It's 2016 and America is finally shaking off the scare-stigma of reefer madness. Four states -- and D.C. -- have passed recreational marijuana legislation, and it's going pretty well in Oregon and in Colorado and Washington. So, it's a wonder that other territories are struggling to implement medical marijuana laws. It's a step many states have provided a workable framework for and a comparatively modest move in the current climate. (Basically, medical marijuana requires a doctor's recommendation based on an ailment for consumption, while recreational usage is regulated like alcohol.)
Yet several states are struggling with medical pot. Connecticut still doesn't have a provision for sick minors, Minnesota is just kicking things off, and Massachusetts could use a more robust, stable supply. Still, that trio is nowhere near the list of worst offenders. While it should be noted that these states have, at least, passed medical marijuana legislation -- a majority have not -- they're doing a bang-up job of mucking it up.
With a shift as complex as legalizing medicinal marijuana, the devil of any single change is in the details. Make the details restrictive enough, and pretty soon you could have "legal" pot that is practically impossible to get. The single narrative that has sprung up -- time and time again -- with the recent implementation of New York's medical marijuana program is just that: It's overly prohibitive. Too many sick people are having too much difficulty getting the medicine they need. Julie Netherland, Ph.D., director of the Office of Academic Engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance, summed it up when she sent me this statement:
"New York's medical marijuana program is one of the most restrictive in the country, and those restrictions are creating significant barriers to patient access. In a state with 79,000 doctors and almost 20 million people, to date fewer than 300 doctors and 300 patients have enrolled. In addition to patients facing serious difficulties in finding doctors, there are too few dispensaries, too few medical conditions covered by the program, and concerns about the ability of low income patients to pay for the medicine. The Cuomo Administration and the Department of Health have the authority to address many of these problems, and we urge them to do so quickly to alleviate the needless suffering of patients in New York."
So, I wanted to find some people whom it was actually affecting. She also put me in touch with Donna Romano. Romano is 60, a grandmother, and a U.S. Navy veteran. She also has multiple sclerosis and a seizure disorder. She tells me the following:
"The presence of the children in wheelchairs, their parents, and their nurses caused quite the commotion in Albany in 2014, but things didn't seem to be changing until Senator Dean Skelos saw young Oliver Miller seize repeatedly in his office. After that, we gained some momentum, and it was looking like the bill would pass. Then, the governor ripped the proposed bill apart and refashioned it into the unworkable remnant we have today. That was when PTSD and other conditions like rheumatoid arthritis were stripped from the bill. As a veteran, I am crushed that PTSD was not added back in to the law when the Health Commissioner [Howard] Zucker had the opportunity to do so earlier this month.
"I've been seeing the same neurologist for almost the whole 17 years since receiving my diagnosis of M.S., and was able to follow her to the V.A. when she switched hospitals. Because she works at a federal facility, I am not able to get a recommendation for medicine from her. She has never wanted to discuss the subject, although in mid-November we finally had a brief conversation about it. I was naïve enough to believe that our longstanding relationship and my pleas would cause her to do what was best for me, but she made it clear that she will not be recommending medical cannabis even if she were able.
"With my regular neurologist unwilling to 'recommend' cannabis to me, I put plan B into action. But my plan B doctor has decided that it is too big of a risk to be the only certified neurologist in the area, and has decided against getting certified. My plans C and D of changing neurologists and going to the M.S. clinic in either Syracuse or Rochester have also failed, as the groups of doctors in both places said they 'won't be participating.' So now I am in limbo. Waiting, waiting, waiting. I do have the ability to endure a bit longer, but there are many of those who can't wait much longer. The fragile state of so many make it cruel that their own doctors are not willing to help. Since I began advocating, several advocates and children have died.
"We advocates and patients are still looked upon as drug seekers who are looking for a high. My own brother-in-law accused me of this the other day, and then recanted a bit, saying, 'Well, 90 percent are seekers.' It's so maddening.
"My quality of life is being diminished by not being well. My use of street-grade cannabis won't heal me the way I expect to get restored -- little by little -- by the healing properties of pharmacy-grade cannabis oil. Does it take an acutely ill cancer patient to prove that quality of life matters, or a child with non-stop seizures, or a chronically ill patient whose light dims a bit each day because of the burdens of disease? Not many will understand unless they, or a very precious loved one, are struck by one of those situations. Seemingly, not even the some physicians who are entreated for help.
"So, sure, history was made and New York became the 23rd state to have medical marijuana. I was there in New York City the day the governor signed it with all arrogance and pomp, while the smiling girl who stood beside him was being duped into thinking she was seeing her salvation-by-Cuomo. Wrong. That sweet girl still doesn't have her cannabis medicine and neither do I or thousands of other New Yorkers. I hope that changes soon."
Still not convinced that the liberal bastion of New York can do better by its sick citizens? Susan Rusinko has suffered from M.S. since 2000 and tells me:
"I did the pharmaceutical route from 2000 to 2003. In three years, I was prescribed 17 different medications. I was basically at home, in a prescribed, drug-induced haze, with young children to try and take care of. By 2003, I had had enough. I went to my neurologist and told him I want a medication vacation. I wasn't going to keep taking all those meds. I did my research: I was going to use marijuana, illegally. Of course he was concerned that it was illegal. Where would I get it from? Was it safe? He told me the ween off of some of the meds was going to be tough. He wasn't lying. It was brutal. I started the ween process in March 2003 and by July I was still weening off the last medication. It was awful. But marijuana helped with the side effects.
"I use marijuana illegally every single day to help with spasticity in my legs, as well as pain. I also hid the fact that I used marijuana from my brothers and sisters, parents, and my sons. It was a decision my husband and I thought was for the best. [After I began telling my sons], I asked them if they were embarrassed that I use marijuana. My son Noah said, 'Mom, you do way more embarrassing stuff than that.' I did a seminar on the benefits of medical marijuana, then started lobbying the New York state senate to pass the bill. It was exhausting. I was in senate chambers when the bill was passed.
"The program we lobbied for is not the program we got. It is a very restrictive bill. Not one single family who lobbied so hard for this bill has access to medical marijuana. Not one of us. I've said it before I'll say it again, I believe Governor Cuomo has set this up to fail. Physicians -- not politicians -- should be prescribing medication.
"There are three dispensaries in Onondaga County, which is about a half hour away from me. They are open by appointment only. We cannot find doctors to take the [state-required course]. I go to Strong Hospital in Rochester: None of doctors there have taken the course.
"This was called the Compassionate Care Act. Well, Governor Cuomo and the Department of Health have not shown one ounce of compassion."
Hard to be cool with that if you have a pulse.
As presidential candidates dole stump across the state, many sick Granite State residents are getting totally jobbed. Governor Maggie Hassan signed medical marijuana legislation back in 2013, but bureaucracy prevented anyone from receiving an ID card until December of last year when terminally ill lung cancer patient, Linda Horan -- who sued the state -- became the first. Three dispensaries have finally been approved and should allow for cannabis to be sold sometime this year. Until then, approved patients will have to drive to Maine for marijuana.
It took Hawaii 15 years -- insert Keanu Reeves "whoa" here -- to go from legislation to implementation. Now that things are rolling, people are still fired up. There aren't enough dispensaries and the marijuana will prove too costly, they say. Add in a state regulation system that has failed to produce results and it's a major buzzkill for Hawaiians.
Delaware has one dispensary that can only cultivate 150 plants, which -- ya know -- isn't enough.
The current law on the books in Michigan is an all-out debacle. It allows for marijuana cultivation by private caregivers, but many have been arrested and others claim police have taken their pot. Michiganders have called for dispensaries, but the state senate is stalling more than a Dodge Aspen.
By most accounts, Big Sky Country is the only state to pass a medical marijuana law and then get regressive on it. The 2004 law has been weakened by legislators and the state Supreme Court will rule any day now on whether to severely hamper the industry.
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