Pubdate: Sat, 03 May 2014
Source: Kingston Times (NY)
Copyright: 2014 Kingston Times
Author: Jesse J. Smith


Back in January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo broke New York State's decade-long
stalemate over medical marijuana by announcing that he'd dusted off a
never-implemented 1980 law allowing up to 20 hospitals to prescribe
the plant to seriously ill patients. Since then, the governor's office
has remained silent while the state health department drafts
regulations to guide the program. Meanwhile, various plans to go
beyond the governor's proposal have been gaining adherents in the
state legislature.

The announcement that New York would soon join the list of 20 states
and the District of Columbia allowing the use of marijuana for medical
purposes has re-ignited a debate over a plant that despite strong
evidence that it provides some medical benefits to cancer, AIDS,
multiple sclerosis patients and people with other serious illnesses
remains on the federal government's list of banned substances that
have no legitimate medical use, such as heroin and cocaine.

Evidence of cannabis' use as medicine dates back about 3,000 years. It
was introduced into Western medicine in the 1840s by a British surgeon
working in India. Since then, numerous small-scale studies have
suggested a range of medical benefits associated with cannabis and
various synthetic and natural compounds known as cannabinoids. The
evidence for marijuana's medical benefits is strongest in its role in
treating nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.

According to a report from the National Cancer Institute, a study of
30 randomized studies found that THC (the active ingredient in
marijuana) extracts outperformed traditional anti-nausea drugs and
helped patients gain weight. Other studies have shown cannabinoids'
efficacy in relieving pain and reducing anxiety and sleeplessness in
cancer and AIDS sufferers. The National Cancer Institute paper
endorses the use of cannabinoids - already in use in prescription
anti-emetics like Marinol - while hedging due to a lack of research on
the medical value of smoked or otherwise ingested cannabis. Other
studies have shown cannabis to provide beneficial effects to people
suffering from ailments ranging from MS to post-traumatic stress disorder.

A legislative turnaround

Marijuana's status as a Schedule I narcotic - designated by the feds
as having no legitimate medical purpose - has made it difficult to
conduct the kind of large-scale, long-term studies needed to form a
medical consensus.

In November, the American Medical Associated reiterated its opposition
to the full on legalization of marijuana, calling the plant "a
dangerous drug." But when it comes to the use of cannabis for
medicinal purposes, the physicians' group takes a more nuanced
approach. A 2001 report by the AMA's Council on Science and Public
Health noted that short-term studies showed promise for the use of
cannabis in for the treatment of neuropathic pain and other ailments.

The report noted that the plant's status as a Schedule I narcotic had
made it difficult to develop clinical protocols for its use in medical

"The patchwork of state-based systems that have been established for
medical marijuana is woefully inadequate in establishing even
rudimentary safeguards that normally would be applied to the clinical
use of psychoactive substances," it reads.

The report recommends a government review of marijuana's status as a
Schedule I drug. Moving marijuana into the "controlled substance"
class of drugs - which includes patently dangerous but medically
accepted substances like hydrocodone and Valium - would open the door
to wider-ranging research as and use of marijuana as prescribed by
doctors nationwide.

On the federal level, there's been little progress in taking marijuana
off the Schedule I narcotics list. But that hasn't stopped 20 states
and the District of Columbia from implementing medical marijuana
protocols (Washington and Colorado took a step further approving
legalization of recreational pot last year). In the Northeast, New
Jersey, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island
all have legalized medical marijuana to varying degrees. In New York,
meanwhile, the Democrat-controlled state Assembly has passed a bill
allowing the use of marijuana for certain ailments each year for
nearly a decade. The measure has invariably died without a floor vote
in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, one of the bill's original sponsors, blames
Republican inaction on the influence of Conservative Party Chairman
Mike Long, who has made opposition to marijuana legalization a litmus
test for Republicans seeking the endorsement of the small, but
politically important, third party. But, earlier this year, Long
backed off that stance, saying that while the party continues to
oppose medical marijuana it was no longer a deal-breaker for
Conservative support. Combined with Cuomo's proposal for a narrowly
construed medical marijuana system, that change in position could
provide the impetus a reform measure needs to clear the Senate and
become law. Several Republican state senators have indicated their
support for such an initiative.

"I think that what Cuomo was doing was saying, 'OK, I'm opening the
door a crack, now it's up to [state lawmakers] to see how far you want
to take it,'" Cahill said.

Unsanctioned approval

While the medical establishment and New York politicians have been
slow to officially embrace medical marijuana, a thriving underground
of patients, marijuana growers, weed-friendly patient advocates and
healthcare providers haven't waited around for the law. Back in 2009,
local marijuana grower and activist Joe Barton lamented the bust of
his Hurley pot farm by publicly declaring that cops were depriving
cancer patients of his high-quality product.

One Hudson Valley healthcare worker who often deals with the
terminally ill said that marijuana use by the very sick was an
everyday, if unsanctioned, occurrence in her workplace.

"We're not allowed to condone or push people towards [medical]
marijuana," said the employee, who asked to remain anonymous because
of the topic's sensitivity. "But we've had patients who straight-up
smoked. You'd smell the marijuana down the hall and just pretend you
didn't smell it."

The employee said she'd seen firsthand the efficacy of marijuana in
relieving pain, especially among those whose lingering ailments had
left them largely resistant even to high doses of traditional pain
medications like morphine. The marijuana, she said, most often comes
into the facility in the form of baked goods or other "edibles." Other
times, patients employ vaporizers that deliver the THC without the

Oftentimes she said elderly patients, who may be unfamiliar with or
disapproving of marijuana, try it after conversations with their
children or grandchildren. The employee said that she'd seen patients'
appetites and mood improve dramatically with marijuana use. She
estimated that about three-quarters of her colleagues, including
doctors, believed that marijuana had a role in medicine. That number,
she noted, included older, more conservative healthcare workers who
generally disapprove of recreational drug use.

"Once you see it work, it changes how you think about it," she said.
"I have co-workers who think it should be legal for medical use who
would never, ever want their children or grandchildren smoking it for
recreational use."

Opponents of medical marijuana see these attitudes as a smokescreen
for full legalization. They point to the examples of states like
California, where a broadly constructed medical pot law made it a
relatively simple thing for virtually anyone to obtain a prescription
(often from a physician employed by a marijuana dispensary). In
Washington State and Colorado, medical marijuana laws opened the door
to voter referenda that made the two states the first in the nation to
legalize marijuana for recreational use.

Many legalization advocates don't shy from the medical marijuana as
stalking-horse-for-legalization argument. National Organization to
Reform Marijuana Laws Capital Region (NORML) executive director Kevin
Jones regard "medical marijuana" as a meaningless phrase akin to
"medical tomatoes."

"Calling it medical doesn't change the plant," Jones said. "But once
we get patients taken care of, we can get past the toxicity theory and
the addiction theories, which are false, and move on to

Jones said that while 30 to 40 percent of New Yorkers favor outright
legalization of marijuana and 80 percent favor its medical use. New
York politicians don't hear often enough from people who want to
change the laws, Jones said. He believed a tipping point would occur
when people realized that 70 years of prohibition and a
four-decade-old War on Drugs had done little to prevent those who want
to smoke marijuana from doing so while costing taxpayers billions.

"I smoke every day, because I can get [marijuana] every day," Jones
said. "It's not the smokers who are getting screwed. It's the
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D