Marijuana advocates hopeful for legalization
In the late 1980s Rob Kampia was a carefree, third-year science major at Penn State University, who admits to inhaling now and then. “I was on a dual track of occasionally smoking pot and studying really hard so that I could do something in physics or astronomy,” he says.
In a strained voice he relays the event that changed his life: “I was arrested for growing my own marijuana in April of 1989 and sentenced to three months in county jail.” When he got out he had several felony charges on his record. “One for cultivation, an attempt to distribute and a couple of conspiracy charges as a result of that one incident,” he says with obvious disbelief.
Kampia, 39, now the director of the Marijuana Policy Project, says prospects to decriminalize marijuana have never been better. New York State legislators are considering a medical marijuana bill that advocates are optimistic will become law, which would make New York the 13th state to allow marijuana use through a doctor's prescription. And advocates are hopeful that if a Democrat wins the White House this year, the federal government will stop cracking down on states with looser marijuana laws, as the Justice Department under President Bush has done.
To Kampia, even partially deciminalizing marijuana for medical purposes will be a step toward ending what he calls “marijuana prohibition.”
“The police are expending enormous resources going after petty marijuana crimes causing a huge drain on tax resources as well as preventing them from going after serious criminals,” he says. However, he does not think marijuana should be freely accessible. “Tomatoes are legal, but we are not saying that marijuana should be sold as tomatoes,” he says. “Instead we would like marijuana to be regulated and taxed similarly as alcohol.”
Nationally, advocates are pinning their hopes on statements by Rep. Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, who said in March he plans to sponsor a bill that would decriminalize medical marijuana.
Even though states like California attempted to organize the distribution of medical marijuana, federal agents have repeatedly raided Cannabis Clubs, as they are called.
More importantly, presidential hopeful Barack Obama was quoted in an Oregon newspaper as being in favor of medial marijuana, which is legal in Oregon. Obama also said that if elected, he would not use federal law enforcement resources to undermine state law.
In New York, Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat and chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, is sponsoring the medical marijuana bill under consideration.
“Thousands of New Yorkers who are suffering from life-threatening conditions could receive medical benefit from marijuana,” Gottfried says. “Science has proven marijuana is effective.”
Marijuana advocates rely on research done by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicines in 1999, and a recent 2008 report from the American College of Physicians, that say that marijuana has several proven medicinal properties such as nausea control for AIDS patients and cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
“If a patient and his or her doctor agree that marijuana is the most effective treatment for a serious illness, government should not stand in the way,” Gottfried says.
Doug Muzzio, 60, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College says, “The bill has the best chance to pass that it ever had. They have powerful sponsors and bipartisan support.”
Although New York is considered a liberal state politically, it once had some of the harshest drug laws in the country. The “Rockefeller laws,’ named for former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, gave decade-long sentences to anyone caught with a few ounces of an illegal drug.
A medical marijuana bill was passed in 2007 in the Assembly but was never brought to a vote in the Senate.
New York Republican State Senator Vincent L. Leibell, a co-sponsor of the bill and chairman of the Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs Committee, says that the bill was not voted on in the Senate last year because "the consensus was that we have to find more common ground on the regulation aspect.”
Leibell believes, however, that the majority of representatives are in agreement about the necessity for a medial marijuana bill.
Legislators are also aware of the Bush Administration's crackdowns in California.
“This could all be easily resolved if the Congress would deal with this as a federal issue because [our] biggest problem is, how do we do this without exposing our constituents to federal prosecution?” Leibell says.
Supporters are considering language that would request a federal government exemption for regulated medical marijuana, he says, and he is optimistic the bill will pass this year.
Muzzio is skeptical that Congress will take any action. Action is more likely to come from the White House.
“You are never going to get a federal law passed so it has got to be done through administrative discretion,” he says. “It has got to be an executive action.”
Like New York, California is expected to ask the federal government to stop superseding state law, says Tracy Fairchild, spokeswoman for Carol Midgen, a California state senator.
Migden is sponsoring a bill that would ask the Drug Enforcement Administration “to back off on shutting down marijuana dispensaries that serve the terminally ill,” Fairchild says. “It would be a welcome relief if the new administration in 2009 has a different philosophy on how to spend scarce drug enforcement dollars that should be spent on drugs that kill people.”
Some marijuana advocates see the issue as matter of states' rights.
“They keep raiding our marijuana medical dispensaries and arresting the people that are trying to help us,” said Phillip Alden, 44, who uses marijuana to alleviate AIDS-related maladies. “I personally find it to be abusive and a violation of states' rights.” Alden, who has been living with AIDS since 1994, also serves as an advisor on HIV/AIDS-related issues with the San Mateo County Community Advisory Board in California
Alden says medical marijuana has done wonders for him. “I suffer from a nerve injury that is caused by AIDS or the medicines I have to take. It cause tingling and sometimes a stabbing pain,” Alden says. “With medical marijuana I don’t need a cane. I can hike and run.”
There is a marijuana pill that is authorized by the federal government for medical use. But Alden and other users say the pill is not as effective as inhaling smoke.
Alden says that while he had a bleak outlook about AIDS and the quality of his life years ago, his medications and medical marijuana--and a pending change in the White House--make him feel good about the future.
He says he has a supportive partner, is getting ready to publish a novel, and has hopes that Obama can win and change the way the federal government views marijuana.
“I am hopeful that a new presidential administration will look more favorably on medical marijuana laws,” he says. “If Barack is elected, that will be the first letter that I will write to him.”