Thirty six years ago, a Florida man won the right to use a novel treatment for his severe glaucoma when conventional drugs didn't relieve the painful pressure in his eyes. A risky operation seemed his last legal option to prevent blindness.
Robert Randall's alternative drug was marijuana. A federal court in Washington awarded him the groundbreaking right to use the plant that the federal government had labeled a dangerous drug back in 1937. In the decades since Randall's victory, courts increasingly recognized medical use as a mitigating factor in criminal prosecutions and 14 states have decriminalized possession of small amounts. Another 17 have legalized its use in treatment for illnesses such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and AIDS.
On Thursday, New Jersey opened its marijuana registration rolls for caregivers and patients; the first of the state's six dispensaries, the Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, is expected to start distribution after Labor Day.
As what is considered an inexpensive and effective pain reliever becomes available so nearby, many New Yorkers might want to know why Albany has not yet had a serious debate about medical marijuana. After all, a Siena Research Institute survey of about 800 registered New York voters in May found that 57 percent support a medical-use law.
Those supporters have a dogged advocate. As the legislative session came to an end in June, Assemb. Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) again was successful in getting his chamber to support a narrowly drawn medical marijuana statute. It would permit a physician to write a certificate, akin to a prescription, for medical use for patients with serious, debilitating or life-threatening conditions; the cannabis could only be obtained through a hospital or pharmacy. It was the third time in 15 years such a bill has passed the Assembly. Gottfried argues that the proven benefits outweigh the pitfalls, but the State Senate again ignored the issue.
Earlier in the session Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced support for an even bolder proposal to decriminalize the possession of less than 25 grams of the drug. That's more than double what New Jersey allows only for controlled medical use. The Assembly approved that bill as well, but the Senate refused to take it up. It's a wonder of New York politics that Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and busloads of district attorneys have supported the decriminalization bill -- while the state still has not allowed the seriously ill access to it as medication.
Other controlled substances are legal for medical use, including morphine, oxycodone, Valium and steroids. A ProCon.org study analyzed federal data from 1997 to 2005 to compare fatalities associated with 17 commonly prescribed FDA-approved medications with those of marijuana and found no deaths attributed solely to marijuana, while fatalities from legal prescriptions totaled more than 10,000. Viagra, one of the most popular medications in the country, was the primary suspect in 2,254 deaths. Wellbutrin, a treatment for depression, came next with 1,132.
One benefit from not going out first: We can learn from the missteps of other states. California was first to pass a medical marijuana law in 1996, but a poorly drafted statute led to abuse. Arizona is adding measures to stop the drug from being used recreationally or sold on the street. New Jersey is starting with one of the strictest laws in the country. Home cultivation is barred. Patients cannot receive more than two ounces in a 30-day period and can only get a recommendation after other treatments fail.
New York should address this soon. Unless the costs and risks can't be contained, marijuana should be available for medical use. Many New Yorkers with the money and means can easily obtain marijuana for nonmedical reasons. Why should we make outlaws of the sick?