State Senator Diane J. Savino (a Democrat representing Sunset Park, Coney Island, Bensonhurst and part of Staten Island) doesn’t want New York to fall behind the Garden State. Now that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has green-lighted his state’s medical marijuana program—stalled for over a year after it was signed into law by his predecessor—she has co-sponsored medical marijuana legislation in Albany, drawing on her own experience of losing both parents to cancer. We spoke to her over the phone about what medical marijuana in New York would look like, when we should expect a corner Canna-bakery, and whether she’d take a blunt, bong, bowl or brownie.
Why sponsor such legislation now? Is it just becoming politically feasible?
Well, it’s always been important to me. It’s one of the issues that when I got to legislature—I didn’t spearhead this. It was already something being pushed by Senator Tom Duane and Assemblyman Gottfried and I immediately saw the wisdom of this bill and I signed on as a co-sponsor. And, for the first couple of years there was almost no activity on it because, you know, there are still a lot of misconceptions about marijuana. Certainly there’s a tremendous amount of misconceptions about addiction still, to this day, that continue to criminalize behavior, which, you know, hasn’t really turned the tide of drug abuse. But, what makes this more possible and more feasible now is that other states have done it. And New York sometimes is a leader; sometimes it’s a follower; sometimes we’re in the middle. We tend to be somewhere in the middle on this issue.
As you know probably from your research, a couple of other states have already adopted a medical marijuana program, and I think what made it really jump to the forefront is when New Jersey signed it, allowing it to go foreword. Chris Christie is, by anybody’s definition, one of the most conservative governors in the country, both fiscally and on social policy. And, Andrew Cuomo is still a Democrat—a little fiscally conservative, but still a Democrat. And on social-justice issues, he is far more progressive than his neighbor to the west. So to see Chris Christie, who, it’s not in his interest really, politically, to support this issue, say that it’s the right thing to do, kind of gives us the impetus that we might need now to kind of push New York foreword. And so, when he announced it, I immediately jumped on it and said, “congratulations, New Jersey”—something I never thought I’d do. It’s time for New York to set aside our misconceptions and our fear about what this can lead to, and let’s look at it for what it is, a public health policy, a humanitarian policy that will allow people who are chronically ill, terminally ill, who are in constant pain, for whom traditional medicine is not working, to have another option. And this would provide that option.
You mentioned misconceptions. Federal agencies, including the DEA, have steadfastly denied any medicinal benefits from marijuana.
Well, you know, when you’re talking about a law enforcement agency—and the DEA is a law enforcement agency, first and foremost—their concern is, of course, over keeping illegal drugs off the streets because of the social impact of the “war on drugs”—or, the “war against drugs,” whatever—and that’s their concern, and they’re right to be concerned about that. But morphine is far more addictive than marijuana and, in fact, most medical scientists will tell you that marijuana in and of itself is not an addictive substance. Morphine is. Oxycontin is tremendously addictive, almost instantaneously to people. Vicodin is addictive. What’s the difference between these two [classes of] drugs? One is dispensed by a pharmacy and one isn’t. But if marijuana has a more palliative treatment to people, why would we not figure out a way to control the distribution of it, the way that we attempt to control the distribution of other controlled substances?
And I think it also depends on what we’re trying to accomplish. If the purpose behind providing medical treatment to somebody to alleviate their pain is to put them in a comatose state, almost, so that they’re unaware of their pain, well then morphine is the drug for you, you know, or Oxycontin is the drug for you, if that’s what you want. If you want a sedative effect and dull the pain, there you go. But it also robs people of whatever quality of life they have left. Marijuana will not do that. We do know that it eases anxiety and it also stimulates your appetite—for people who are on chemotherapy that’s even more important. For people who’s quality of life has diminished tremendously, this could help alleviate their pain, alleviate their symptoms, stimulate their appetites and still allow them to be part of the world that surrounds them, for however long they have.
So what are going to be some of the biggest challenges in moving this legislation foreword? Are there moneyed interests at play? The pharmaceutical companies?
Well, I’m not really sure. Up until now, they’ve never really taken a position on this. And I think if it moved foreword, they would probably look to be a company that could manufacture and distribute it. I don’t think the objection is going to come from the pharmaceutical industry. They will make whatever it is that the law will allow them to distribute. Opposition will come from people who completely misunderstand what medical marijuana would be used for. The drug-addiction and drug-treatment facilities, they have some concern about it, and rightfully so because they deal with the impact of drug addiction everyday. Their concern is justifiable, but again, they would never stand in the way of a cancer patient being given a prescription for morphine. So if you are a recovering addict, when you’re in chronic pain, there’s not a drug treatment program in the world that would say you can’t avail yourself of what modern science will grant you in an effort to alleviate your pain. People should start looking at medical marijuana as another medication that’s available to patients. Stop looking at it as a drug and look at it for what it could be. At the end of the day, they’re all drugs.
If this legislation passes, will Brooklyn look like Berkeley?
No, I think one of the arguments is that the California model has been still problematic. We don’t need to replicate what’s out in California. Like I said earlier, there are 21 states that have adopted this. We should look at the best practices and adopt them here in New York. This bill that Senator Duane introduced and I’m co-sponsoring, we would have the most conservative medical marijuana program in the country.
What does that mean?
The plan that would be designed under this particular bill would have the most restrictions on the distribution, on who would have access to it, how it gets dispensed, how often it gets dispensed. It’s far more restrictive than other states.
So you’re planning on restricting the amount of dispensaries? Are you zoning it to particular neighborhoods?
It would be restricted: who gets to manufacture it, how it gets delivered, the transfer of it, and the transportation of it. There would be a very conservative approach to it, much different than California’s.
What about who actually writes the prescriptions? Would it be any doctor?
Obviously we wouldn’t want dentists prescribing it. There has to be some connection between the underlying medical condition and the physician who’s prescribing it.
I had a root canal once that was pretty painful. Why not a dentist?
Because that’s not a chronic medical condition, and that’s what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about episodic incidents. It’s not pain that comes about because of a particular illness or an occurrence in your life that is going to be gone in a few days. It wouldn’t be utilized for that. We’re talking about people who are suffering from chronic, debilitating pain from either things like MS, people who are terminally ill, people that are going to be in this condition of pain in perpetuity.
OK, but how do you justify a cancer patient being able to spark up to alleviate pain but not someone suffering from a more common ailment like a migraine, which can also be chronic?
Well, migraines can stop, and I think that’s what people also are not quite getting. It’s that there are some conditions that create pain in a person’s life that are totally responsive to traditional medical intervention, like aspirin. You wouldn’t give somebody who suffers from the occasional headache a controlled substance. You would tell them: first you start with Tylenol. If Tylenol doesn’t work, you go to Advil. That’s the kind of method doctors use to prescribe medication that people need. So you wouldn’t need to smoke marijuana everyday. People who suffer from migraines don’t suffer from them on a daily basis. Nor is it going to be a situation that their lives are so debilitated, or their life is going to be shortened as a result of it. And, we also assume that doctors and patients are going to make this decision together, deciding what is the best medication, after having tried it. I don’t believe anybody thinks that doctors are going to immediately jump to prescribing medical marijuana. That’s not how physicians operate now.
You were talking about aspirin and Tylenol and these over-the-counter medications that have side effects like internal bleeding and liver damage…
If you take them in huge quantities! If you’re allergic to aspirin, you wouldn’t take it. If you’re allergic to acetaminophen, you wouldn’t take it. The point I’m trying to make is that there’re some conditions that are chronic and debilitating on a continuous basis and some that are episodic incidents that would not trigger the utilization of marijuana. That would not be what the purpose would be for, any more than an episodic illness would not trigger the prescribing of morphine or Oxycontin or Vicodin.
If the legislation moved forward, what kind of safeguards are you prepared to provide for registered medical marijuana patients and dispensaries in the state of New York that would be under risk of being raided by the DEA, as we’ve seen happen in California?
In Jersey that was one of the things that convinced Governor Christie that they could move foreword. They’ve been given assurances that the medical marijuana program, people who participate in it, doctors, patients, dispensaries would not be subject to federal restrictions on marijuana, that they would not be treated as drug runners. We would anticipate the same thing here in New York. We have no reason to believe that we would be treated any differently than New Jersey, California or the other 20 states.
When Obama came into office, he called to end the DEA raids on dispensaries that are operating legally under state law, but they’ve still continued over the past few years.
Well, if that were to happen, then, New York state—we have an Attorney General who would represent New York.
Would he represent the patients, the dispensaries though?
Any time there is a conflict between the state and federal government, there’s a method to the removal of those issues, and it’s called the court system.
What I’m asking, is the state prepared to step in for these patients?
Well, it’s hard to say since we haven’t enacted the legislation yet. It hasn’t been adopted, it hasn’t been tried by the government, we don’t have a plan yet. But if New York state, if we move to do this, and the government would assign it, then the state of New York would take every effort to protect its citizens from being prosecuted by the federal government for something that is legal in New York. As we saw this week, the attorney general of New York state had filed suit against the federal government on the Defense of Marriage Act because right now in New York state same-sex marriage is legal. So I would imagine we would take the same approach with marijuana.
An enormous amount of marijuana consumed for any reason in New York today is imported from “legal” growers in California. Is this legislation conservative enough to protect against this kind of black market from developing here?
Well, we think we are, but you know, the black market on drugs has been there since prohibition. So, all we can do is develop a plan that we think serves the intent of the legislation, which is to provide another form of palliative treatment for people who are chronically suffering from pain that they can’t currently achieve with drugs that are available. Even if we legalize it in every state, you may still run into a problem with a black-market drug trade. There is a tremendous amount of profit to be made, because again, not everybody is going to be eligible for this drug. That doesn’t mean people aren’t going to try and buy it. We can’t anticipate everything, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move forward with the plan.
You keep bringing up chronic pain. What about psychological ailments?
I don’t believe that would be an appropriate use of it. We have psychotropic drugs already for people that deal with psychological illnesses. I’ve never heard of one that causes pain, though.
You were talking about this “comatose” feeling before. There are plenty of people walking around on anti-depressants and anti-psychotics that are virtually comatose, like zombies.
No, no, no. I didn’t say that. I said morphine, Oxycontin, all of those drugs, what they do is they have a sedative effect on people robbing them of whatever quality of life they have. So if you’re in so much pain physically that the only thing that you can take that helps alleviate that pain also renders you in a sedative state. What quality of life are you getting from that? What type of life can you have? Right now, that’s the only thing that’s available.
Who is ultimately making these distinctions? Is it the legislature? The doctor and the patient?
It’s a combination.
But physical is okay, psychological is not?
We’ve had consultations with doctors, with pain management specialists, looking at what’s been done in other states…
Basically, this is the early stage and those are practical matters to be dealt with?
What would be your pick from the future, friendly neighborhood dispensary? Blunt, bong, bowl or brownie?
Me? I’d probably want a brownie.