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More progress is needed on medical marijuana

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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is taking steps toward the legalization of medical marijuana in New York, setting up a program for 20 hospitals in the state to prescribe the drug for illnesses that are yet to be designated.

The program will follow strict federal research guidelines, and according to what I’ve read so far about the issue, some hospitals are already interested despite a lack of details about how it’s actually going to work. It’s going to be implemented under the tightest restrictions among the 20 other states that have previously legalized marijuana for medical use.

It’s a good first step, although I have serious concerns about whether hospitals participating in the program will lose federal funding or encounter other federal backlash based on the U.S. government’s continuing prohibition of the drug. Under federal law, marijuana is categorized among the most dangerous drugs, placed on par with heroin and cocaine. It’s a dumb way to categorize a drug that cannot under any possible circumstances cause a fatal overdose, but the federal government has for whatever reason not eased the Nixon-era hard-line stance against it. The state needs to ensure it can protect institutions that participate from federal penalty, be it criminal or financial.

I say it’s a good first step for many reasons, not the least of which are the sheer volume of accredited medical studies that have demonstrated marijuana can significantly benefit people suffering from a host of illnesses from depression to cancer, and the potential financial windfall taxing its sales would pose for our cash-strapped state.

I also support medical marijuana because I have seen with my own eyes how much it can help people.

Nine years ago I was engaged to marry a wonderful, hard-working, well educated man. He died in 2005, a few days after his 30th birthday, from a brain aneurysm that may or may not have been associated with his muscular dystrophy. He suffered from limb-girdle MD, a form of the disease that weakens the muscles of the arms, shoulders, legs and thorax. With his muscles wasting away, he was able to walk only because he engaged in a balancing act that rivaled that of most high-wire acrobats. It was only a matter of time before he would have been in a wheelchair, and then most likely only a matter of time before his lungs stopped functioning. He was in constant, excruciating pain.

About eight months before his death, he fractured his leg in a fall at work. The fracture was not severe enough to keep him from walking, but it added significantly to his pain. He was no longer able to work. He was prescribed narcotic painkillers that helped his pain a little, but made him nauseated, made him sleep too much and kept him from doing his normal day-to-day activities. He stopped taking them.

He tried over-the-counter pain medicines, but they either barely touched the pain or irritated his stomach. He regularly vomited after meals, and lost an alarming amount of weight. He stopped taking them.

The pain came back with a vengeance. He was mostly bedridden and miserable.

A friend of ours suggested that he try smoking marijuana. At that point he was willing to try anything to feel better, so he did. His pain level was immediately cut in half. He could keep food down. He could function. He felt better in the last few months of his life than he had in years.

But in doing the very thing that improved the last days of his life, he could have been arrested. He could have faced criminal charges for just wanting to feel better. There is something very wrong with that.

New York has always prided itself on being a progressive state, but we are far behind the times when it comes to medical marijuana. New York should be leading the charge by states with medical marijuana laws to get the federal government to ease its prohibition on the drug, not taking baby steps to get where other states have already been for a long time.

I hope a move toward outright legalization for medical purposes is fast on the heels of Mr. Cuomo’s current plan, and that state lawmakers will embrace that progressive spirit rather than being afraid to take the political risk they perceive associated with supporting medical marijuana. If they were to actually ask their constituents what they think about it, I think they would be surprised about how many people from all walks of life support the idea.

Our state owes significant progress on this issue to law-abiding citizens whose only crime is wanting to feel better.

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