On a frigid March morning in downtown Albany, where church spires loom tall and traffic lights dangle from wires that stretch across intersections, a flurry of white-haired men in suits strolled down State Street. They were heading for Sixty State Street, the tony event space and banquet hall in the city’s Downtown Historic District, where a team of busboys were hurrying to arrange pastries on silver trays in anticipation of the guests’ arrival. Once they arrived, they mingled in groups, chatting over coffee and orange juice, shaking hands and exchanging business cards.
They were surprisingly awake for 8 a.m., despite the reason for their gathering. This mostly male, mostly white, and mostly middle-aged crowd consisted mainly of the state politicians, lawyers, and entrepreneurs who were all of a sudden driving the state’s conversation on medical marijuana. This was hardly a wake-and-bake kind of crowd, but they were all there to talk about weed.
The event, called “Medical Marijuana: Is New York Doing It Right?” was put on by the news site Capital New York and sponsored by Citiva Medical, a company that, at the time, was vying for one of the state’s five medical marijuana growing licenses. Among the stately baby boomers who would be taking part in the morning’s main event — a journalist-moderated panel discussion — was a Manhattan assemblyman named Richard Gottfried. A bookish policy wonk, he had been the loudest critic of the recently passed Compassionate Care Act, which had legalized medical marijuana — but with a host of draconian restrictions that he believed had rendered the law almost useless. No, he insisted, New York was not doing medical marijuana right. Not after Governor Andrew Cuomo essentially gutted the law that Gottfried had written, perfected, and championed over the course of the past two decades.
Gottfried, whom friends and colleagues call Dick, first introduced the Compassionate Care Act in 1997. The career legislator is now the assembly’s longest-serving member. He was fifty at the time he introduced the bill, but he had already served in Albany for 27 years. He has now, for nearly four decades, been New York’s unlikeliest marijuana champion: a friendly, articulate, grandfatherly type who could pass for Santa Claus (if Kris Kringle were slimmer and Jewish and wore smart tortoiseshell spectacles).
During the panel discussion, Gottfried sat beside Diane Savino, a Democrat who sponsored the Compassionate Care Act in the senate. Alphonso David, counsel to Governor Cuomo, sat two chairs away.
Savino spoke first.”There’s still more work that needs to be done,” she said of the medical marijuana program. At this, Gottfried raised his eyebrows and nodded enthusiastically in agreement.
Readying for his turn to speak, he adjusted his glasses and furrowed his brow before digging into the language of the bill as if he had it memorized verbatim, to express everything he felt was now wrong with it. He spoke slowly and carefully. “It starts out being almost unworkable, I think to an unjustifiable extent,” he said, before launching into the list of specific regulations that he says hinder patients from easy access to much-needed, long-awaited medicine.
“I appreciate the assembly member’s skepticism,” David began in response. His shaved bald head reflected the spotlight from above the stage of the grand ballroom as he began his defense of the bill. Cuomo’s position, he said, was that the federal government still considered medical marijuana a Schedule I controlled substance — the same category as heroin. The Department of Justice had advised Cuomo’s counsel that the measure should be tailored narrowly in order to avoid “enforcement problems,” David said.
“The federal government does not require any of those things,” Gottfried retorted, before relaxing his eyebrows and offering a half-smile to David and the moderator. It had been a rare show of emotion from the usually staid and measured legislator. He’d won the moment, but perhaps the moment only: Now, in early November, with the Compassionate Care Act just a couple of months away from going into effect, the law remains a shell of what he’d envisioned nearly twenty years ago.
Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, has said that New York’s medical marijuana program is an absurdly restrictive system for a drug that’s widely available. Many casual pot smokers might have hoped the bill would pave the way for broader legalization, but even medical marijuana’s staunchest proponents agree that recreational weed is a very separate issue.
Still, New York’s black market for weed used both recreationally and therapeutically is thriving. In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio more or less decriminalized citywide the possession of small amounts of cannabis: As much as 25 grams of weed, or enough for about 30 joints, will no longer land you in jail; a summons and a $100 fine is more likely. Meanwhile, according to the finance blog Fixr, the most popular price-related Google search term in New York State (“how much does a ____ cost?”) is “pound of weed.”
But elderly patients or children, who lack the will or ability to break the law, have the most at stake, says Troy Smit, director of Empire State NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). According to a 2014 Quinnipiac University poll, 88 percent of all New York State residents — including 58 percent of Republicans — think medical marijuana is a good idea. But few are confident the program, as it currently exists in the Compassionate Care Act, will satisfy patients’ needs.
“The law and the regulations implementing it are very restrictive and I think will make it very difficult and perhaps impossible for many patients to get access to medical marijuana,” says Gottfried.
New York’s medical marijuana program has been lambasted by critics as overly limited, a shocking counterpoint to programs in states like California, where it’s now almost laughably easy to find a doctor off the Venice Beach boardwalk to write up an herbal rec for back pain, insomnia, even PMS.
One of the more controversial aspects of the New York law is a provision that still makes it illegal to recommend smokable or edible cannabis, which essentially amounts to an attempt by the state to elevate the medical status of a drug that already has a strong recreational profile. In trying to mimic the pharmaceutical system of distribution, the current law only allows for ingestion via capsules, vaporizable oils, dissolvable strips, patches, and tinctures. “For many patients smoking the plant is the most effective, least expensive, and easiest method of use,” says Gottfried. Now it’s prohibited by language in the law that Cuomo himself insisted upon.
Critics also have derided the law for limiting the number of illnesses that qualify for cannabis treatment to just ten “severe, debilitating, or life-threatening” conditions — to the exclusion of conditions such as PTSD and glaucoma that, in many other states, are commonly treated with medical marijuana. The Compassionate Care Act covers cancer, HIV/AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathies, Huntington’s disease, and damage to nervous tissue of the spinal cord. The state doesn’t specify a list of conditions for which doctors can prescribe oxycodone or morphine (both chemical cousins of heroin), Gottfried points out, so why cannabis?
Cuomo’s office declined to comment for this story. The Department of Health responded to requests by referring the Voice to an FAQ page on its website.
But the biggest point of contention for critics of the law is how difficult it will be for even the most qualified patients to legally obtain marijuana. Just five companies were given licenses to grow cannabis (after a lengthy and complicated application process) and each produce five medical marijuana “brands,” defined by different combinations of chemical compounds known as cannabinoids. Each company will also operate four dispensaries, serving a state with a population of 20 million spread out over 55,000 square miles. The New York State Department of Health is vested with the power to set prices for cannabis medicine, as well as with the option to expand the Compassionate Care Act.
“The limit of twenty dispensaries for the entire state is a problem,” says Gottfried. For patients suffering from debilitating illnesses, driving across the state to get medicine is at best difficult and, in the worst cases, impossible.
The small number of companies and the promise of big profits attracted deep-pocketed applicants to the state’s competition for growing licenses. GreenWave Advisors originally predicted that medical marijuana sales in New York could exceed $240 million in the first year. But GreenWave founder Matt Karnes says that because of the public’s concerns about product availability and access, the company has revised its 2016 forecast to closer to $160 million.
Dr. Jack D’Angelo is the medical director at Citiva, which was ultimately unsuccessful in its bid for a New York grow license. He admits the law isn’t perfect but believes it’s an important starting point to treat marijuana with standardizations and restrictions similar to those of other medicines. “I think the leniency of [programs like California’s] has taken away from the higher conversation,” he says.
In the meantime, patient advocacy and marijuana reform groups have begun pushing for broader medical uses before the program even becomes operational this January. Gottfried has already drafted new legislation that would undo the current law’s most restrictive qualities, but it has yet to move through the assembly.
In June, the assembly passed an emergency access bill, introduced by Gottfried, that would expedite access to marijuana for patients in immediate and dire need. The bill passed the senate as well, but has not been signed into law by Cuomo. When the Department of Health finally selected the five companies (out of forty-three applicants) to grow and dispense medical marijuana throughout the state, Gottfried called the decision “welcome but insufficient” to meet the needs of patients with debilitating and life-threatening conditions.
“These two large characters basically say ‘relentless,’ ” Gottfried says, gesturing to one of several Chinese-calligraphy paintings that decorate his Manhattan office. A bust of John F. Kennedy is the centerpiece of his bookshelf, and his desk is somewhere under a mountain of papers, all of it conveying an unspoken message: Dick Gottfried is never clocked out. That is, except for on Saturdays, when, for the past eighteen years, he has taken calligraphy classes at the China Institute, recently relocated to the financial district.
“I enjoy creating something I like to look at,” he says. “I like the challenge. It focuses my mind totally on something other than work.” Gottfried has been drawing since childhood. At the age of ten, he joined the Art Students League of New York on West 57th Street, where he took classes in charcoal, pastel, and oil paint. At thirteen, he took a class in Chinese watercolor. This year Gottfried was featured in a coffee table book called 100 New York Calligraphers by Cynthia Dantzic, and he will be included in an exhibit by the Society of Scribes that runs throughout November at the National Arts Club. These days some of his paintings hang on the wall; others are stacked in a pile on the floor. “This one is a quote from Bobby Kennedy,” he says, picking up the painting to read the translation on back. ” ‘The future is not a gift, it is an achievement.’ ”
It’s almost as if the messages in his paintings caption his career as a legislator over the past two decades. In 1997, Gottfried discovered calligraphy and became “totally addicted” to it. That same year, he introduced the Compassionate Care Act in the assembly, inspired by California’s medical marijuana law, which had passed the previous year.
“Progressive ideas were in my bones for as long as I could remember being aware of issues,” the 68-year-old says. Gottfried grew up in Flushing, Queens, and his parents were both liberal Democrats. His mother was a schoolteacher and union member, his father a writer and editor of economic reports and newsletters. His grandfather read The Forward, back then a socialist Yiddish-language newspaper. As a teenager, Gottfried used to watch The Defenders, a courtroom drama starring E.G. Marshall. The show, which ran on CBS from 1961–’65, dealt with provocative legal issues of the moment, like abortion and immigration.
The show premiered the same year Gottfried’s hero, John F. Kennedy, was sworn in as president. Gottfried admired Kennedy’s gifts as a speaker, as well as his progressive ideals. At thirteen, Gottfried decided he was going to go into public service. “I knew what I was going to do for my life,” he says, before waiting a beat. “But that’s because I was odd.”
He joined the debate team at Stuyvesant High School and later enrolled at Cornell University, where he founded a student chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union and majored in government, which “Cornell calls ‘political science,’ ” Gottfried adds.
In 1970, while studying at Columbia Law School, he was elected to the assembly at the age of 23. Gottfried had been part of a group of student activists who rallied against the Vietnam War movement and led community organizing efforts. When then-mayor John Lindsay tapped sitting 40th District assemblyman Jerome Kretchmer to be his environmental protection commissioner, Gottfried immediately set his sights on the attendant vacancy. In the primary, he ran against Dorothy Walasek, who had been a district leader and was certainly better known among local Democrats. But Walasek, Gottfried says, represented the more conservative wing of the party.
“So it was seen by voters in the community as a progressive versus conservative division,” Gottfried remembers. He took a semester off from law school in the spring of 1970 to campaign. That division in the Democratic Party, paired with no small amount of doorbell ringing, phone calls to voters, and distribution of literature at supermarkets and subway stops, earned Gottfried 60 percent of the vote in the primary, which essentially guaranteed victory in the November general election.
On January 1, 1971, Gottfried assumed office. A month later, he married his wife, Louise. He has represented District 75 — which includes Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, midtown, the Flatiron district, and part of Kips Bay and the Lincoln Center area — ever since.
“I love the legislative process, which, like calligraphy, is probably an addiction,” Gottfried says. “I love making words do what I want. Some people do crossword puzzles for fun. I draft bills.” He calls it his form of intellectual exercise and, as if dissecting his own language, preemptively adds, “I know it’s weird.”
By the mid-Seventies, Dick and Louise had welcomed their first and only child, a son named Michael. “I will soon have been married for 45 years,” Gottfried says today, “but I spent a lot less time at home than that would indicate.” Some eras were more difficult than others for the Gottfrieds, especially since he had to spend three to four days a week in Albany between January and June. “My absences from home were probably more of a problem for my son when he was very young,” he says. “So in those years, I would pay a lot more attention to phoning home every night when I was in Albany. It’s difficult to be away that much, particularly with a young child.” Some politicians have apartments in the capital; others, like Gottfried, prefer to stay in hotels. “I think it’s better if the only place I consider home is where I live,” he says.
In 1977, his sixth year in office, he sponsored New York State’s Marijuana Reform Act, which more or less decriminalized the possession of under 25 grams, as long as it was not burning or in public view. Before the bill passed, possession of even a quarter-ounce was a class D felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.
“The legislature and Governor [Hugh] Carey felt that the harsh penalties in our old marijuana laws were unrealistic in light of public attitudes and medical knowledge,” Gottfried wrote in a 1977 promotional pamphlet about the new law. “Enforcement was costing millions of dollars and needlessly scarring thousands of lives, while marijuana use grew.” The pamphlet featured a chart outlining the new marijuana penalties. One rolling-paper company even printed the chart on its packaging.
“I’ve long believed that the War on Drugs does not make a lot of sense,” Gottfried says today. While some of his friends were casual pot smokers, Gottfried, a self-described “nerd,” only tried it “occasionally.” He never personally knew anyone who had been targeted by unreasonable marijuana laws, but he recognized it was an issue that affected many people. “I was certainly aware that it was something happening to a great many people of my generation,” he says.
In 1979, Gottfried’s friend and colleague in the assembly Antonio Olivieri collapsed after a five-mile jog. He was just 37 years old. It took doctors four months to discover the reason: Olivieri had a malignant brain tumor that would end his life within a year. It was the incident that would launch a 34-year battle to legalize medical marijuana in New York.
“In my personal experience, marijuana was really the only thing during one course of chemotherapy that allowed me to combat nausea and keep eating,” Olivieri once said.
With no time to lose, Olivieri, who was also a onetime New York City Council member, lobbied legislators and conducted staff meetings from his hospital bed. Before his death in 1980, Olivieri drafted a medical marijuana bill and saw it through both legislative chambers all the way to Carey’s desk.
Carey would ultimately sign the Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substance Therapeutic Research Program into law. The bill authorized hospitals to — with the approval of medical review boards — use cannabis to treat cancer and glaucoma patients. But despite Carey’s signature, the medical marijuana program never came to fruition. Because the legislation did not establish patient or caregiver registry systems, limitations on the amount of marijuana that patients (or caregivers) could possess, or even restrictions on public use, the law was deemed too difficult to implement. In 2001 a New York Times reporter spoke to some of the measure’s biggest supporters: Twenty years later, most barely remembered it. The law is still on the books and theoretically could be used, but doing so would require action by the health department.
Over the next two decades, the topic of medical marijuana remained sidelined in New York. Gottfried went on to pass several other bills advancing civil liberties: the Prenatal Care Assistance Program for low-income women; the Family Health Care Decision Act, which allows families to make health care decisions when a loved one is incapacitated; the HIV Testing and Confidentiality Law; and, in 2003, New York’s first same-sex marriage bill. But in the fall of 1996, after California passed its medical marijuana law, Gottfried started thinking about weed again.
“Gee, New York oughta be able to do that,” Gottfried recalls saying to himself.
From the start, the public was largely on board with medical marijuana: By 1997, according to ABC News and Discovery Channel polls, 69 percent of Americans supported legalization. They were way ahead of most people in office, Gottfried says. Today, NORML reports that nearly 80 percent of Americans support the medical use of marijuana.
The story of New York’s Compassionate Care Act reads as a series of almosts, coulda-beens, and letdowns. After Gottfried introduced the bill in 1997, it took six years to make it out of the Health Committee and another four to reach the assembly floor and, ultimately, pass (for the first time). There were several points where the bill seemed about to pass and didn’t, Gottfried says. Between 2007 and 2013, it passed the assembly nearly every year before languishing in the much more conservative state senate.
In 2008 Gottfried and Governor Eliot Spitzer had negotiated the details of a medical marijuana program in New York, and Spitzer even claimed he would be open to signing the bill. “Of course, that didn’t happen,” Gottfried says tartly. “Something else happened.”
On March 17 of that year, Spitzer was pressured to resign amid a prostitution scandal. He was succeeded by Governor David Paterson, who showed little enthusiasm for the issue of medical marijuana. In 2010 the bill, which had again passed the assembly, was discussed in the context of the state budget, but the “three-way negotiations” among the assembly, senate, and governor dragged on until finally Paterson cut off the discussion. Paterson’s time in office, though, was short — he only finished Spitzer’s term and declined to run on his own — and in late 2010, Cuomo was elected.
Gottfried says he never considered giving up on the bill. He knew public opinion was increasingly supportive of permitting medical uses for cannabis, and more legislators were coming around. “Patients and family members of patients were getting increasingly organized and very effective in their lobbying of legislators who were not yet on board,” he says. “So it was clearly moving in the right direction and the need was clearer than ever.” That was especially true in the case of children with epilepsy, who in other states were benefitting from something called CBD extracts.
The cannabis plant contains dozens of cannabinoids that act on the brain’s receptor cells. While THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the best-known (it’s the one that can make you feel high), CBD (cannabidiol) is a non-psychotropic antioxidant and neuroprotectant, said to be useful in alleviating pain, inflammation, anxiety, psychosis, spasms, and seizures.
The use of CBD-heavy cannabis strains to treat children with epilepsy became especially popular after the debut in 2013 of the CNN documentary Weed with Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The film tells the story of a young girl from Colorado Springs named Charlotte Figi who suffers from Dravet syndrome, a rare and severe form of epilepsy that, in her case, could cause as many as 400 seizures a week. Her mother, Paige Figi, was able to convince Charlotte’s doctors to recommend medical marijuana. Within a year of treatment with high-CBD cannabis, Charlotte’s seizures dropped to one or two a month. Charlotte, who because of her seizures had retrogressed to the functionality of an infant, began developing like a normal child again. Soon after Charlotte Figi’s story went national, out-of-state “refugee” families began relocating to states where they could get CBD cannabis for their children.
In 2012, the Compassionate Care Act had again passed the assembly and was being championed in the senate by a Manhattan Democrat named Tom Duane. When he retired at the end of his term, it was Savino, a shrewd, assertive senator born into an Italian-American family in Queens, who ultimately figured out how to carry the measure over the finish line.
Savino narrowed the scope of the bill, removing provisions that would have allowed cannabis to be grown by patients and to be used and sold anywhere. Whereas Gottfried was originally inspired by California’s medical marijuana program — at a time when few others existed — Savino now says that state’s is among the messiest in the country. “You have a highly unregulated program which has led to all kinds of problems in California,” she says. “[Governor Cuomo] was not going to pass a bill that looked remotely like California’s.”
Savino says she brought the bill up to “current industry standards.” The Compassionate Care Act, she believes, is not just about crafting a policy, but also creating an industry, literally from scratch. By the time the bill arrived on Cuomo’s desk, Savino says, it was intended to reflect the best medical practices in the country — while rejecting the worst.
Together, Gottfried and Savino had worked to make the bill more palatable, especially to Senate Republicans, who wanted no part of a broad legalization bill. “Many of the changes in the bill that were done in conjunction with Senator Savino, I would say made the regulatory authority of the [health] commissioner more explicit,” says Gottfried. “I think Diane did really extraordinary work bringing several of her colleagues on board, but the families of the children with epilepsy also played an enormous role.”
On July 7, 2014, Governor Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act. By his side were ten-year-old Amanda and her mother, Maryanne Houser. Wearing a sparkly purple dress, Amanda stood before a microphone and read from a sheet of construction paper. “I want to be a normal girl, and I want my seizures to stop!”
To get to this point took Amanda and her family months of advocacy. The previous winter, she’d waited over an hour for her chance to appear at a public hearing held by Gottfried on Long Island. That was December 18, 2013, and Gottfried had held several similar events across the state over the course of the year. The marathon hearing lasted over five hours. On a panel with Paige Figi and other parents, Houser, who like Figi’s daughter suffers from Dravet syndrome, sat on her mother’s lap while she delivered her speech.
Her parents, Maryanne and dad Deane, say Amanda is small for her age. Her doctors restrict her to a very specific diet, which helps control her seizures. Her parents keep a deck of index cards with the exact stats for each item of every single one of Amanda’s meals — breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack, which might, for instance, consist of 25 grams of 36 percent fat cream and 8 grams of strawberries or 31.5 grams of Oscar Mayer beef bologna and 9 grams of mayonnaise. Sometimes they mix and match index card combinations for variety. (“P.S.,” Amanda said during her speech, “I want to be off this diet, right, everyone?”)
Up there on her mother’s lap, Amanda could’ve been just about any other girl her age. She likes to play with My Little Pony figurines, watch Dora the Explorer, and go swimming and even horseback riding. To look at her, you wouldn’t know that Amanda has twenty to fifty myoclonic seizures a day — which manifest like small muscle twitches — and three to five grand mal seizures a month. The bigger seizures last longer and can be life-threatening if they continue for several minutes. Maryanne says she’s not scared anymore when she watches her daughter seize, but she still sleeps with her every night.
While her mother spoke, Amanda stayed quiet, holding her head in her hands and staring down at the wooden table before her. “Since the start of the school year [Amanda has] missed seven days of school, and none of them are from illness. She missed them because she was having so many seizures that I couldn’t send her,” said Maryanne. “Many days I describe it as a catatonic state in which she can barely talk.”
She said she and her family, who lived in the village of Suffern, New York — about two hours north of the city — did not want to have to move to a state with legal medical marijuana. “We love New York and don’t want to leave it to gain access to this new seizure treatment,” she said. “But we will eventually move to Colorado if we are denied this right.”
During the hearings that took place around the state that fall and spring, Gottfried says there were several points where he found it difficult to keep his composure, mostly because of the stories the parents and their children told when they spoke. “There have been a couple of other occasions where we had some of the children and their parents at press conferences and hearings where I found it difficult to keep myself talking,” he says. “There have been times in public speaking and even in conversations in the executive branch when I have found myself getting more adamant than I probably should, and I think that has been entirely because of the children involved. That never happened to me before I became a parent.”
Activists, patients, and parents lobbied relentlessly in Albany and around the state every week up until Governor Cuomo finally signed the bill, just a few days after it passed the Senate at the end of June 2014. The constant presence of the sick and disabled, those in walkers and wheelchairs, and sick children forced politicians to take notice. They put a human face on the issue, according to Julie Netherland, New York deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “The real heroes of this story are the patients.”
Only after heavy negotiations that Gottfried calls “unnecessarily restrictive” did Cuomo finally, reluctantly sign the Compassionate Care Act. It was Cuomo himself who demanded limiting the number of growers in the state to five, the number of dispensaries to twenty, and the number of treatable conditions to ten, Cuomo himself who insisted on the flat prohibition against smoking and use of the whole plant. Gottfried wasn’t happy.
“The amendments sought by the governor and the regulations that have been adopted I think reflect an unwarranted and inappropriate hostility to the concept of medical use,” he says, adding that he fears the bill’s restrictions make it nearly impossible to provide relief to all New Yorkers who need it. “My goal was to make medical marijuana easily and responsibly available to patients in need across the state. I believe the bill as it had passed the assembly before June  did that very well. I agreed to [Governor Cuomo’s restrictions] only because it was clearly the only way to get legislation enacted.”
Gottfried is far from alone when it comes to these kinds of reservations. Critics of the bill Cuomo ultimately signed say the law makes no guarantee that patients who require a certain kind of strain will live within reasonable distance of a dispensary that carries it. Traveling long distances may pose a significant hardship for many patients, says Netherland. She also worries that the law contains no provision making medicine accessible for low-income patients. “People with catastrophic illnesses are usually the poorest because those illnesses are so financially devastating,” she says.
Patients also should have access to the whole plant, Netherland adds. The state limited acceptable forms of ingestion to only a few brands, in such pharmaceutical forms as capsules and tinctures. But many therapeutic elements from the whole plant might be lost through extraction.
Gottfried says there is no area of the economy in which the manufacturer is also required to be the retailer, as is the case with New York’s medical marijuana program. “In most areas of our economy we prohibit the manufacturer from being the retailer because it’s viewed as an antitrust violation,” he says.
While the current bill gives the Department of Health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, power to expand on the medical marijuana program, he has not stated plans to do so. Absent any help from him, Netherland says, there are essentially two avenues to go about fixing the bill. One is lobbying Zucker. “We’d love to see the commissioner step up and do the right thing on his own,” she says, “but if he doesn’t, we’ll seek recourse in the legislature.”
Gottfried’s already on it.
Wendi Paster, Gottfried’s chief of staff for the past twenty years, calls him a “linear thinker.” He writes his own speeches, he thinks before he talks, and he is highly measured and deliberate in his dictation. And though he’s mostly even-tempered (although, says Paster, “sometimes he writes in capital letters”), the so-called father of the Compassionate Care Act is now one of its most outspoken critics. He’s usually careful not to express his anger outright (“When I do,” he says, “I try to keep it contained”), but he has already drafted legislation designed to undo Cuomo’s restrictions.
Gottfried introduced a new bill during the 2015 spring legislative session. The measure aims to allow doctors to recommend smokable cannabis, remove the limit on the number of dispensaries and growers, and include several additional treatable conditions, such as PTSD, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, and Crohn’s disease. “If it were up to me, the bill would not specify conditions,” he says.
On those Saturday mornings when he’s not studying calligraphy, Gottfried takes Torah classes at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side. His favorite book of the Bible is Leviticus, containing all the rules and laws; one of his favorite bits is found in Chapter 10. In the story, the sons of the prophet Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, bring an “alien” fire to the altar as an offering to God. In turn, God strikes them both with lightning: “And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.”
By way of explanation, Gottfried points to an interpretation by W. Gunther Plaut of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Plaut says the story means that those who are close to God (Aaron’s sons, for instance) are held to high standards, and that “those who are called to leadership…are singled out not for privilege but for responsibility.”
“To me, this is the same concept John F. Kennedy spoke of in his speech to the Massachusetts legislature a week before his inauguration,” says Gottfried. ” ‘Of those to whom much is given, much is required,’ which I have read is from Luke 12:48.”
The quote is yet another from his political idol that he has had translated by his calligraphy teacher, Zhang Jiaxuan, and painted in Chinese. Five vertical lines of black ink and Chinese characters depict the quote and Gottfried’s name. In the right corner of the painting is a tiny round seal in red ink. It reads, “All under heaven is for the people,” a 2,500-year-old expression that adorns the ceremonial gate to Chinese revolutionary and president Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum in Nanjing.
By this biblical logic, given Gottfried’s 44-year career in the assembly, he has that much more responsibility to his constituents, to patients in need. “I believe public policy should follow good science, and it has been clear for many years that marijuana has significant medical uses and can relieve real suffering and extend life for many patients,” he says.
Gottfried has been described by colleagues as passionate, brilliant, and dedicated. “Dick cares deeply about [medical marijuana],” says Senator Savino. “I just wish he were happier. If he reflected on it, he accomplished something major. He can claim credit [toward this] shared goal: get people relief.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 3, 2015