On April 25 I took part in a press conference on the steps of New York City Hall, hosted by New York State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and State Sen. Diane Savino, the sponsors of the medical marijuana bill. I was asked by Janet Weinberg, Chief of Operations at GMHC, to offer my opinion on medical marijuana as it relates to patients suffering with complications from cancer and HIV. There I met with other supporters of the Compassionate Care Act, including members of Compassionate Care NY, a group of patients and health care providers. The purpose of the bill is to allow New Yorkers with serious medical conditions access to medical marijuana under the supervision of their health care provider. According to the bill, a “serious condition means a severe debilitating or life-threatening condition, including, but not limited to,” cancer, glaucoma, HIV, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and neuropathy, to name a few. Designated caregivers must be registered by the Department of Health and possess a registry ID card for each patient, and they can serve no more than five certified patients.
On June 3 the New York Assembly passed the bill in an overwhelming vote, but the bill was stalled when the State Senate adjourned on June 22 without taking action on this important reform. Advocates vow to try again in 2014.
Despite a poll conducted in May 2013 by Siena College Research Institute and Drug Policy Alliance, 82 percent of state and 79 percent of city registered voters support medical marijuana, yet New York is not among the 20 states that have already legalized its use. This disconnect between public and political points of view doesn’t seem so perplexing if you review the history of medical marijuana. The United States has had a love/hate relationship with this plant going back to when it was first recognized for its medicinal use in 1850. However, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 deterred physicians from prescribing it. In 1944 New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia commissioned the New York Academy of Medicine to study marijuana, and their finding debunked many claims that inspired the Marihuana Tax Act: Marijuana did not lead to significant addiction in the medical sense, nor did it lead to morphine, heroin or cocaine addiction. In 1970 the federal Controlled Substances Act classified marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, banning it from medical use. But by 1982 more than 30 states had passed laws recognizing the medical value of marijuana.
On Aug. 29 New York City Comptroller (and mayoral candidate) John Liu held a press conference at New York Downtown Hospital and announced the release of a report calling for legal access to medical marijuana. The comptroller stated that more than 100,000 New York City residents would benefit from legalized marijuana. His report recommends seeding a $100-million public-private research fund, establishing city-owned and -operated medical marijuana growing sites, and requiring insurance providers to cover medical marijuana. I stood alongside Comptroller Liu to share my own story of a patient with metastatic cancer who traveled to Arizona in order to receive medical marijuana.
Opponents of medical marijuana are concerned that sanctioning the medical use might increase its use among the general public, even though the 1999 Institute of Medicine report found that not to be true, stating, “No evidence suggests that the use of opiates or cocaine for medical purposes has increased the perception that their illicit use is safe or acceptable.”
My patient was not a drug addict. She was not seeking to get high. She merely wanted to live out the remainder of her life pain-free so that she could spend that time with her family. Medical marijuana alleviated her pain. It also stimulated her appetite, and she was no longer constipated, because she didn’t have to rely on opioids. But more importantly, she was present and able to communicate with her loved ones.
After she died, I imagined how differently her final days would have been had she remained in New York. I’ve known many other similar patients suffering from cancer and HIV who were too nauseated to eat, in too much pain to sleep and too weak to get out of bed. Everyone has the right to live a pain-free existence and should not have to worry about wasting due to loss of appetite or being bedridden due to pain. My patient certainly deserved that, and so does everyone living in New York.