Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Advocates Believe New York May Be Next to Legalize Medical Marijuana

NEW YORK, NY February 23, 2010 — As of last month, when New Jersey
signed it into law, there are 14 states that allow the use of medical
marijuana. Some people think New York could be No. 15, and are watching
as a bill winds its way through the state Senate and Assembly. WNYC's
Arun Venugopal has more on the legislation and the people who would

To see a video of Burt Aldrich and other medical marijuana users click
here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hei30QmnI6E).

Burt Aldrich took a bad dive into a pool and fractured his neck about 10
years ago, leaving him paralyzed below the waist and wheelchair-bound.
He feels almost nothing in his legs -- except occasional unbearable

"My lower body doesn't know if it's being touched, or if it's being
moved, or not moved," Burt says. "And so it just builds and builds to a
crescendo and then it lets loose in these spasms."

A friend suggested smoking marijuana for the pain. Doctors said it
wouldn't do anything, but Burt decided to give it a try.

"As soon as I took the first breath of marijuana, I felt the tightness
loosen, the cold from dealing with the pain just washed away, and I just
felt warm, relaxed, and comfortable," Burt says. "And I knew immediately
that they had been lying to me."

Burt is one of many advocates who think New York is primed to make
medical marijuana legal. With Democratic majorities in both houses and
the recent passage in New Jersey, they think the prospects are better
than ever.

Jay Goldstein of the New York chapter of Norml, which advocates for
marijuana legalization, cites a recent poll suggesting more than 70
percent of New Yorkers support his cause.

"I would never have been able to convince somebody this could happen a
few years ago," he says. "And this is something substantial, that the
government seems enthusiastic about."

The bill in the legislature would allow patients with what it calls
"serious medical conditions" to obtain marijuana. State Senator Tom
Duane is sponsoring the bill. Duane says he hasn't smoked marijuana
in a while, but he was once addicted to it and had to give it up for

"About twenty-six-and-a-half years ago, but who's counting?" he laughs.

That bit of history means that Duane doesn't believe everyone should
have easy access to pot. This year's bill, unlike last year's,
would not let people grow their own marijuana at home. That concession
upsets some advocates, but is part of a strategy to gain bipartisan
support. Also, people would need a doctor's referral, proving they have
a serious condition. Duane says it's these patients with cancer,
AIDS, and other illnesses who persuaded him of the merits of medical

"Making marijuana a part of the treatment would be a tremendous
advance," Duane says.

He says marijuana would be an ultra-controlled substance, far more
regulated than opiates like morphine or codeine. But opponents like
Calvina Fay, of Save Our Society From Drugs, says medical marijuana
should only be legalized once the FDA says its okay: "I think it's very
dangerous to allow people to come up with some product that they say is
medicine and they claim helps people. And then either have voters vote
on it or have the legislature vote on it and create a bill, because
they're not equipped to make those decisions."

Fay says people who believe marijuana works have an option, a synthetic
called Marinol, which is FDA-approved. She also says that in states
where it's been legalized, much of the medical marijuana isn't
going to people with life-threatening illnesses.

"They're not treating AIDS wasting syndrome, they're not treating
glaucoma. The huge majority are treating this category called pain,
that's undefined," she says.

Legislators are still working out the details on a medical marijuana
bill, including who will be eligible. But some users hope it will cover
their mental health problems. Abigail Schweter says marijuana helps with
the anxiety disorder she's suffered since she was raped in her
childhood, more than pharmaceuticals like Zoloft, an antidepressant. And
she thinks marijuana would also help her severely autistic son, who has
started becoming violent.

"For those of us who chemically and medically need it, we're not using
it to get high. We're using it to feel normal, to feel okay. And to be
able to cope in our everyday life," Schweter says.

But Schweter and her son are likely to be disappointed, at least in the
short run. Even if medical marijuana does get signed into law this year,
it's unlikely to cover mental health problems. However, legislators say
they will consider expanding coverage, two years down the road

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