The New York Senate adjourned yesterday, effectively ending this year's legislative session, but that will come as no relief to seriously ill New Yorkers who rely on medical marijuana to ease their suffering.
The senators went home without considering a bill that would have allowed people like Burton Aldrich, a Kingston quadriplegic who needs medical marijuana to control his spasms and constant pain, to use the drug with a doctor's recommendation without fear of arrest.
It's difficult to explain the lack of enthusiasm in the Senate for protecting patients who wish to use a proven safe, effective medicine to ease their suffering after other options had failed.
It shouldn't have been fear that voters would disapprove of their compassion and common sense: 76% of New Yorkers said they supported a medical marijuana bill in a poll conducted in 2005. The Senate's counterparts in the Assembly didn't appear to suffer any political catastrophes after passing a similar bill last week, 89-52, or last year, 92-52.
The press, with several notable exceptions, often appeared more interested in the horserace aspects of the bill's chances rather than its merits. Paradoxically, members of the press often saw the Senate's reluctance to take the bill seriously as a reason not to take it seriously themselves. I was told more than once by reporters that as long as it appeared unlikely that the Senate would take up the medical marijuana bill, their editors weren't inclined to give it much coverage.
The real story was the patients who were counting on the Senate to protect them. Many of them risked their health to advocate for the bill, going to Albany to talk to their senators, writing letters to their local papers, and granting interviews to the media.
I don't know if their efforts ever got the attention they deserved, so I'd like to thank some of them here: Bruce Dunn of Otsego County, who suffers chronic pain from a vehicle accident in 1988; Barbara Jackson, a cancer survivor from the Bronx who was arrested for using marijuana to treat dangerous appetite loss; Richard Williams of Richmondville who has battled HIV for 20 years and also has hepatitis C; Joel Peacock of Buffalo, a Conservative Party member who suffers chronic pain from a 2001 car accident; Glenn Amandola, a medically retired New York City police officer who suffers from chronic pain and a seizure disorder after being injured on the job; Jeannine Zagiel of Oneonta, who was disabled in a work injury in 2001; Dr. Kevin Smith, a Saugerties psychiatrist who suffers from a painful genetic defect that causes his immune system to attack his spine and hips as though they were foreign bodies; and Sherry Greene of Cedarhurst, who suffers from fibromyalgia.
There are many, many more.
They will spend this next year as they spent the last: in pain, frustrated by a ridiculous law that makes them criminals if they try to get better. Even so, many will be back next year to fight for their right to make their own health care decisions with their doctors.
Some, however, won't be around to fight next year. For them, the Senate's lack of urgency will mean spending their last days in avoidable pain.
Then again, many of New York's senators may not be back next year either. Like the suffering patients they ignored, they too may find themselves on Election Day wishing they'd had the courage and good sense to pass this bill when they had the chance.