Medical Marijuana and Why Governor Cuomo Can't Take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

by Abdullah (T. Kid) Saeed
(Photo by Carly Otness/BFAnyc.com)

The sopping wet army of ALS Ice Bucket challengers now includes 26 governors among its ranks, but one state head can't join them in good conscience. New York's Andrew Cuomo received the challenge from his Republican gubernatorial opponent Rob Astorino weeks ago, and Cuomo has yet to undergo the chill and pass it along. Perhaps he anticipates getting flack for the hypocrisy of standing against ALS via viral video while allowing his constituents who suffer from the disease to progress without a medicine that could be critical to extending their survival.

ALS -- also known as Lou Gehrig's disease -- is a degenerative nerve disease that strikes at random and kills the sufferer in two to five years of onset. There is no treatment and no cure. In recent years, the neuroprotective qualities of medical cannabis have been shown to slow the onset of ALS in lab mice, prolonging lifespan and the number of quality years before terminal degeneration. Pending further research on human specimens, cannabis could mean salvation for 30,000 Americans suffering from ALS. Those who live in one of the 23 states (and DC) that have medical marijuana will be able to get their hands on it, unless that state is New York. Governor Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act (CCA) -- a medical marijuana bill -- into law this past June but the state's dispensary system won't be up and running for another 17 months (18 months from the time the bill was signed into law). That means that a lot more people will die of cannabis-treatable diseases while living in a state with legal medical cannabis.

Before those 17 months are up, Cuomo could take a few actions that would ensure emergency access to marijuana for patients of ALS, severe seizure disorders, cancer and every other life-threatening disease included in the law. According to Gabriel Sayegh, State Director of New York for the Drug Policy Alliance, there are three ways in which he can do it.

1. Declare a public health emergency through the New York Department of Health and expedite the dispensary implementation process for at least a couple of medical marijuana producers in the state. It might be a bit of a drive for some of the patients, but at least critically ill New Yorkers would have access within their state.

2. Expand the pharmaceutical trials for Epidiolex, an epilepsy drug containing the marijuana-derived compound, CBD. This wouldn't benefit those with ALS, who require THC, but it would expand access for those with chronic seizure disorders, many of whom are young children. Cuomo has requested that the New York Department of Health expedite the process specifically for these cases, but nothing has come of it yet.

3. Ship weed in from other states. Obtain a federal waiver for the interstate transfer of cannabis from a nearby state like New Jersey or Rhode Island. This would require bypassing the provision in CCA that says New York medical marijuana patients must consume cannabis produced within the state's borders.

Each of the options has its own challenges, but they are realistic. "This may not be possible politically," Sayegh says, "But in the world of hypotheticals, and if there was enough political will, it certainly could be done, as complicated as it is."

So what's stopping him? It's unclear whether or not Cuomo will pursue any of these options at all. By all accounts, he seems to hate the idea of legalizing marijuana in any form. His involvement in the passage of the CCA was begrudging at best. He only hinted at his purported open-mindedness on this issue last year, as New Yorkers made it clear that they want medical marijuana in their state.

Despite the widespread support, the CCA failed in 2013, but Cuomo sensed the shift in opinion. Clinging to a conservative stance on marijuana would no longer fly in New York, so his administration came up with a way to derail any real medical marijuana legislation and simultaneously appear supportive of it -- a strategic half-step. It totally didn't work. Marijuana advocates lambasted him over his executive order for extremely limited medical marijuana with 20 access locations for the state's nearly 20 million people.

In the summer of 2014, when it was imminent that some form of a medical marijuana law would pass the state legislature and cross his desk, Cuomo began stripping the law of the essential tenets that made him uncomfortable. In addition to scaling back dispensary locations to the 20 statewide that he originally wanted, he also managed to restrict the disease list, and ban smoking marijuana altogether. These are not the actions of someone who wants his constituents to benefit from a newly discovered medicine. They are the attempts of a politician to remain on what he perceives to be the right side of history. That must be it, because if his re-election strategy is to oppose something that 83% of the state supports, then someone on his campaign staff should get fired.

Whatever Cuomo's hang-ups about marijuana are, they're preventing him from rolling with the tide on the issue, and it's revealing his squareness. Plenty of governors oppose legalization, including Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who signed the recreational marijuana bill in his state not because he supported it but because that's what the people wanted. We don't have the benefit of voter initiatives in New York, so we're stuck relying on a total weed hater to make it happen. As modernity drags him kicking and screaming into the uncharted realm of weed, it seems highly unlikely that Cuomo will do anything to expedite the process of medical marijuana implementation in his state.

It's a bummer for the governor, because there is no way he can do the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge without looking like an asshole. But honestly, New Yorkers with ALS depending on medical marijuana don't need that kind of gesture of support from Cuomo when a few strokes of his pen could do so much more.

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