Yesterday, the New York State Assembly passed a medical marijuana bill for the fourth time. The need for the Senate to act swiftly and pass the bill has never been more urgent for thousands of New Yorkers or for me personally.
Last May, I made my way from New York City to Albany to advocate for the passing of a medical marijuana law in New York State. I went on behalf of the thousands of clients at Gay Men's Health Crisis who have suffered with weight loss, anxiety, gastritis, angina, cancers secondary to HIV, sleep disorders to name just a few of the issues facing people who are HIV +. Little did I know that I would be advocating for myself...
I was diagnosed with breast cancer last spring. My world turned upside down unexpectedly and unpleasantly. I was ill prepared, as most people are, when I received a cancer diagnosis. From the minute the radiologist said to me "you need to find a breast surgeon" the night time is not my friend. When I stir, I find myself fully awake and always with the same thought: How is this cancer going to change my life? What will it mean to fight cancer? Sleep does not come easy. It is a rare night that I sleep until morning. My treatment course involves surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and a follow up medication that I will be on for five years. Many people gain weight from the steroids that are administered to combat the nausea from chemotherapy. Could the steroids be lessened if marijuana was an option? I assure you, most of us would find a decrease in steroids a blessing but not at the cost of having nausea. In my case I have had the good fortune of losing weight during chemo. I say good fortune because I have the weight to lose. Others do not though and certainly an increase in appetite would, for some, be helpful in their battle against a difficult disease. Aches and pains which can be debilitating for several days come along with the secondary medication given to reduce the risk of infection. Would those aches and pains subside with medical marijuana? I would sure like to know.
So, what stops me from getting marijuana? I have now had offers from people coming from all walks of life. It would not be hard to get it and it is clear to me that it is being used and obtained via the "black market" so to speak. I made a vow that I would not knowingly break the law. Believe me, this law is testing me on so many levels. Personally I believe I would be able to escape the anxiety that a cancer diagnosis brings, at least at times, and the gastric distress caused by cancer would be relieved. I will never know the answer to this possible solution though. I am angry and saddened by the lack of medical marijuana as a possible treatment for me and so many others.
Currently there are 18 states and Washington DC with legalized medical marijuana and a dozen states are pending the passing of a law that would permit medical marijuana. And a recent poll of New York votes found that an overwhelming 82 percnet support medical marijuana for seriously ill patients. The trend is quite clear. States are recognizing that there is a real benefit to medical marijuana in the treatment of well over 20 diseases or symptoms. New York State should be a leader in health care and not a follower. In this case we are already behind the curve. What will it take to convince legislators to catch up?
It is clear some of the states have tighter restrictions than others. New York has the opportunity to create a law that would open up the option of medical marijuana to those who truly could benefit. I suspect few would argue that someone with cancer, glaucoma, HIV to name a few diagnoses are trying to get marijuana for recreational purposes. The availability of marijuana for recreational purposes seems to be plentiful. The only people who seem to be restricted from trying to see if we can gain relief from medical marijuana are those of us who try so hard to be law abiding and will not cross the line to get this substance illegally.
Alcohol is often the legal drug of choice for many. While undergoing treatment nausea, gastric distress and drug interaction would prohibit alcohol as even an option so this legal option is also often eliminated.
Until one walks in these shoes, one cannot begin to imagine how haunting and distressing the words "I am sorry to have to tell you that you have cancer" can be. The stress and anxiety is a universal emotion to all of us who have heard those words. Since my diagnosis, unfortunately dozens and dozens of people have told me of their own experiences. Stress, anxiety, and general malaise during treatment are common themes. Is it fair to punish us from trying a possible relief from these symptoms simply because we respect the law and will not break it?
Janet Weinberg is the Chief Operating Officer of the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) and a recognized leader in the health, social justice and fundraising fields for over 25 years.