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 settings.
“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.