A Judge’s Plea for Pot

Op-Ed Contributor

A Judge’s Plea for Pot


Published: May 16, 2012

THREE and a half years ago, on my 62nd birthday, doctors discovered a mass on my pancreas. It turned out to be Stage 3 pancreatic cancer. I was told I would be dead in four to six months. Today I am in that rare coterie of people who have survived this long with the disease. But I did not foresee that after having dedicated myself for 40 years to a life of the law, including more than two decades as a New York State judge, my quest for ameliorative and palliative care would lead me to marijuana.

New York Times-Kristian Hammerstad

My survival has demanded an enormous price, including months of chemotherapy, radiation hell and brutal surgery. For about a year, my cancer disappeared, only to return. About a month ago, I started a new and even more debilitating course of treatment. Every other week, after receiving an IV booster of chemotherapy drugs that takes three hours, I wear a pump that slowly injects more of the drugs over the next 48 hours.

Nausea and pain are constant companions. One struggles to eat enough to stave off the dramatic weight loss that is part of this disease. Eating, one of the great pleasures of life, has now become a daily battle, with each forkful a small victory. Every drug prescribed to treat one problem leads to one or two more drugs to offset its side effects. Pain medication leads to loss of appetite and constipation. Anti-nausea medication raises glucose levels, a serious problem for me with my pancreas so compromised. Sleep, which might bring respite from the miseries of the day, becomes increasingly elusive.

Inhaled marijuana is the only medicine that gives me some relief from nausea, stimulates my appetite, and makes it easier to fall asleep. The oral synthetic substitute, Marinol, prescribed by my doctors, was useless. Rather than watch the agony of my suffering, friends have chosen, at some personal risk, to provide the substance. I find a few puffs of marijuana before dinner gives me ammunition in the battle to eat. A few more puffs at bedtime permits desperately needed sleep.

This is not a law-and-order issue; it is a medical and a human rights issue. Being treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, I am receiving the absolute gold standard of medical care. But doctors cannot be expected to do what the law prohibits, even when they know it is in the best interests of their patients. When palliative care is understood as a fundamental human and medical right, marijuana for medical use should be beyond controversy.

Sixteen states already permit the legitimate clinical use of marijuana, including our neighbor New Jersey, and Connecticut is on the cusp of becoming No. 17. The New York State Legislature is now debating a bill to recognize marijuana as an effective and legitimate medicinal substance and establish a lawful framework for its use. The Assembly has passed such bills before, but they went nowhere in the State Senate. This year I hope that the outcome will be different. Cancer is a nonpartisan disease, so ubiquitous that it’s impossible to imagine that there are legislators whose families have not also been touched by this scourge. It is to help all who have been affected by cancer, and those who will come after, that I now speak.

Given my position as a sitting judge still hearing cases, well-meaning friends question the wisdom of my coming out on this issue. But I recognize that fellow cancer sufferers may be unable, for a host of reasons, to give voice to our plight. It is another heartbreaking aporia in the world of cancer that the one drug that gives relief without deleterious side effects remains classified as a narcotic with no medicinal value.

Because criminalizing an effective medical technique affects the fair administration of justice, I feel obliged to speak out as both a judge and a cancer patient suffering with a fatal disease. I implore the governor and the Legislature of New York, always considered a leader among states, to join the forward and humane thinking of 16 other states and pass the medical marijuana bill this year. Medical science has not yet found a cure, but it is barbaric to deny us access to one substance that has proved to ameliorate our suffering.

Gustin L. Reichbach is a justice of the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn.

6 Replies to “A Judge’s Plea for Pot”

  1. Recent related article of interest:

    Palo Alto City Council opposes measure to permit medical marijuana dispensaries

    By Jason Green

    Daily News Staff Writer
    Posted: 09/13/2012 07:21:19 AM PDT
    Updated: 09/13/2012 09:58:51 AM PDT

    The Palo Alto City Council established its opposition this week to a controversial November ballot measure that aims to make it legal for medical marijuana dispensaries to operate in the city.

    Council members unanimously voted late Monday night to pass a resolution opposing Measure C.

    If passed by a majority of voters on Nov. 6, the measure would roll back a 1996 city ban on medical marijuana dispensaries and allow as many as three to set up shop. A tax of 4 cents per dollar would also be imposed on all gross receipts.

    Mayor Yiaway Yeh, Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and Council Member Larry Klein raised the idea for the resolution in a colleagues’ memo. They argued Measure C would open the door to increased criminal activity as well as send the wrong message to children that the drug is harmless and even beneficial.

    “This is not a benign thing just to help people who have pain problems,” Klein told his colleagues Monday night. “This is really a subterfuge that I think we do not want in Palo Alto.”

    Scharff said there is precedent to maintain the status quo. Redwood City recently voted to ban medical marijuana dispensaries and many other Peninsula cities, including Mountain View and Menlo Park, have outlawed them.

    For his part, Yeh said he signed onto the colleagues’ memo because there is no easy way for a police officer in the field to tell whether a person is driving with too much marijuana in his or her system.

    “I would think even the proponents of this measure acknowledge this area of enforcement remains a challenge,” Yeh said. “The risk to the public as a result of uncertain and inefficient enforcement and testing mechanisms really then creates a context where I’m not able to support medical marijuana dispensaries here in Palo Alto.”

    Other council members expressed support for the resolution, but several said they didn’t entirely share the viewpoint that medical marijuana represents a categorical public health threat.

    “I do think there has been, to date, a pattern of abuse of the Prop 215 regulations,” said Council Member Pat Burt, referring to the Compassionate Use Act passed by state voters in 1996. “That’s the reason I’m going to support this colleagues’ memo, but I don’t ascribe myself with … what I believe are excessive comments.”

    Retired public defender Aram James urged the city council not to take a stand against the measure.

    “We need to have medicinal marijuana available for those folks that medically need it,” James said. “We need to regulate it and if we have criminal activity that is generated in the city of Palo Alto, then we prosecute that activity. But we don’t use a pretext of keeping medicinal marijuana dispensaries out for all the wrong reasons, which you’ve laid out.”

    The two Palo Altans behind Measure C, Thomas and Cassandra Moore, maintain it will make the city a better place to live. In a ballot measure argument, they pointed out that voters in Palo Alto passed Proposition 215 by a 3-to-1 margin.

    “As longtime residents of Palo Alto, we believe in the character of our community,” the Moores wrote. “This measure will strengthen that character by providing medicine to our terminally ill neighbors, generating revenue for city services, and protecting our neighborhoods.”

  2. Thanks, Aram. This is very timely.

    In a Jason Green story posted 9/13/12


    I read that the Palo Alto City Council Dinosaurs Subcommittee of Very Old Fashioned, Out of Date, Yet Not Very Conservative, Thinking and Even More Counterproductive Policy (Yeh, Klein, and Scharf)were able to get the rest of the Council members to sign on to their classic renunciation of the November pro pot club proposition.

    Even those opposed to their denunciation and demonization of weed signed on to it. Just shows you the power of fear in politics. As if the Republican presidential campaign didn’t have enough.

    All those who opposed the pro pot shop proposition–as well as those who opposed the opposition but signed on anyway–are heartily and strongly invited to read this and re-examine their thinking.

    Yes, people USED to believe the things that Klein, Yeh, Scahrf and even the medical marijuana “advocates” at the meeting said. In fact, if you want the message in its most dramatic (and ridiculous) form, see the classic scare tactic film REEFER MADNESS. It is quite funny to see the things used to believe about pot.

    But those things are not true. They were part of a very huge propaganda war prosecuted by some pretty powerful, rich, and motivated folks:

    1) William Randolph Hearst, who sold scandal and salacious stories in his newspapers which he printed on paper from his huge forests. Hemp had been the primary paper for milennia. But Hearst was heavily invested in forests. His newspapers printed stories like the ones the anti-pot shop lobby told at the Monday night Council meeting.

    2) The Oil Industry. Henry Ford had invented the first Model T to run on hemp seed oil (today we call this biodiesel) and made the body out of a hemp-based plastic. If we’d followed Henry’s lead we wouldn’t be trading lives for oil in Iraq and trying to figure out what to do about the huge continents of plastic bags floating in our oceans.

    3) Harry J. Anslinger wanted to be a crime pimp like J. Edgar Hoover, got anti pot laws passed in enough states to get the National Marijuana Stamp Act of 1937 passed and a job for himself as the first anti weed czar. He used the same stories, fears, and myths used by the anti pot shop folks Monday night.

    Together these and other interests (see below) succeeded in selling an image of marijuana as a dangerous, sinister, and addictive drug.

    Here are some observations you might reconsider in your thoughts on the position you’ve taken, Members of the City Council and voting citizens.


    1) It’s not addictive.

    2) It is far more likely to induce laughter, sleep, or satiety than anger, violence, or a need for more–unlike the legal but far more lethal drug alcohol.

    3) Marijuana is no more a “gateway drug” than milk. Actually, intelligent abusers of dangerous drugs use marijuana as a gateway OUT. They find that they can use marijuana as a substitute for the other, more serious, truly dangerous drugs they are trying to avoid: alcohol, crack, meth, prescribed pills, and heroin.

    4) It IS a valuable and healing medicine. I hope this poor, now-deceased judge’s story gets read and considered. It is true for many people in many states. In fact, a cannabis activist called New York’s current laws “murder.” He said this not only to get your attention, but because there ARE people who suffer life threatening ailments that marijuana can and does cure. They are denied their cures by current law in New York State.

    The judge said marijuana wasn’t a cure–only an aid to deal with symptom relief. In fact, it is now known to CURE cancer. And reverse the course of MS and other serious diseases (chronic pain, Chrone’s disease, Fibromyalgia, neuropathy, etc.)

    Marijuana cuts off the blood supply to cancerous tumors, yet leaves others alone. Medical science has been trying to do this for years. It’s called anti-angiogenesis and marijuana does it automatically. It also is anti-metastatic–it keeps cancer from spreading.

    Go to the canorml.org site


    and look at California NORML’s pamphlet on the uses of medical marijuana. You will be educated and amazed.

    5) ANTI-POT LAWS ARE ALL ABOUT RACE. One of the selling points of anti-marijuana laws was that they would help control Hispanics, Cubans, Italians, radicals, and blacks in such hotbeds of cultural ferment as New Orleans. Now the great majority of the black and brown victims of America’s prison industrial complex are incarcerated because they were pressured to plead guilty to victimless drug charges so as to avoid being charged with even more serious crimes of which they are not guilty either.

    6) THERE IS REALLY NOTHING WRONG WITH MARIJUANA. Mayor Laguardia of New York in 1940 and President Nixon in 1970 convened commissions to study marijuana. Both found that the only real problem with marijuana were the laws that vainly tried to prohibit it.

    I’m sure the members of the City Council who expressed their fears were well-intentioned. But they are misinformed. Even those who use medical marijuana as a “cover” for what they think of as recreational use may not realize it, but they are using marijuana to calm their anxiety, relieve their depression, get to sleep, help their blood to be oxygenated, etc. They are using it medically, even if they don’t realize it.

    Let’s keep things in perspective. The far bigger problem in this country is the abuse of prescription pills from family medicine cabinets.

    No “overdose level” has been found for humans using marijuana. No one has ever died from marijuana abuse.

    The abuse of prescription medicine is evident in arrest records, hospital admissions, medical records, and in most magazines and newspapers.

    Let marijuana do the job people have been relying on it for thousands of years–heal the body and the mind.


    -Reap the savings we waste every year on the never-ending, never-victorious War on Drugs.

    -Collect the taxes on dispensaries. Marijuana is our biggest cash crop–in this state and in this country.

    How long can we afford to ignore that rightful tax income?

    How long can we continue to deny the sick this safe, effective medicine?

    There is a history of marijuana’s use as a valuable medicine that goes back over 25,000 years. The history of making it illegal goes back 75 years. With your vote you can endorse the 25,000 trend line (a truly conservative position) or go with the (far more radical) 75 year diversion.

    When all this is viewed from an enlightened future, the 75 year anomaly won’t even even be visible.

    Chuck Jagoda

  3. Hi folks:

    My brother Tim, the real lawyer in the family–see his note below, brought the following, very compelling letter (Op-Ed)– from the New York Times, on the topic of medical marijuana, to my attention, I hope you will consider reading it.


    Have you seen the New York Time Op-Ed article by Gus Reichbach, then a Brooklyn judge and now deceased, about the importance of medical marijuana to him and others similarly situated (and confessing that he had been using it, although such use was not legal), which appeared earlier this year? If not, you can probably find it somewhere on the internet.

    Tim James
    Cohen Rabin Stine Schumann LLP
    7 Times Square, 38th Floor
    New York, NY 10036
    Dir. Dial: (212) 512-0829
    Fax: (212) 202-6100
    E-Mail: TJames@crsslaw.com

  4. I have to Agree. There is an ever-growing ailing population that would benefit from marijuana for medical use, to minimize and counter the effects of chemical medical treatments.

    Life ending, lingering incurable conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease, lupus and so many rheumatic diseases, lest we not forget all the countless invasive cancer treatments that render a body incapacitated, dehydrating and wasting to the stifling and otherwise routine intake/expel bodily functions.

    Symptoms like nausea so intense it will cause a body to shake uncontrollably when the body has nothing left to excrete or vomit for relief.

    Some day we will all muse at this pathetic war over the humanistic use of marijuana to minimize end-of-life suffering, or facilitate quality of life with ability to maintain simple bodily functions post medical interventions and treatments for cancers and other severe life threatening diseases.

    When the majority of the population cannot afford healthcare, insurance won’t pay enough for medical services, the aging population explodes; unless you are extremely wealthy or powerful; patients with terminal or challenging illnesses will not receive medical care, patients will be put on morphine drips to expedite death vs. medical care to prolong life in any way.

    Very sad to see such ignorant opposition against what amounts to simple relief of suffering for so many people whose greatest pleasure in their life is NOT vomiting or shaking, being able to eat, sleep or go to the bathroom. Lack of compassion, short sightedness, and lack of sufficient medical information seems to abound in the otherwise dynamic and progressive Palo Alto.

  5. The Council’s declaration of opposition constitutes a bullying of the electorate, and a lack of respect for the voters.

    The issue has been slated for the ballot, and the Council members should declare their support for whatever the voters decide, and then be prepared to implement rules and solutions for local delivery that set the gold standard for public safety and protection from abuse.

    The fears expressed are a declaration of simply not wanting to do the work required to provide a regulated environment where a very compasionate service is provided, should the voters approve the measure.

    This fear-mongering action by the Council is a simple distraction from the real issues of infrastructure deficits and neighborhood-destroying growth that sneaks through the guise of Planned Community Zoning.

    We must stay on task and provide world-class services that support the will of the voters.

    In full disclosure, I am a candidate for Palo Alto City Council. http://www.VOTE4Gray.com.

    Timothy Gray

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