Wendy Conte thinks she has found something that could enable her daughter, Anna, to live without a tube constantly feeding drugs into her belly in hopes of staving off the severe seizures that have plagued her nearly the entire 8½ years of her life.
The solution that the Orchard Park mom points to is medical marijuana. Conte is among a growing number of people advocating for the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to legalize its use in New York.
Others, like Sydney Drowning, fear that legalizing medical marijuana would open the door to more rampant drug abuse by legalizing a form of what is considered by many to be a “gateway” drug.
Drowning began smoking marijuana when she was 16. Two years later, she was shooting heroin into her neck. Too many people have followed a similar path, said Drowning, who spent 4½ months in treatment during her senior year at Frontier High School.
Conte and Drowning represent two sides in a debate over medical marijuana that will take center stage in Buffalo at 10 a.m. Thursday, when an Assembly committee holds a public hearing in Common Council Chambers at City Hall to gather public input about proposed legislation to legalize it.
The legislation would allow people with serious medical conditions to use medical marijuana under the supervision of a health care professional. The bill would apply to those suffering from “severely debilitating or life-threatening conditions” that include but are not limited to diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, arthritis and about a dozen other conditions.
The process that’s outlined in the bill would include significant regulation over the dispensing and use of medical marijuana. Patients would be allowed to have and use up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, but not in public. Dispensaries would be taxed $250 per pound of medical marijuana, with half of the tax revenue going to the local county.
State Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, is among the state legislators who do not support legalization.
“There’s still not a reputable medical organization like the American Medical Association that has put their seal of approval on it,” he said. “And I look at all the data that’s out there about marijuana being a gateway drug, and you see all the problems in society we have resulting from drug abuse.”
Drowning, the Frontier graduate, is now 20 and has been free of drugs for more than a year and a half.
She spent most of her childhood living overseas, in places like Trinidad, India and Malaysia. She never used drugs until she moved back to the United States at 16.
“At first, I smoked pot every weekend,” she said. “Then slowly it progressed to every couple days before school. And then it wasn’t enough, so I had to try something else.”
First, she tried psychedelic drugs like acid and mushrooms. Eventually, she moved on to Loritabs, heroin and crack. She believes legalizing medical marijuana would open the door to much larger drug problems for many people.
“People don’t just stick to the same thing,” Drowning said.
The effort to legalize medical marijuana is hardly new in New York State – in fact, it was first proposed more than a decade ago. The Assembly has approved it more than once, but it has never come to a vote in the Senate.
A major stumbling block has been the Conservative Party’s opposition. Senate Republicans who support legalization may be reluctant to vote in favor of it, for fear of losing what can sometimes be a crucial third-party endorsement.
The governor has advocated for decriminalizing marijuana possession. But when it comes to medical marijuana, Cuomo has said he does not support legalization, though he has tempered that by saying, “I have an open mind.”
With 2014 being an election year for the governor as well as senators, legalization might seem unlikely.
But supporters of legalizing medical marijuana point to a handful of factors that gives them hope that the political landscape will be different this time around.
This version of the legislation includes some modifications that supporters believe will make it more palatable, such as stricter reporting requirements that would enable the state to keep closer tabs on doctors’ prescriptions.
Beyond that, public opinion in New York is tilting strongly in favor of legalization. Two polls this year, one by the Siena Research Institute and one by Quinnipiac, found that at least 70 percent of people in New York State support the medical use of marijuana.
What supporters say may be more likely to influence legislative votes, though, is a poll commissioned by the Republicans in April, surveying voters in every Senate district in the state with a Republican incumbent. The poll found that 76 percent of people in those districts support the medical use of marijuana if recommended by a doctor.
Added to the mix is the fact sick children have become a focal point of the debate – a development that some believe may make legislators more sympathetic.
That began in August, when CNN aired a documentary by Dr. Sanjay Gupta that included footage of Charlotte Figi, a girl in Colorado with Dravet syndrome, the same severe form of epilepsy that Orchard Park’s Anna Conte has. At age 5, Charlotte was having as many as 300 seizures a week.
Her parents decided to try medical marijuana, which is legal in Colorado and 19 other states. She became the youngest patient in Colorado to use it. Today, at age 6, Charlotte has only two or three seizures a month, now that she takes doses of cannabis oil in her food twice a day.
Since the CNN documentary aired, parents of children with Dravet syndrome across the country – including in New York – have mobilized to become vocal advocates of legalization.
From the time she was 2 months old, Anna Conte has suffered epileptic seizures on a scale most people can’t fathom. Her seizures can last as long as three hours, and they have landed her in the hospital 70 times, her mother said.
Anna is on an intense drug regimen that includes several medications, including barbiturates and benzodiazepines, fed into her stomach through a tube throughout the day. A nurse accompanies her 16 hours a day.
After seeing Gupta’s documentary this summer, Wendy Conte decided to start researching medical marijuana. She quickly became a staunch supporter of legalization.
“It is a medication that has proved to be a wonder for these kids,” said Conte, who will speak at Thursday’s hearing. “These children have been able to get off all these toxic medications and have a good quality of life.”