease causes.The pain and side effects of those drugs can wear him down, so, to ease the discomfort while leading an otherwise normal family life with his wife and two kids, he smokes marijuana.
Jesse, who asked that we not use his real name, knows that he is breaking the law, but his doctors have endorsed the practice, and the results are irrefutable—so he takes the risk.
“For some of us, the answer seems so simple,” Jesse says from behind light-blue tinted sunglasses. “Over the years it has cured what ails me.”
He’s not alone. There are an estimated 2,500 diagnosed AIDS patients in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to the Long Island Association for AIDS Care. There are about 7,000 MS patients for the region, according to the Long Island chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Cancer statistics are difficult to track, but about 1 in 3 women and about 1 in 2 men will be diagnosed with cancer before reaching age 85, according to Hewlett-based 1 in 9: The Long Island Breast Cancer Action Coalition.
Many patients suffering from these diseases, other conditions, or the side effects of their treatments, have touted marijuana’s medicinal benefits. Medical marijuana speakeasies have surfaced in cities across the country—although sometimes they clash with authorities.
More than 75 percent of New York voters support legalizing weed to help the seriously ill, provided it’s under the supervision of a physician who prescribes it, according to a study conducted last year by the Siena Research Institute at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. Statewide organizations, such as the New York State Nurses Association, Hospice and Palliative Care Association of New York State and the New York State Association of County Health Officials, have publicly stated their support for a medical marijuana law. Even local groups like 1 in 9 hope for a day when patients in need can toke up.
“If this is something that will ease their pain, then I’m all for it,” says Geri Barish, president of 1 in 9. “We need to come out of the dark ages. If there are things out there that can help, we need to be able to take advantage of them.”
Two bills currently before the New York State Legislature address the issue. But the ease of lumping the medical marijuana movement in with those who want Dutch-style legalization—in the Netherlands, adult possession and purchase of small amounts of marijuana is allowed—makes the issue difficult for politicians. The Assembly has been fighting over medical marijuana bills for eight years now, without passing a single one. But stories like Jesse’s are hard to ignore, and even prostate cancer survivor and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) said last year he would allow the legislation to come before the Senate. Then again, he hasn’t pushed it through. In the Senate, the bill has languished.
Currently 11 states allow marijuana for medical use: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Arizona, which has a similar law, has no set program in place to administer marijuana that is prescribed. But last summer, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal right to prosecute marijuana users—even medicinal users in states that permit such use—trumps the states’ right to help terminally ill constituents. The clash between federal and states’ rights flared up again March 14, when federal agents raided the home of a 53-year-old California man and seized his small marijuana farm. Reports of excessive force prompted small protests in front of federal buildings in 20 cities in 11 Western states, and in Washington, according to the medical marijuana advocacy group Safe Access Now.
The issue is tough to get a consensus on federally. A proposal in the House of Representatives has failed to pass for five years in row. The Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment, named for Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-Kingston), would prohibit the Department of Justice from prosecuting patients who use medical marijuana.
“The federal government should not intrude upon, let alone prosecute, patients who are using the substance in compliance with state law,” Hinchey said in a statement.
Smoking in the Bathroom
In the 1980s, when the government first started taking seriously the idea of using pot to help patients, the National Institute on Drug Abuse provided marijuana to the New York State Department of Health for a study. One of the researchers, Dr. Vincent Vinciguerra, is now chief of medical oncology at North Shore University Hospital. His 1988 pilot study found that 78 percent of 56 patients who smoked the state-sponsored marijuana demonstrated control of chemotherapy-induced nausea and appetite loss.
“It gave them the munchies, and they were actually eating better,” Vinciguerra says. One patient that Vinciguerra has been seeing for about four years recently opted for cannabis, after all the other anti-nausea medications were no longer effective. This is a scenario Vinciguerra witnesses with a small percentage of the 80 to 90 patients he sees weekly.
“Most don’t need it,” he says, “but when it’s helpful, it would be nice to be able to provide it.”
The silver-haired physician, who has closely followed the progression of relevant legislation, is confounded by his lack of access to this tool, saying, “we owe it to the patients” to be able to provide medical marijuana. “You would think that since the study had positive results that people would right away pick up on it and try to make it available to their patients,” he says. “It was an important finding.”
But he also acknowledges the deeply rooted fears about the social implications. Vinciguerra notes with a laugh that during the study, the only place to have the patients smoke their medicine was in a hospital bathroom, where the odors wafting under the door made visitors wonder what the doctors were up to.
Ironically, Jesse, who says that Rebif, his MS medicine, feels like “battery acid” in his veins, worries what would happen if the government did regulate the steady supply of marijuana he’s found for himself.
“It’s easy enough to get it as it is,” Jesse says, adding that politicians would just create more red tape for him than it’s worth.
The issue of whether marijuana should be legalized for medicinal purposes is, according to some groups, being exploited by pro-pot organizations as a means of getting cannabis legalized. “I am not saying ‘no’ to cannabis medicine,” says Steven Steiner, president of Dads and Mad Moms Against Drug Dealers (DAMMADD). “I want to see safe cannabis medicine.”
Steiner, who spends his time lobbying for strict drug laws and lecturing young people about the dangers of drugs, is a polarizing personality in the war on drugs. The organization was formed after Steiner’s son, Stevie, died from an overdose of OxyContin, a powerful pain medication the 19- year-old had obtained illegally. Steiner subsequently obtained funding for DAMMADD from major pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin.
Steiner’s biggest problem with the movement to legalize medicinal marijuana is groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which calls itself the leading organization in the United States promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. Steiner says that groups like the DPA unfairly use the possible benefits of medical pot to get the drug legalized.
“These groups just want to make it OK to smoke marijuana, so they use people that are sick and use marijuana to make their case,” says Steiner. “But they go dark when other alternatives are proposed.”
One of the issues Steiner raises, should marijuana be legalized, is quality control. “Who is going to grow this marijuana? Who is responsible?” says Steiner, pointing to the death of well-known medical marijuana advocate Jane Weirick, who died in 2005, possibly from an allergic reaction to a pesticide she used while growing her pot.
“I smoked pot and drank when I was a teenager. So did my friends and brothers,” says Steiner. “I am a hypocrite. But, we all learn as we get older. If my parents were privy to what I am privy to, maybe it would have made a difference.”
To Steiner, the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other governmental agencies have not given the green light to medical marijuana is a telltale sign that smoking pot if you are ill is just not a good idea. “Put it this way,” he says, “if you ould smoke pot and cure cancer, it would have been approved by now.”
Finding government-sponsored marijuana isn’t impossible, it’s just a zigzag road. For Assemb. Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan), this is one of his main issues. His proposal to legalize marijuana for medical purposes drew assemblymen as sponsors, including Thomas Alfano (R-Franklin Square), Bob Sweeny (D-Lindenhurst) and Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach).
After the Supreme Court ruled last June that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was within its rights to seize marijuana plants grown for medical use in California, there was a chilling effect on states dabbling with prescription pot. Gottfried is now redrafting his legislation.
New York State Sen. Vincent Liebell (R-Brewster), who sponsored what he calls a “very, very limited and closely controlled” medical marijuana bill in the Senate last year, is waiting to see how Rhode Island—the first state to pass a medical marijuana law since the Supreme Court ruling in June—handles the issue. Liebell feels it’s up to Congress to take the lead now.
“Our amendment helps ensure that the humane approach is taken to help people relieve severe pain,” Hinchey says. “Medical marijuana users are not criminals, but rather they are patients who are suffering from chronic pain or nausea and have exhausted all other medicines to treat their condition.” There was a small glimmer of hope for Hinchey shortly following the Supreme Court decision last year, even though the bill didn’t pass. The final count was 161 for and 264 against, which is so far the closest the proposal has come to passage, but still only 10 votes more than two years ago. “Progress on Capitol Hill is often incremental, and we’ll continue to push for this amendment each year until it passes,” he says.
Some experts fault political shortsightedness. “People don’t want to pass this because they don’t want to appear soft on crime,” says Ruth Liebesman, legal aid director for the New York State chapter of the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and a privately practicing criminal defense attorney. She points out that doctors can prescribe variations of cocaine and heroin, describing the inconsistency as “intellectual dishonesty.”
So, until any further action is taken on these proposals, medicinal users are forced to maintain a low profile.
As in the bootlegging days of Al Capone, when alcohol was illegal because of prohibition, clashes between DEA agents and medical marijuana advocates have created a culture of speakeasies. In New York City, there are patients who organize and meet to share their medicine, but finding them isn’t easy, unless you’re a card-carrying member.
For the past decade, Dana Beal, an advocate with Cures Not Wars, which helps organize the annual Marijuana March early each May, has been providing ID cards to suffering patients who are helped by marijuana. The cards aren’t sanctioned by any government agency, but are intended to help prevent patients from staying overnight in jail if they’re caught with marijuana. The cards give police an option to issue an appearance ticket rather than make an arrest, Beal says.
He adds that “there are patients and they organize themselves and they meet, but we don’t want them to end up like the paraplegic in California,” referring to a DEA raid in 2002 on a woman paralyzed from the waist down.
While Beal’s organization works on the front lines of the medical marijuana issue, the group’s stance that marijuana should be fully decriminalized—for recreational as well as medicinal use—is where the line is drawn between groups like theirs and NORML. For this legislation, the advocates maintain it is purely medical marijuana they seek, with organizers from the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), who support repealing penalties for marijuana possession, but limit their argument for the survival of the bill.
Local MMP lobbyist Vince Marone described significant political progress last year in New York State. He says that there are discussions to reintroduce the legislation, after the budget is passed on April 1 and policy issues can once again be debated. It is not an impossibility: New Jersey has similar pending legislation and Connecticut has come close to passing a bill. although persistence seems key. As of 2004, 13 states had laws allowing therapeutic research programs with federal cooperation, and 10 states, including New York, have symbolic laws, which would allow patients to possess prescription pot if federal law were ever to be changed, according to MMP.
But despite all of the progress, none of the users will be free of the paranoia that they will be charged as common criminals for simply trying to feel better.