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By Julie Netherland

It’s time to set the record straight about marijuana policy in New York. The May 5 article “Look before you leap,” by Dr. Robert Whitney, is both inaccurate and misleading. New Yorkers have had a hard and decades-long look at our marijuana policies, and they understand how much destruction they have caused – criminalizing seriously ill New Yorkers, saddling tens of thousands of young people with criminal records each year and creating reprehensible racial disparities.

Under our current policies, thousands of New Yorkers living with cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening conditions must break the law or needlessly suffer, despite the fact that there is good scientific evidence to support the health benefits of medical marijuana for a range of serious conditions. In addition to at least 110 controlled clinical studies, including randomized controlled trials meeting the “gold standard” of scientific evidence, looking at cannabis or other cannabinoids, in 1999, the congressionally chartered Institute of Medicine conducted the most extensive review of the medical literature on marijuana to date. It concluded that “[t]he accumulated data indicate a potential therapeutic value for cannabinoid drugs, particularly for symptoms such as pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation.”

And, compared to many other medications, marijuana is relatively safe. According to the IOM, the “adverse effects of marijuana use are within the range of effects tolerated for other medications.”

Sick people are not the only ones harmed by our current policies. More than 600,000 New Yorkers – predominantly young people – have been arrested for marijuana possession over the last 15 years. This is despite the fact New York decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977.

What’s worse is that our current policies are deepening racial disparities. Nearly 85 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession are black and Latino, mostly young men, even though government data shows that young whites use marijuana at higher rates.

Given the immense and needless harm caused by our current marijuana policies, it’s no wonder that communities across New York, along with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and law enforcement officials across the state have called on the Legislature to fix the law. It’s why 18 states have moved to allow sick people to use medical marijuana. It’s why the people of Colorado and Washington voted to tax and regulate marijuana. We know the societal harms of our current policies – criminalizing the sick, burdening young people with criminal records, wasting scarce public resources and deepening racial disparities. We’ve looked long enough; now we need reform.

Julie Netherland, Ph.D., is deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.