When asked to picture a marijuana user, the first image that comes to many people’s minds is not that of a person on their deathbed or a person with cancer. But that may soon change. You’d better get used to the idea of medical marijuana, because it’s here to stay.
he term “medical marijuana” does not refer to a substance that is in any way special or different from recreational marijuana. It’s the same plant, grown the same way; the difference lies only in its use. Marijuana users who smoke or ingest cannabis in some form to combat pain and discomfort are considered to be medicinal users. Most commonly, medicinal users are terminally ill patients, with diseases such as AIDS or cancer. Chronic pain patients, those suffering from an injury or a disease like fibromyalgia, have also found marijuana use helpful.
As of 2002 there are, according to the United States Government Accountability Office, the following are allowable conditions for medical marijuana use: Alzheimer’s disease, anorexia, AIDS, arthritis, cachexia, cancer, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy and other seizure disorders, glaucoma, HIV positive status, migraine, multiple sclerosis and other disorders characterized by persistent muscle spasticity, severe nausea, chronic pain, severe pain, wasting syndrome, and any other illness for which marijuana provides relief. Of these, the list of what is allowable varies between states. For instance, Alzheimer’s disease is only recognized as an allowable condition in Oregon; Wasting syndrome is only recognized in Hawaii. California is the only state to allow the blanket condition of “any illness for which marijuana provides relief.”
Despite state recognition, it is still not legal under federal law to possess marijuana for any reason. Marijuana is classified as a “Schedule One” substance. Schedule One substances don’t have any accepted medical uses in the United States and are considered to have a high potential for abuse. Other commonly recognized substance included on the list are names such as heroin, ecstasy, and forms of morphine and methamphetamine.
The federal government is hesitant to legalize marijuana. Asked why that might be, Nancy Adams, the Executive Director of Monroe County Medical Society (MCMS), pointed to the worry of abuse.
“I think they have some concerns about being able to control it … The federal government just worries that there is going to be some state law that goes into effect that is too liberal,” said Adams, weighing in the implications of pro-medical marijuana legislation. “They’ve got to figure out the best way to tax things and make money off it.” Both Adams and MCMS share in their support of medical marijuana legalization.
For New York, change might be on the horizon. Legislation is in the works to add the Empire State to the ranks of 14 others that have legalized the use of medical marijuana. California was the first state to do so in 1996, followed closely by Alaska, Oregon and Washington in 1998. The remaining states — Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont — have legalized the medicinal use of marijuana since 1999, with New Jersey making the most recent switch in January, 2010.
There are two bills, A. 9016 and S. 4041-B, in the state Senate that intend to legalize medical marijuana in New York. The bills, championed by Senator Duane and Assemblyman Gottfried, would allow seriously ill patients to use marijuana as an acceptable medical treatment without the risk of criminalization. While Adams acknowledges that there are other illnesses, she said, “the legislation is pretty specific about a life-threatening illness. One would have to make the argument that if it’s a chronic condition that the patient still fits the criteria.” The bills also do not allow for patients or caregivers to grow their own marijuana. Instead, they would be dispensed medical marijuana from state-registered and regulated entities.
The bills will also call for regulations on doctors similar to what other states have. “The physician actually doesn’t even write a prescription,” said Adams. “They certify that the patient qualifies for this and the patient has to work through a department of health process to get the substance.” This is mainly because federal law prohibits doctors from writing prescriptions for illegal drugs, including marijuana. Virginia currently has a bill in their senate that would allow doctors to write prescriptions for medical marijuana. However, if this legislation is enacted, it would do little good until if doctor prescriptions are approved by federal law.
The proposed registry in the bills would help to protect the patient if they were to get arrested. Affirmative defenses, or approvals to be in possession of the drug, are available in 10 of the 14 states that have current marijuana legislation. An affirmative defense does not protect against arrest, but it does protect against conviction on marijuana charges, assuming the patient is in compliance with the state laws on allowable amounts. Some states, however, require that you are registered in order to enact this defense. Those states are: Alaska, Vermont, New Mexico and New Jersey.
With so many states already allowing medical marijuana use and others with pending legislation it is easy for misconceptions to form. “I think the [most common] misconceptions are that patients can start growing it themselves, or they’re going to have large quantities of marijuana on hand that might be used by someone else,” said Adams. This is not the case. New York’s law would allow for 2.5 ounces of useable marijuana and a reasonable amount of unusable marijuana (e.g. leaves that have not been cured) to be in a patients possession.
While some may argue that medical marijuana is no big deal because there are stronger legal drugs available to patients, it is still a touchy subject in society and within medical communities. Currently there is a pill available, Marinol, which is made of synthetic THC and is FDA approved. Marinol is considered ta legal form medical marijuana according to the DEA website. However, Adams feels there is still more research to be done. “Right now the way this works best is for the patient to actually smoke the marijuana.” Concerned with the harmful effects this use can have on a patient’s lungs, Adams went on, “If more research can be done so that we can figure out another way to deliver it, whether it’s with a patch or in an oral form, I think that would be beneficial.”
The turmoil on both sides of the issue around the country leaves it hard to say if medical marijuana use will be legalized this year in New York. The resistance from the influence of public opinion leaves the the fate of this bill up in the air. The full Senate will vote on the issue in the next couple weeks.
“Unfortunately, I’m not sure I even give it a 50-50 shot,” said Adams. “We’ve got some good folks representing us, we’ve got the support of the state medical society, so hopefully I’ll be presently surprised.”