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 benefit.
To see a video of Burt Aldrich and other medical marijuana users click below. Click here to watch on YouTube.
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 spasms.
"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 good.
"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 marijuana.
"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.
Arun Venugopal is a reporter and the creator of Micropolis, WNYC’s multi-platform series examining race, sexuality, religion, street life and other issues that define New York City. He has been with the station since 2005, and has covered a wide range of stories, including the death of Sean Bell, the controversy over the Park 51 mosque and community center and Occupy Wall Street .
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR and Public Radio
International, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.