If Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gets his way, New York State will soon overhaul its marijuana laws, lessening the penalties for those caught with small amounts of the drug and abolishing the practice of arresting defendants on public display charges when they empty their pockets during a stop-and-frisk encounter. "These arrests stigmatize, they criminalize, they create a permanent record. It's not fair. It's not right . . . It must end now," Cuomo declared in this year's State of the State address.
The vast majority of those arrested are young men of color and given that New York's 45,000 marijuana busts last year cost taxpayers $75 million -- money that could have better been spent on drug treatment, youth programs, job training and education -- reform is not only a moral imperative, but an economic one as well.
As Albany takes a hard look at the penalties for pot possession, some lawmakers and advocates -- buoyed by shifting public opinion and a national trend toward legalization -- have ramped up their perennial push for medical marijuana in New York. But deciding whether we should be wasting precious dollars and destroying future job prospects for those who get caught with a dime bag is a fundamentally different question than whether crude smoked marijuana is medicine.
While some pro-pot legislators in Albany are anxious to answer both questions before the end of this legislative session, none of them are trained in biomedical research and none are physicians. Putting aside all the other reasons why thus would be bad for New York, the question about whether marijuana has legitimate therapeutic properties is a question best left not to state lawmakers, but to the federal Food and Drug Administration, which since 1906 has been responsible for evaluating and monitoring the safety, efficacy, purity and labeling of medications.
The problem, medical marijuana advocates argue, is that the FDA has consistently opposed smoked marijuana as medicine and that the federal agency can't use its established scientific process because the marijuana plant contains more than 400 highly variable chemical compounds. Bingo.
There's no difference between "medical-grade" marijuana and "street" marijuana. The marijuana sold as medicine at pot dispensaries, which, given what's happened in other states, are likely to be placed in Long Island's poorest and already challenged neighborhoods, carries the same contaminants -- fungi, bacteria, pesticides and other substances -- found in street pot, which is part of the reason the FDA has balked at claims that smoked whole-plant marijuana is medicine. The agency has also noted that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration continues to classify marijuana as a schedule 1 drug because of its high potential for abuse.
While anecdotal reports suggest that marijuana can help with chemotherapy-induced nausea and pain, the American Medical Association, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, American Cancer Society, American Glaucoma Society and other medical groups have noted that inhaled smoke carries health risks and is an imprecise way to deliver any drug to the bloodstream. Just as we don't ask patients to smoke raw opium to experience the benefits of a drug like morphine, they don't need to inhale burned pot leaves shoved into a bong or rolled in rice paper to get therapeutic value. The FDA has studied and approved components of marijuana, including synthetic THC, for medical use in pill form. Before the end of the year, it will likely approve Sativex, a marijuana-derived mouth spray for Multiple Sclerosis spasticity and cancer pain that is rapidly absorbed, suitable for those who suffer from nausea and has undergone rigorous scientific testing.
The research and development of even more marijuana-based medications would offer some relief to seriously ill patients who lack other options. The FDA, National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies should prioritize and adequately fund such research and, where indicated, fast-track drug approvals.
In their zeal for reform, state lawmakers should remember that shortcutting the scientific process and the federal drug approval system puts patients at risk, threatens public health and may limit future research into marijuana's legitimate medical applications.
Jeffrey L. Reynolds is the executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.