A City Council resolution voicing support for state legislation that would make medical marijuana legal in New York was approved by the Mental Health committee on Monday. The nonbinding resolution, introduced by Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), is slated for a Council-wide vote on Feb. 29, according to Dromm’s office.
The resolution backing the state medical marijuana bill — now in committee in both the Assembly and Senate — comes after a study released by the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group critical of the NYPD’s approach to marijuana arrests, showed possession arrests in 2011 increased from the previous year: by 0.6 percent, to 50,680. That’s “enough to fill Yankee stadium” Dromm noted while speaking on the issue at a Democratic club meeting last week.
The near-record arrests figure points to the city’s high arrest numbers generally: in the last five years under Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, over 277,00 arrests have been made for low-level possession of marijuana, more than were made under the three previous administrations combined, the study reported.
“We need to change our marijuana laws,” Dromm said simply.
In the case of medical marijuana, bills seeking to legalize it have been proposed in New York several times in the last 14 years, according to Gabriel Sayegh, the state director of the DPA. Bills have passed in the state Assembly twice, Sayegh said, but have failed to pass in the Senate. “The fact that it’s not passed yet has everything to do with political purposes and nothing to do with the need or desire of New Yorkers to have medical marijuana,” he added.
The text of the City Council resolution notes that the Medical Society of the State of New York, the New York State Nurses Association, the Hospice and Palliative Care Association of New York, the New York Statewide Senior Action Council and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis have all shown support for legalizing medical use of the drug.
Marijuana has been shown to be effective in treating symptoms including nausea, appetite loss, muscle spasms and chronic pain as a result of diseases like AIDS, multiple sclerosis and cancer, among others, according to Dromm’s office. In 16 states and the District of Columbia, medical marijuana is legal.
But the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy contends that the Federal Drug Administration, a nonpolitical body, should determine policies toward medical marijuana use.
“We look at this as a public health issue,” explained Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for the ONDCP. “We believe it should go through the FDA process, because politics and ideology should be removed from decisions about medicine.”
In a 2009 statement, ONDCP Director R. Gil Kerlikowske wrote, “The [FDA], which studies and approves all medicines in the United States, has made very clear that the raw marijuana plant is not medicine, and any state considering medical marijuana should look very carefully at what has happened in California.”
“To test the idea of legalizing and taxing marijuana, we only need to look at already legal drugs — alcohol and tobacco. We know that taxes collected on these substances pale in comparison to the social and healthcare costs related to their widespread use,” Kerlikowske added.
At the Feb. 9 meeting of the New Democratic Visions Club in Jackson Heights, Dromm, who said he has been a recovering alcoholic for 21 years, had this to say about drug abuse: “I wasn’t an alcoholic because liquor was available, but because I liked to drink too much.”
“There are people who smoke marijuana who don’t become drug addicts,” he added.
In New York State, possession of under 25 grams of marijuana is not a crime but a ticketable violation. However, possession of this amount of marijuana in public view is a misdemeanor. Some 87 percent of the arrests made for low-level possession in New York City are of black and Latino men, according to a 2010 study by Queens College professor Harry Levine, who works with the DPA.
“This is how many of our young people get caught up in the criminal justice system,” Dromm said.
Another bill in the state legislature, introduced by state Sen. Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo) and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn), seeks to combat a practice many say is common: police charging people with possession of under 25 grams of marijuana in public view — a misdemeanor — after asking an individual to empty his pockets and then finding the drug. That bill, like the medical marijuana bill, is in committee.
Sayegh said he believes the medical marijuana legislation will come up for a vote this year. State Sen. Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights), present at last week’s meeting, said that while he thinks “there’s some kind of support” for the medical marijuana bill added, “I don’t think that there’s critical mass yet.”
This article has been amended to address an error in the description of state Sen. Grisanti's and Assemblyman Jeffries' bill: it would not seek to make posession of under 25 grams of marijuana a violation, and not a misdemeanor, in all cases, but only in those involving the police in the manner now described in the story.