By Larry Gordon
A news item last week in the Israeli press discussed the matter of whether people who smoke marijuana—for either medical or recreational purposes—can partake of that plant if it is grown in Israel during the Shemittah year. The response in a nutshell was that for medical purposes it was permitted, but that for other purposes it is prohibited—and not just during Shemittah, the rabbis issuing the ruling said, but anytime and anywhere.
That this ruling was issued was really not the news of the day. The news was that the question had been asked in a serious vein. Today, for alleviating pain in patients and for purposes of relief of various maladies, marijuana can legally be prescribed by medical practitioners, to some extent, in 21 states in the U.S.
The catalyst for this essay is not Shemittah, though, but rather a matter that was brought to my attention last week by local Five Towns school board member Dr. Asher Mansdorf, who has demonstrated a keen interest over the years in all the needs of district children.
Though the debate and battle to decriminalize and to an extent legalize the use of marijuana has been going on for decades, the focus has been largely on the recreational use of a derivative of the plant rather than the fashion in which it can actually minimize pain and relieve symptoms in some desperately ill people.
The issue can be viewed from numerous perspectives. There is, of course, the medical aspect; the matter of simply getting high, which is what it is most commonly known to be used or abused for; the political aspect; and also the halachic dimension of marijuana use.
For Missy Miller of Long Beach and Josh Fyman of West Hempstead, they are just trying to get it legalized in New York in the hope of saving their children’s lives. Ms. Miller’s son, Oliver, 14, suffers from a rare form of epilepsy that has him experiencing anywhere from five to twenty seizures every day. When the Millers have traveled to states where the medical use of marijuana is legal, places like Connecticut, California, and New Jersey, the number of seizures Oliver experiences on many of those days is zero.
For Josh Fyman of West Hempstead, the story is a little different. His 3-year-old daughter Penny was born without the corpus callosum, which, in lay terms, is the membrane that separates the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Aside from being developmentally disabled, not being able to sit or crawl yet, Penny has symptoms similar to a form of epilepsy and also experiences anywhere from three to a dozen seizures a day. Unlike Oliver Miller’s parents, the Fymans have not yet tried the medical marijuana application but are on a waiting list at NYU Medical Center to be entered into an experimental program to see what kind of relief it can bring Penny.
For now, here in New York, legislation to enable those suffering from these and an assortment of other maladies like cancer and Parkinson’s disease is bottled up in the New York State Senate where the majority leader, Dean Skelos, has not as yet allowed the law to come up for a vote. The bill to make marijuana available to these or other patients already passed in the Assembly but requires passage in the Senate in order for it to become enacted into law.
According to Missy Miller, who attended a hearing in Albany last week before the Health Committee, the law and legal relief for her son and others is bogged down in political debate. “My son can die from these seizures and they are playing politics,” Ms. Miller said. When I spoke with Ms. Miller last week she was particularly indignant about a “no” vote by Health Committee member Simcha Felder of Brooklyn. Felder, a Democrat who caucuses with and thinks very often like a Republican, told me that he voted against the committee resolution on the bill because he had concerns but knew that the committee had the votes to pass it without his vote.
“There are many issues and problems with the way this bill is constructed,” said Felder in a phone call from his Albany office. The senator believes that the bill in its current form is way too vulnerable to being abused and therefore, he feels, needs changes before the Senate votes on it. Missy Miller insists that her information is that a majority of senators are ready to pass the bill tomorrow but that Senator Skelos is holding it up for political reasons.
Felder says that amongst the problems he sees attached to the current bill is too much decriminalization of marijuana use. He says that the current bill calls for street sales of less than 2.5 ounces marijuana not to be prosecuted. He says the bill leaves too many things wide open and that while he favors the application of marijuana for medical relief for those in need, there are at present not enough conditions or restrictions attached to the legislation.
So now those in need wait for the elected officials to work out their differences while these two children and many others continue to needlessly suffer. As to the risks involved in allowing marijuana out there into the realm of medicine, most of the physicians we spoke with were in favor as long as it was administered properly and closely overseen by appropriate government agencies.
Dr. Michael Chesner, a cardiologist and general medical practitioner in Long Beach, says that he sees many benefits for patients in pain or suffering seizures by allowing cannabis—marijuana—to be carefully dispensed. As for the dangers involved and the possible addiction attached to marijuana use, Dr. Chesner says that there are over 100,000 deaths in the U.S. as a result of misuse of prescription medications. As far as he knows, he said, there were no deaths associated with overuse of marijuana. “It seems that this is a case where the benefits far outweigh the dangers,” he said.
Dr. Allen Bennett, an oncologist associated with Beth Israel/Mount Sinai Hospital, said that he was authorized as part of a government experimental program to dispense cannabis through prescription over 25 years ago. “The use of marijuana for cancer patients was shown to reduce nausea and vomiting,” Dr. Bennett said, “but only in patients who had a history of previously using the drug.”
Dr. Bennett insists that studies have shown that marijuana use leads to the use of other more damaging and dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine. He says that smoking marijuana causes memory loss as well as chromosomal damage. (He adds that alcohol and cigarettes are dangerous too.)
Dr. Leon Zacharowicz, a pediatric neurologist, says that he is very much in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. “I’ve seen it work in anorexic patients in terms of stimulating their appetites,” he says. On the matter of seizures, Dr. Zacharowicz says, “I’d be surprised if it really helps to suppress seizures, however, and would caution against raising false expectations.”
In Israel, Dr. Bernie Kastner, an occasional contributor to the 5TJT, says there is legislation pending to legalize medical marijuana. Dr. Kastner, a psychologist, adds that in the meantime, special permission has been granted to administer it to those suffering with cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and various internal afflictions. He says that more recently there has been an increase in requests from combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their military service.
Last week, Missy Miller took 14-year-old Oliver to Albany so that the legislators could see with their own eyes what her son is dealing with on a day-to-day basis. She says that she could not believe that some of the senators voted no on the Health Committee legislation after seeing Oliver suffer a seizure right in front of them.
In a piece written earlier this year on the halachic implication of marijuana use (see 5TJT.com), Rabbi Yair Hoffman wrote that Rav Moshe Feinstein did not approve of its recreational use because it could impair judgment and impact adversely on an individual’s davening and Torah learning. Dr. Bennett pointed out that Rav Moshe once ruled that smoking was okay until he learned of the adverse effects it can have on a smoker’s health.
It is a difficult situation for a parent who has seen his or her child experience vast improvement when taking cannabis, knowing that it has helped and is helping others, but dealing with the frustration of the law standing in their way here in New York. We reached out to Senator Skelos’s office but had not received a return call by deadline time. We hope that the delay is about strengthening the law, as Senator Felder indicated, and not about partisan politics or elections. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at email@example.com.