Medical Marijuana Keeps on Rolling

Pot for patients may run into trouble with the Supreme Court, but the issue is gaining here at home

When Assemblyman Richard Gottfried proposed a bill legalizing marijuana for sick people in 1997, his odds of success seemed slim. State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, vowed to defeat Gottfried's bill. And even Gottfried, a Democrat from Chelsea, admitted that turning his bill into law would be "an uphill battle." Back then, only two states permitted sick people to smoke pot legally.

Fast-forward seven years and the cause of medical marijuana has become a full-fledged political movement, with two national organizations running campaigns across the country. Medical marijuana is now legal in 11 states. And in New York, the cause has grown in popularity. Now even Bruno, who battled prostate cancer last year, has begun to sound much more receptive.

The battle over medical marijuana was back in the news again last week, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal of two sick women from California. Their case seeks to stop federal law enforcement agents from arresting pot-smoking patients who are obeying the laws of their own state. A ruling is not expected for months.

Even if the court decides against the two women, the medical-marijuana laws in states like California would not change; they would still permit patients to smoke pot (though these patients would be vulnerable to arrest by federal agents). "Nobody ever expected this case to get this far," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which helped finance this lawsuit as well as medical-marijuana campaigns in eight states. "If we win this, it would be a very significant step forward. If we lose, it's just a tiny step backward."

Whatever the court's final decision, it will certainly affect the movement's momentum, and may determine the fate of Gottfried's bill in Albany next year.


For New Yorkers with long memories, the debate over medical marijuana may feel like old news. During the 1980s, New York was one of seven states in the country that distributed marijuana cigarettes. The pot came from a federal farm down South. Through a research program, it was dispensed at hospitals around the state to people with glaucoma or cancer. (According to doctors and patients, marijuana relieves eye pressure in glaucoma sufferers and fights nausea induced by chemotherapy.)

New Yorkers had former assemblyman Antonio Olivieri to thank for this program. In 1979, Olivieri discovered he had a brain tumor. He underwent chemotherapy, and smoked marijuana to battle the side effects. Along the way, he became an outspoken crusader for legalizing medical marijuana. From his hospital bed, he lobbied the chair of the senate health committee by phone. The bill passed in 1980, and Olivieri died shortly afterward.

Between 1982 and 1989, the New York State Department of Health handed out almost 6,000 joints, to more than 200 people. Eventually the availability of Marinol capsules—which contain THC, the active ingredient in marijuana—decreased the demand for the cigarettes. (Many people do prefer marijuana, however, which they say is more effective.) At any rate, by the end of the decade, New York's medical-marijuana program had shut down, as had all the programs in other states.


California kicked off the recent wave of medical-marijuana victories in 1996, when Proposition 215 prevailed, with 56 percent of the vote. Now, with a doctor's recommendation, people in California who suffer from AIDS, cancer, or glaucoma can legally grow and smoke marijuana. Over the next four years, several states followed California's lead: Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Maine, Colorado, Nevada. Each state put the issue on the ballot, and every time voters approved it. Last month, voters in Montana approved yet another medical-marijuana ballot initiative, this time by 62 percent.

Meanwhile, in 2000, Hawaii became the first state to remove criminal penalties for medical marijuana by using a different method: passing state legislation instead of putting an initiative on the ballot. Campaigns for ballot initiatives can be incredibly costly; given a choice, medical-marijuana activists usually prefer to achieve their goals through legislation. While it can be much more difficult to win over state legislators than regular voters, this strategy has begun to work. The Maryland state legislature passed a medical-marijuana bill in 2003, and Vermont did the same earlier this year.

A legislative victory in New York State—getting Gottfried's bill through the assembly and the senate, and then signed by Governor Pataki—would represent yet another substantial victory for the pro-pot movement. The Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization that spent $3 million on campaigns this year, will be targeting New York in 2005, as well as Rhode Island, Illinois, and a few other states. Already, the group has a lobbyist working in Albany.

Gottfried's bill would permit people to smoke marijuana legally with a doctor's certification if they have a "life-threatening condition." These include cancer, HIV, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and hepatitis C. Doctors who certify patients to obtain pot would be required to send a copy of their certification to the state health department. Patients would be allowed to receive a month's supply of marijuana at a time.

The bill has 45 sponsors in the assembly; seven are Republicans. One of the first Republicans to join the cause was Patrick Manning, who represents Dutchess County. A close friend of his has cancer, and has been smoking marijuana to battle the effects of chemotherapy. "If this could help someone make their life a little bit better, a little more pleasant, while they're going through such a horrible disease, then it would be wrong for me not to stand up," Manning says. "I started talking to my colleagues and asked them to join me, so we can really make it a bipartisan bill."

The talk show host Montel Williams traveled to Albany to lobby legislators in May. Williams, who uses pot to combat the pain caused by multiple sclerosis, met with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Bruno, and others. In June, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau met with Williams, then announced his support for legalizing medical marijuana. A few weeks later, the New York City Council passed a resolution supporting Gottfried's bill. And in September, Williams returned to Albany to have a meeting about the issue with Governor Pataki.


For any state that does legalize medical marijuana, the crucial question is always: Where does the pot come from? The federal government grows marijuana on a farm in Mississippi, and supplies joints to seven patients across the country through a research program run by the University of Mississippi. But this farm does not supply pot to new patients in states where medical marijuana has been legalized. These patients must either grow their own weed, or else buy it on the black market.

One idea that has been floating around for years is to redistribute marijuana that has been confiscated by the police. In past years, in New York State, this pot has been handed over to the state health department. Workers placed it on a conveyor belt, which delivered it to an incinerator. (The process wasn't always seamless; in 1986, workers took 63 pounds of marijuana for themselves, lifting it off the conveyer belt.) Gottfried's bill suggests a few possible sources of medical marijuana, including the state's confiscated stash.

While some legislators will likely want to wait to make a decision about Gottfried's bill until the Supreme Court makes its decision, Gottfried is pushing for faster action. "I think the fact that the Supreme Court decision is pending creates one argument for passing a bill at this very moment, because state action helps send a message . . . to the Supreme Court," he says. That message, of course, would be that the public wants to permit sick people to smoke pot without having to worry about a phalanx of police officers bursting through their front door.

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