“‘On many issues, hopefully, you learn, you study, you evolve.”
Eliot Spitzer, June 12, 2007
When New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer was campaigning to become governor in the summer of 2006, he expressed opposition to a bill being considered by the legislature that would legalize -somewhat- the medical use of marijuana. Backers of the bill thought they had lined up Spitzer’s support and were dismayed. As explained by New York Magazine, Aug. 6:
“In his July debate with Tom Suozzi, Spitzer, apparently eager to disagree with his opponent during the ‘lightning round,’ shocked members of his own staff by saying he was against using marijuana for medical purposes Perhaps the most stunned were activists at the Marijuana Policy Project. Their lobbyist, Vince Marrone, had been in discussions with Spitzer’s campaign staff before the debate and was under the impression Spitzer was all aboard the ganja (for-medical-purposes-only) train. In an e-mail to supporters afterward, Marrone placed the blame on Spitzer’s senior policy director, Paul Francis, who he says copped to not preparing Spitzer properly. A Spitzer spokeswoman says the candidate’s not ‘ideologically opposed, but scientifically opposed’ to medical marijuana use because his brother, a neurosurgeon, has told him other drugs work better. Spitzer is open to analyzing the issue further though, she said.”
It was shrewd of MPP at this juncture to promote a meeting between Spitzer and Donald Abrams, MD, and Irvin Rosenfeld -two people who could speak knowledgably and authoritatively about the medical use of cannabis. Abrams, an oncologist, AIDS specialist, and professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, has conducted federally-approved studies establishing the safety and efficacy of cannabis, and published his findings in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals. He has standing within the medical establishment. Rosenfeld, a Fort Lauderdale stockbroker, leads a full, active life at 55 although he has a rare, often-fatal condition involving multiple bone tumors. Rosenfeld regularly receives a canister of cannabis cigarettes grown and processed by the U.S. government under the “Compassionate Investigational New Drug” program begun in the Carter era (and closed to new applicants by George H.W. Bush in 1992).
“I saw Spitzer’s abrasive manner right away” says Rosenfeld, who recalls the encounter in his forthcoming autobiography, Pot Luck. “His first comment was ‘Everyone knows that marijuana is not a medicine.’ It actually sounded stupid. I knew I didn’t have to respond because Donald Abrams was there and that question was his lead-in to explain who he was, and what he had done. Donald talked about his studies and how difficult it had been to get government approval. He talked about his AIDS and cancer patients and said that many people are helped by cannabis who don’t respond well to anything else.
“At one point Spitzer said, ‘Well it doesn’t cure anybody of anything.’ And that was my opening to say, ‘Well, sir, in reality it has.’ And then I told him who I was and I explained what I use it for and that nothing else worked and how the tumors I had should rightly be growing but they hadn’t for 32 years. And I showed him my tin can and explained the whole procedure by which the government supplied me. Since federal money pays for the program, I thanked him for the share he had contributed as a taxpayer. That got a little smile.
“He was totally shocked. He had no idea that the federal government was doing this. I explained how the federal program had been shut down in ’92 by George Bush senior and that nobody else had any hope of becoming a federal patient. I said, ‘I believe that there should be federal legislation, but until that happens the states are trying to take the crime away from individual citizens by changing state law. And that’s why we’re here.’
“He understood, but I had the feeing that we still hadn’t really gotten through to him. So, I tried putting it like this: ‘You know, Mr. Attorney General, New York State doesn’t have to pass this law. They really don’t need to. Because people are doing it anyway. The only advantage of passing this law is that now New York State won’t have to waste its money prosecuting patients.” And that got through to him a little bit. He nodded as if to say, ‘That’s right, people are doing it anyway.'”
“After Dr. Abrams said what he had to say and I said what I had to say, Spitzer asked Vince Marrone, ‘What does the bill entail?’ Marrone started talking about the bill and I realized how much weaker it had become since I testified before the New York State legislature in 2002. I looked at Donald like ‘What are we doing here in support of this ——- bill?” When we walked out I turned to Vince and said, ‘Vince, what happened to the bill?’ And he said, ‘Well, this was the best we could do to get something passed.'”
In June, 2007, the Democratic-led New York State assembly passed a very restrictive bill that would allow doctors to authorize use of marijuana by their regular patients who suffered from certain life-threatening illnesses (to be specified by the state health commissioner) if they had tried all conventional alternatives without success. Eligible patients would be allowed to grow their own, but those who couldn’t were expected, implicitly, to obtain marijuana on the black market.
For all its restrictions, New York’s medical marijuana bill as passed by the assembly was seen by its backers as a major victory and the media defined it as legalization. Witness this headline in the New York Sun, June 13: “Spitzer is Open to New York Legalizing Medicinal Marijuana.” The Sun story began, “Governor Spitzer said yesterday that his opposition to legalizing medical marijuana has ‘evolved’ and that he would consider supporting legislation allowing sick people to use the drug… Spitzer said, ‘We’ve taken a hard look at it over the past number of months, and I’m open to signing a bill that is properly structured for appropriate use based upon the evidence that has been presented to me.'”
According to the most-thorough-by-far story June 13 by Tom Precious of the Buffalo News, “Gov. Eliot Spitzer, in a reversal of a campaign position, said Tuesday he could support legislation legalizing the use of marijuana for certain medical purposes In a debate last summer, Spitzer said he opposed medical marijuana. Now he said he is ‘open’ to the idea after being swayed by advocates ‘On many issues, hopefully, you learn, you study, you evolve. This is one where I had, as a prosecutor, a presumption against the use of any narcotic which wasn’t designed purely for medicinal and medical effect. And now there are ways that persuaded me that it can be done properly,’ the governor told reporters.”
In the first draft of Pot Luck, Irv Rosenfeld described his reaction to learning about Spitzer’s change of heart: “When I heard that Spitzer had told people that he had met with two of the experts in the country on medical cannabis and they had educated him on the subject, it made me dance for joy. I hope he remembers when he runs for President.”
But now how the mighty are fallen.
FRED GARDNER edits O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at email@example.com.