advocates energized and the tide of public and scientific
opinion turning in their favor, New York state considers
legislation to legalize medical marijuana
was snowing on the evening of March 9, 2001, as Dave Lawson
was driving his band’s GM Astro to a gig in Vermont. Carrying
the instruments and one other band member, Lawson was going
a cautious 40 miles in Troy when another vehicle pulled
into the intersection directly in front of him. Unable to
stop on the slick road, Lawson says that he hit the car
on the passenger side. Everything that happened directly
after that is fuzzy. Mostly what Lawson remembers are the
years of rehabilitation and persistent pain that followed.
bass guitar came flying up from the back of the vehicle.
It hit the back of my head, fractured my skull and forced
my face into the steering wheel so that, at the point of
impact, I hit at 120 mph. The bone that separates the eye
from the temple basically disintegrated. I fractured my
sternum, both clavicles, C5 and C6 in my spine and all of
my ribs,” Lawson said. “My left arm came out of the socket
and went back in the wrong way. I should have died.”
The accident, which was found to be the other driver’s fault,
left Lawson with some brain damage and chronic pain caused
by damage to his nerves.
could barely talk,” he recalls. “I felt like I was relearning
the language. I had to think about making my limbs move.
I had to think about what I actually had to do to get out
of bed.” The painkillers he was given did little to dull
the worst pain, according to Lawson, but they did dull his
mental faculties so that communication and recovery became
even more difficult. “Aspirin is it. That’s as much pain
medication as I can take, otherwise it’s like I’ve taken
a rufee,” he says, referring to the notorious date-rape
The pain was still debilitating seven months after his accident
when, “all of the sudden, one day I had a flash,” Lawson
says. He remembered a day about a year earlier when he had
been helping to make marijuana brownies for a friend who
had skin cancer and used the cannabis plant to deal with
the side effects of his treatment. As he handled the mixture
of marijuana and butter that went into the batch, his hands
went numb. Lawson, who has arthritis from decades of playing
the guitar, suddenly felt no pain. “I think there’s a reason
that I had that memory when I did.” He pauses. “And I’m
glad that I did.”
the time, I happened to have some [cannabis-infused] oil
that had been given to me. I put some on my shoulder and
for the first time in seven months, I felt relief.”
is a danger,” he adds, chuckling at the memory. “I jumped
up and down and hurt my arm again because I was so excited.
I literally cried.”
Lawson is just one of many New Yorkers advocating for legislation
that would allow for the legal prescription of medical marijuana
to patients suffering from severe or chronic ailments in
New York state—legislation that already has been passed
by two state Senate committees this year and is currently
included in the much-contested state budget. Some of these
advocates are patients, some have watched a friend or family
member suffer, and some simply believe that the benefits
of medicinal marijuana far outweigh any of the perceived
dangers. And they argue that many of the prescription drugs
that are currently legal have far more deleterious effects
on patients and pose much greater potential for abuse.
The idea of legalizing medical marijuana in New York state
is nothing new. In 1980, New York actually passed a medical
marijuana bill at the urging of Manhattan Democratic Assemblyman
Antonio Olivieri. After being diagnosed with a brain tumor,
Olivieri began smoking cannabis in 1979 to combat the adverse
effects of his chemotherapy treatments and lobbied other
politicians by phone when he was too sick to leave his home.
Federal law required states to distribute marijuana exclusively
through research channels, and the New York State Health
Department dispensed thousands of joints to more than 200
patients suffering either from glaucoma or cancer between
1982 and 1989. Twenty-four other states ran similar research
programs during the same time. The Reagan administration’s
renewed preoccupation with America’s “war on drugs” in the
mid- to late ’80s, along with inadequately organized programs
and the appearance of Marinol—THC in pill form, which is
now widely considered ineffective—led to the closure of
every state-run medical marijuana program by 1990.
Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, from Chelsea, raised the
issue again in 1997. Already a proponent of the use of medical
marijuana, he took a cue from the 1996 legislation passed
in California and became vocal on behalf of the many AIDS
patients in his district. Opposed in the Senate by Majority
Leader Joseph Bruno, and on the federal level by the Clinton
administration, the idea of legalization was still too politically
controversial for the bill to achieve any measurable success.
While champions of its medical use continued to lobby, the
stigma of marijuana as a “gateway drug” loomed large and
continued to overshadow any discussion of its medicinal
More recently, as public perception has shifted back toward
cautious acceptance and scientific curiosity, advocates
in New York state are organizing once again. Encouraged
by the successful passage of similar legislation in 14 states
(from Alaska and Oregon in the late 1990s to Michigan and
New Jersey in the last two years), local grassroots supporters
have joined forces with national lobbying groups in an effort
to convince legislators to support their cause. The Internet
has helped to make the benefits of medical marijuana more
generally known and accepted, while the possible economic
boon that taxation could provide for states has made legalization
far more attractive in recent years. Lending legitimacy
to the movement, but doing little more than reinforcing
what many people claim to have known for years, results
from the first comprehensive research done in the United
States on the medical efficacy of marijuana since the ’80s
were recently released by the University of California at
San Diego. The results are in keeping with generally accepted
wisdom from earlier research as well as research done in
other nations—some of which spans an astonishing amount
of time—and focus primarily on pain, neurological issues
and different delivery methods.
Documentation on the medical uses of marijuana dates back
to the 28th century B.C.E., according to literature provided
by the organization Marijuana Policy Project, which is based
on a book by Ernest L. Abel called Marihuana: The First
Twelve Thousand Years. “Emperor Shen-Nung prescribed it
to treat beri-beri, constipation, ‘female weakness,’ gout,
malaria, rheumatism and absentmindedness. It’s use as a
medicine was well documented in China, but its use as a
recreational drug was not condoned.” Five thousand years
later, the arguments are pretty much the same.
Dr. Abraham Halpern, a psychiatrist from Westchester County,
read about the uses of medical marijuana a few years ago,
but he began looking for more credible information when
his son, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard
Medical School, “insisted that there was merit to the use
of marijuana in certain illnesses.” Halpern’s interest increased
when he learned that the Drug Enforcement Administration
had been raiding homes of seriously ill patients.
am interested in its use to treat patients suffering severe
symptoms, such as the intolerable pain in patients with
meta-static cancer, symptoms that have not responded to
conventional treatment but do obtain relief from marijuana,”
Halpern says. “The notion that such use can be dangerous
is utterly ridiculous. Raising the issue of ‘danger’ is
just a red herring. Some experts succeed in using scare
tactics by raising issues such as the possible adverse effects
on young people, the possible eventual shift from marijuana
to the use of dangerous illegal drugs, possible cognitive
impairment in some users, et cetera. None of these things
have anything to do with medical marijuana. In fact, studies
have shown that in states that have legalized medical marijuana,
the incidence of marijuana use in young people has dropped.
What I am interested in is the legalization of medical marijuana,
Halpern is one of 1,170 doctors in New York state who have
signed a statement “supporting the right of doctors to recommend
marijuana for medical purposes, and the right of patients
to use marijuana for medical purposes without fear of incarceration.”
Medical organizations that support legislation include the
American Academy of HIV Medicine, American Public Health
Association, Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Lymphoma Foundation
of America, Medical Society of the State of New York, New
York State AIDS Advisory Council, New York State Chapter
of the Oncology Nursing Society, New York State Nurses Association
and the New York State Hospice and Palliative Care Association.
The biggest concern of these medical professionals is the
quality of life available to patients who are suffering
from acute and debilitating conditions, suffering that they
believe could be dramatically alleviated through the regulated
use of cannabis.
wife had ovarian cancer and passed away in 2007,” says Dr.
Dominick DiFabio of Cortlandt Manor, N.Y. “While she was
on chemotherapy, she had no appetite, she was nauseous all
the time, and the doctor recommended marijuana but could
only give it to her in pill form—Marinol—which was pretty
useless. It made her feel weird but didn’t do what smoking
marijuana would have done, which would have been to help
her appetite and decrease the nausea. It was just such a
terrible thing in a country like this where doctors can
write prescriptions for much more dangerous drugs that are
legal for medical reasons. I guess one could go out illegally
and get it, but we never thought of that.”
was very frustrating and, living through the experience,
it just didn’t make any sense. I’m not necessarily for legalizing
marijuana in general, but for someone who is sick and can
benefit from it, for someone who’s suffering . . .” DiFabio’s
voice trails off as he remembers his wife, Susan. “With
most of these politicians, my understanding is that they
know people with cancer, that they’ve seen this. But they
don’t have the political courage to do what’s right because
they’re afraid, I think, of getting blamed for things that
might happen once they do it, if it does get abused.”
DiFabio worries that the current national push to legalize
marijuana for general use will have the unintended effect
of jeopardizing support for medical marijuana. He is concerned
that any perception that medical marijuana legislation could
lead to the legalization of its recreational use would only
provide ammunition to the same people who “are going crazy
over a health care bill that’s going to benefit them because
it’s been distorted by the extreme right.” He worries that
such distorted perceptions could impede the acceptance of
marijuana as a medication.
suffering, you know, I’ve seen it firsthand, and that’s
really why I’ve become involved with this. Anything that
can keep you on the medication, if the medication is working,
is great. My wife was so sick that they had to change the
treatment protocol for us, eventually. It limits the amount
of treatment a doctor can give, because a patient can’t
be so sick all the time. The quality of life gets so bad
that you just want immediate relief.”
Joel Peacock, a Conservative Party member from Buffalo,
is an advocate and potential beneficiary of the legalization
of medical marijuana. Like Lawson, Peacock was in a car
accident in 2001. He was rear-ended by someone who was talking
on a cellular phone, and he sustained severe spinal injuries
(he had three discs removed from his neck), which have left
him in chronic pain. Peacock encountered marijuana as a
painkiller by accident.
After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf of Mexico, Peacock
found part-time work as a consultant evaluating damage to
I was down there,” he says, “I ran out of my prescriptions
and there weren’t any hospitals open in New Orleans, there
weren’t any clinics, nothing. I couldn’t get anyone to write
my prescriptions, and I ran out.” Peacock was going through
a painful withdrawal when he was sent to Miami. He was sent
to survey a damaged home where he says the resident kept
asking if he was a police officer. “About halfway through
the inspection,” Peacock remembers, “he asked me what was
wrong with me. He said I looked pale, that I looked sick.”
Peacock explained his situation to the man who, after reconfirming
that he was not a cop, said, “I’ve got something that will
make you feel better.” He offered Peacock a small bag with
marijuana in it. “As sick as I was, I went back to my hotel
and sat in my car and smoked some, and the pain went away.
I waited for something to happen—because I hadn’t smoked
marijuana since I was 21—and I couldn’t believe it, that
the pain was just gone. My normal medicine gives me cramps
and lots of other side effects and there was none of that.”
Peacock has not smoked marijuana since he returned from
his trip. He can’t. He is drug tested for recreational drugs
by his doctor and, if he ever tests positive, he will be
ineligible for treatment under New York state law. “I can’t
take that chance. I have to stay on my prescriptions. I’m
59 years old, I wouldn’t even begin to know where to buy
that stuff in Buffalo,” he says, adding that he believes
it would be considerably less expensive than the prescription
drugs that he is currently struggling to afford. “The retail
cost of my pain medication is $3,200 a month, and this marijuana
I had did the same thing and probably costs a fraction of
the narcotics that I take. So, am I an advocate? You bet!
I hope they pass it, I really do.”
Unlike Lawson, who is able to obtain enough cannabis (though
he will not say how) to alleviate his pain and allow him
to attend school and continue to play in his band, Peacock
is unable to work due to his pain and the side effects of
the prescription drugs that he currently takes. “The pain
just got the best of me,” he says resignedly. “I just finally
ran into a wall, and I couldn’t do it anymore. I can’t travel.
I’m stuck in the house most of the time because the pain
is brutal.” Currently, Peacock says his wife is unable to
retire, as her insurance is the only way that they can manage
the medical bills.
Currently, marijuana is approved to treat a limited number
of severe conditions in states that have legalized its medical
use. Glaucoma is an accepted condition in nearly every legalized
state (excepting only Vermont) because of marijuana’s ability
to reduce pressure in the eye and slow, if not completely
halt, progression of the disease. Other widely accepted
conditions include: cancer, AIDS, cachexia, severe or chronic
pain, severe or chronic nausea, seizure disorders and muscle
spasticity disorders. Although approved by fewer states,
other conditions for which marijuana has been deemed useful
include: Crohn’s disease, hepatitis C, arthritis, migraines
and the agitation of Alzheimer’s disease. Some interesting
studies suggest that proper use of medicinal marijuana can
dramatically slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Every legalized state has different legislation dictating
possession, access, fees and so on. Most states allow for
the possession of small amounts of marijuana and a certain
number of plants. Many charge fees to patients for required
ID cards. Organizations that are allowed to disseminate
the drug are also regulated by state law. Comparatively,
the legislation under consideration in New York is quite
strict in terms of access and possession.
The bill currently under consideration requires that patients
must be certified by a medical practitioner, have a severely
debilitating or life-threatening condition, and stand to
benefit from the use of medical marijuana. Certifications
will be good for only one year and must appear in the patient’s
medical record. Doctors may not prescribe for themselves.
And the Department of Health, for a fee that has yet to
be announced, will issue ID cards. Patients (or their designated
caregiver) are allowed up to only 2.5 ounces at any given
time and will not be allowed to keep any plants. Organizations
registered to distribute the prescribed cannabis must apply
for and receive approval by NYS-DOH after meeting strict
qualifications. The law also provides for research into
the effectiveness of the prescribed marijuana, with a report
to be submitted at the end of one year. Subsequent reports
are expected biannually.
Dave Lawson gets emotional when he talks about the many
people in pain who be believes could be helped by the legalization
of medical marijuana. He knows that, without it, he would
likely not be in school or still playing with his band.
Lawson considers himself fortunate to be able to manage
his pain in a way that allows him to continue to live his
life, and he has dedicated himself to efforts to make the
same relief available to others. “Marijuana shouldn’t be
illegal,” he says with passion. “The fact that there are
people out there dying and that marijuana would help them.
What is this country scared of? That they are going to get
better or that it might kill them? So many of these people
are already dying, for god’s sake. And this would only make
it easier. It just makes me angry.”
American as Pot Brownies
In a telephone poll conducted by ABC News and the Washington
Post in January, support for the legalization of medical
marijuana in the United States was found to have increased
significantly in the last 10 years:
81 percent of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana
for medical use, up from 69 percent in 1997.
56 percent believe that, if legalized, medical practitioners
should be able to prescribe medical marijuana to any patient
that they think would benefit; 21 percent think it should
be limited to the terminally ill; and another 21 percent
would limit it to those with serious, but not necessarily
68 percent of conservatives and 72 percent of Republicans
are in favor of legalization for medical purposes, as are
85 percent of Democrats and independents, and about 90 percent
of liberals and moderates.
Only 69 percent of seniors favor legalization of medical
marijuana, compared with 83 percent of adults under the
age of 65.
It Depends What State You’re In
Conditions: Cachexia, cancer, chronic pain, epilepsy, seizures,
glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and other disorders
characterized by muscles spasticity and nausea.
Regulations: 1 ounce and no more than 6 plants, of which
only 3 may be mature.
Conditions: AIDS, anorexia, arthritis, cachexia, cancer,
chronic pain, glaucoma, migraine, persistent muscle spasms,
multiple sclerosis, seizures, epilepsy, severe nausea and
other chronic medical symptoms.
Regulations: 8 ounces and/or 6 mature plants, unless recommended
by a physician.
Conditions: Cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, cachexia, severe
pain or nausea, seizures, epilepsy, persistent muscle spasms,
multiple sclerosis. Other conditions are subject to approval.
Regulations: 2 ounces and no more than 6 plants, of which
only 3 may be mature.
Conditions: Cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, cachexia, wasting
syndrome, severe pain or nausea, seizures, epilepsy, severe
and persistent muscle spasms, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s
disease. Other conditions subject to approval.
Regulations: 3 mature plants, 4 immature plants, and 1 ounce
of useable marijuana per mature plant.
Conditions: Cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s, nail-patella
syndrome, chronic intractable pain, cachexia, wasting syndrome,
severe nausea, seizures, muscles spasms and multiple sclerosis.
Regulations: 2.5 ounces.
Conditions: Cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s, nail patella,
cachexia, wasting syndrome, severe and chronic pain or nausea,
seizures, epilepsy, muscle spasms and multiple sclerosis.
Regulations: 2.5 ounces and up to 12 plants, kept in a locked
Conditions: Cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, cachexia, wasting
syndrome, severe or chronic pain or nausea, seizures, epilepsy,
severe or persistent muscle spasms, multiple sclerosis,
Crohn’s disease and any other condition adopted by the department
Regulations: 1 ounce and 6 plants.
Conditions: AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, cachexia, persistent
muscle spasms or seizures, severe nausea or pain. Other
conditions subject to approval.
Regulations: 1 ounce, 3 mature plants, 4 immature plants.
Conditions: Seizure disorder, epilepsy, intractable skeletal
muscle spasticity, glaucoma, severe or chronic pain, severe
nausea or vomiting, cachexia or wasting syndrome resulting
from HIV/AIDS or cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,
multiple sclerosis, terminal cancer, muscular dystrophy,
inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, terminal illness
if the prognosis is less than 1 year, and any other approved
Regulations: Prescribed. Maximum amount is 2 ounces in 30
Conditions: Severe chronic pain, painful peripheral neuropathy,
intractable nausea/vomiting, severe anorexia/cachexia, hepatitis
C, Crohn’s disease, PTSD, ALS, cancer, glaucoma, multiple
sclerosis, damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord
with intractable spasticity, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS and hospice
Regulations: 6 ounces, 4 mature plants and 12 seedlings.
Conditions: Cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, cachexia, severe
pain or nausea, seizures, epilepsy, persistent muscle spasms,
multiple sclerosis. Other conditions subject to approval.
Regulations: 24 ounces and 6 mature plants.
Conditions: Cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, chronic
or debilitating disease (or medical condition or treatment)
causing cachexia, wasting syndrome, chronic pain, severe
nausea, seizures, epilepsy, muscle spasms, multiple sclerosis,
Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s. Other conditions subject to
Regulations: 2.5 ounces and up to 12 plants; primary caregivers
may possess up to 5 ounces and 24 plants.
Conditions: Cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, or any
other disease resulting in chronic, debilitating symptoms
producing severe pain, nausea, seizures, cachexia or wasting
Regulations: 2 ounces, 2 mature plants and 7 immature plants.
Conditions: Cachexia, cancer, Crohn’s disease, Hepatitis
C, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, glaucoma, intractable pain and multiple
sclerosis, diseases that result in nausea, vomiting, wasting,
appetite loss, cramping, seizures, muscle spasms or spasticity.
Other conditions subject to approval.
Regulations: 24 ounces and no more than 15 plants.