Cancer cut short the life of my friend Regina. Barely into her 50’s, she had been working on behalf of immigrants in New York City. A lump on her breast turned out to be a malignant tumor. She told me about it on a Sunday autumn afternoon as we sat on a bench in New York’s Bryant Park. The golden light amid the many-colored leaves seemed too cheerful a setting for that kind of revelation.
Chemotherapy and radiation became part of Regina’s life. When her hair vanished, she wore a wig—a big one, and we used to joke about it as a Dolly Parton-type accessory that needed only a few rhinestones to make it complete. She thus bore the treatments with good humor and courage, and continued to work until close to the end.
Chemo was especially difficult because of the accompanying nausea. Medication prescribed by the oncologist to offset it proved ineffective. We had both read that smoking marijuana relieved nausea and loss of appetite for people undergoing chemotherapy. Not entirely in jest, I once spoke of looking around in my Lower East Side neighborhood for a dealer who might supply some marijuana for her.
The Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, has reported that ingredients in marijuana can relieve the symptoms of cancer and other diseases. And yet relief from this source has been denied to many. Why? The federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. People can be fined and imprisoned just for possessing it. Federal law notwithstanding, a number of states have done away with penalties for gravely ill persons who use and even grow marijuana when it is recommended by their doctors.
The state that has attracted the most attention—and ire—from the federal government is California, where support for medical marijuana has been especially strong. Voters there approved Proposition 215 in 1996, legalizing marijuana for some medical uses. Even earlier, the city of Santa Cruz passed a similar measure, with the mayor himself stating that making marijuana available for the seriously ill was an act of compassion.
In an effort to counter such moves, the government threatened to revoke the licenses of California physicians who recommended marijuana use. A group of doctors and patients, however, sued, and a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled late in 2002 that the government cannot revoke doctors’ licenses—a step viewed as a significant victory by medical marijuana proponents. An editorial in The New York Times had this to say about the government’s attitude: “The administration should stop tyrannizing doctors and sick people, and focus on more important aspects of the war on drugs.” How true, yet people with AIDS and other diseases besides cancer continue to suffer unnecessarily.
Among proponents of medical marijuana, few have been more outspoken than a Californian named Ed Rosenthal. Under the 1996 California Compassionate Use Act, he had been authorized by the city of Oakland to grow marijuana in a local warehouse. Last year, however, he was arrested and convicted in federal court of “marijuana cultivation and conspiracy.”
Under the state’s mandatory minimum laws, he could have been sentenced to five years—which is what prosecutors recommended. Fortunately, a sympathetic judge gave him the most lenient sentence allowable under law: one day in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Besides California, nine other states have now eliminated criminal penalties for seriously ill people who with their doctors’ approval use and in some cases grow marijuana to relieve their suffering: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and, most recently, Vermont. Hawaii’s governor not only signed a bill there, but even introduced it himself. New York passed a medical marijuana law in 1980, but the mechanisms for making it work were never activated, and so it has lain dormant, with Governor George Pataki refusing to take the needed steps. If he had, my friend Regina’s suffering might have been lessened.