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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Medical marijuana story lost its punch

Way back in January, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo first expressed support for medical marijuana, I was pleased.

I expressed my support for the idea and read almost everything I could on the topic. Which is why it’s a bit surprising I’m not more excited now that Cuomo has officially signed New York’s medical marijuana legislation into law.

It’s not that I’m indifferent. I still support legalizing medical marijuana, and although the bill that passed the Legislature wasn’t exactly my dream bill, it’s still better than nothing. People with certain illnesses will be able to obtain the drug, and it will provide them with relief from pain, nausea and other unpleasant symptoms and conditions.

I’m happy for those people. I hope having access to medical marijuana improves their overall quality of life.

So how to explain my waning interest in medical marijuana? Well, I suspect it began to seem a relatively minor issue as the legislative session dragged on. Other topics — the state of the economy, the ongoing revelations of NSA spying, troubles at the VA, the successes and failures of Obamacare — struck me as more significant and of greater impact.

When lawmakers finally struck a deal on the bill, the news was dominated by reports of violence in Iraq and discussion of what the U.S. should or shouldn’t do about it. With the specter of war on the horizon, a belated decision to allow sick people access to medical marijuana didn’t seem all that significant or noteworthy.

And as the final days of the legislative session approached, I became amazed by the amount of time and energy lawmakers were devoting to medical marijuana. Didn’t these people have anything better to do?

Then there was the debate surrounding medical marijuana. While advocates made a point of encouraging sick families to talk about how medical marijuana might help them and emphasized the fact that medical marijuana was legal in 22 states, opponents often spoke in broad, fearful terms, as if New York was contemplating doing something that had never been done before.

My favorite comment came from state Sen. Tom Libous, the Binghamton lawmaker indicted last week on one count of lying to the FBI, who said he feared legalizing medical marijuana would give sick people “false hope.”

“I do understand that people need hope, and I do understand this may give people hope,” said Libous, who is receiving treatments for cancer. “This isn’t going to cure anybody.”

Well, I don’t know that anybody credible has ever suggested marijuana can cure cancer, and I don’t think the patients lobbying for medical marijuana are under the illusion it’s some kind of miracle drug. However, there is research showing it can help alleviate seizures, arthritic discomfort, the pain of multiple sclerosis and a range of other symptoms.

And we’d have even more research at our disposal if it weren’t for federal laws that make it difficult for researchers to obtain marijuana through legal channels.

Nevertheless, I have to give lawmakers a little credit. For many of them, voting “yes” on medical marijuana required stepping out of their comfort zone and questioning decades of conventional wisdom on illegal drugs

“I have agonized over this,” said state Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon, who ultimately voted in favor of the bill. “I have a ‘yes’ speech, and I have a ‘no’ speech.”

New York’s medical marijuana program will be one of the most restrictive in the country, which might explain why conservatives such as Marchione were willing to support it. Under the legislation Cuomo signed into law, patients will not be allowed to smoke marijuana; instead, they can ingest it or administer it through a vaporizer or oil base.

And the drug will be limited to patients with one of 10 disease categories who obtain a prescription from physicians approved by the state to participate in the program.

This is a strict program — much stricter than one I would create, if I were in charge of such things. For instance, I don’t have any concerns about letting cancer patients smoke pot. But I will never be in charge of such things, and I doubt Kathy Marchione would ever vote for my ideal program.

So while it’s easy to roll my eyes at the state Legislature and wonder what took them so long, it’s worth pausing occasionally to acknowledge what’s possible and other basic realities. And here’s one basic reality: For a long time, New York didn’t have a medical marijuana program.

And now it does.

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