When setting out to explain the need for New York to pass the long-delayed medical marijuana bill that's been languishing in the legislature, there are many potential starting points for an argument. I could present the many solid medical studies which show that marijuana is effective as a painkiller with fewer side effects and health risks than most opiates on the market today. I might point out that growing medical marijuana could provide a valuable economic boon to upstate New York, in the range of billions of dollars a year. Or I could just note that medical marijuana has overwhelming public support in New York - to the tune of 82 percent of the population per a recent Siena poll, with majority support among every age range, demographic, and political party, including 77 percent of self-described conservatives - and end the argument with "Vox populi."
I could. But I won't.
I won't, because that's not the whole story. It seems like the general theme of the medical marijuana debate is that regardless of what arguments medical marijuana advocates put forward, the implication - sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken - is that they have a secret agenda behind making marijuana available legally. The opponents of medical marijuana choose to cast it as a selfish interest. And you know what? In my case, they're absolutely right. I do have a personal motive in all of this. Her name is Jennifer.
A little less than three years ago, my friend Jen went in to get her flu vaccination, something that she did every year. Only that year, something went wrong. Instead of depositing a harmless inoculation, the needle went right into one of the major nerves in her arm, damaging the nerve and leaving behind the beginning of a nightmare. As a result of the nerve damage done by the needle, Jennifer developed something called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. In layman's terms, it's a progressive, degenerative nerve condition caused by a trauma to one of the limbs. We don't know much more than that, because its causes aren't very well understood. The symptoms are, though: pain. Horrible, invisible pain.
As a condition of the nerves, you can't usually look at a CRPS sufferer and know that they have a crippling condition. But that's exactly what it is. First documented during the Civil War, CRPS scores 42 out of 50 points on the McGill Pain Scale. That's more than childbirth, or having a limb amputated. Lingering pain from the needle into Jen's nerve turned into continuing pain. And then into severe pain, and debilitation of her arm, then both arms and spreading to the rest of her body. After awhile, she couldn't work, even at her desk job. Eventually, she could barely drive more than a few minutes at a time. Even a couple of hours spent out shopping for groceries or taking her daughter somewhere resulted in agonizing CRPS attacks afterward: pain, swelling, skin discoloration, muscle tremors. Some days, she can't even get out of bed.
As anyone would be in her case, Jennifer is prescribed painkillers by her doctor - as many as the law allows. But even so, that's not enough. Opiate-based painkillers are only so effective, and less so the more you use them. They also come with their own special set of health problems, including liver damage and the ever present risk of accidental overdose for anyone who's on too many of them.
If the pain is too much for the safe dosage, you can either suffer or take the chance of overdosing. Medical marijuana on the other hand would provide a safe and effective alternative for people like Jen who have serious medical conditions that conventional painkillers can't cope with. Medical marijuana is more effective than opiates, and MMJ presents no risk of overdose, because it's not possible: no overdose on marijuana has ever been recorded in history.
Governor Cuomo claims that his opposition to medical marijuana is based on the premise that it will end up feeding into illegal use of marijuana. Governor, almost 80 years of prohibition haven't stopped the use of marijuana. And it never will. We learned the same lesson after just 13 years of banning alcohol - banning something only prevents it from being used legally. In fact, the only people who the current ban on MMJ hurts is legitimate cases like Jennifer's; she's not allowed to use it to relieve her pain or try to live a normal life, whereas recreational users aren't inconvenienced in the least and can toke up any time that they feel like it.
But the legislature doesn't need Governor Cuomo in order to help Jennifer and tens of thousands of people like her. In fact, it only needs a few more strong voices. Diane Savino, sponsor of New York's medical marijuana bill, says that she has 39 of New York's 63 State Senators on board. Even if the governor vetoed the law, 42 State Senators could override it. Just three people sticking up for Jennifer and those like her could make all the difference to tens of thousands of New Yorkers who need help now, and for whom safe, effective pain relief could help them reclaim their lives.