Medical Marijuana Overdue in New York

Early this year, Rhode Island became the 11th state to enact a medical marijuana law, adding another light on a path that New York should follow.

The New York State Association of County Health Officials said what many have known for years when it endorsed my medical marijuana bill three years ago: “Marijuana has proven to be effective in the treatment of people with HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and those suffering from severe pain or nausea…. The legalization of medical marijuana would be a step forward for the health of all New Yorkers.”

Last spring, the medical marijuana bill in Rhode Island and my own similar legislation here in New York were both moving forward at a steady clip; in the Assembly my bill has 45 sponsors, including 10 Republicans. In both states, the public and a broad array of organizations representing physicians and other health care professionals and patients agreed that it simply makes no sense to arrest patients battling cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, or other life-threatening illnesses for using medical marijuana if their doctor has recommended it. The medical science is well recognized, including an extensive 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine.

But in June of last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state’s medical marijuana law does not protect patients from prosecution by the federal government. Federal drug officials and prosecutors had always taken that position, ever since California passed the first modern medical marijuana law in 1996. The Supreme Court confirmed that, but it also said that each state could enact laws to protect its patients from state prosecution.

In Rhode Island, the Legislature understood the court decision and kept moving forward. They passed the bill and even overrode their governor’s veto to make it law. Now Rhode Island patients whose doctors believe medical marijuana will help them no longer have to risk arrest and jail under state law.

Here in New York, unfortunately, some lawmakers thought that the decision meant that states cannot protect medical marijuana patients. As a result, the legislation stalled, and sick and suffering New Yorkers were forced to live without this needed medicine for another year or to break the laws of New York.

It is true that no law we pass in Albany can protect patients from prosecution under federal marijuana laws. But federal authorities make only one percent of all U.S. marijuana arrests, and they almost always target high-level dealers. They do not have the resources to go after individuals for personal possession. So a New York medical marijuana law would give our state’s patients almost total protection from arrest. That’s not perfect, but it’s a huge step forward for suffering patients.

And every time a state passes a medical marijuana law, it increases the pressure on the federal government to end its senseless and unjustified war on the sick.

There is no more reason for delay. New York should become the 12th state to protect patients who would benefit from medical marijuana.

Many organizations support the bill, including the State Medical Society, the State Nurses Association, the Hospice and Palliative Care Association of New York State, Statewide Senior Action Council, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and the New York AIDS Coalition. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau supports it. Nationally, medical use of marijuana is supported by the American Public Health Association, the American Bar Association, and the Lymphoma Foundation of America, among others.

The time for doubt and hesitation is over. While we have a war on drugs, let’s remove the sick and wounded from the battlefield.

Richard N. Gottfried (D, WF-Manhattan) chairs the New York State Assembly Committee on Health. His district includes Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen/ Clinton, Murray Hill, and part of the Lincoln Center area.