Jonathan Kay: How a cancer-stricken judge became America’s newest drug-reform warrior
Jonathan Kay May 18, 2012 – 12:37 PM ET | Last Updated: May 19, 2012 2:03 PM ET
Rick Bowmer/AP Photo
“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.”
So begins a remarkable article that appeared this week on the op-ed page of The New York Times. As the article goes on, the author, Gustin Reichbach, describes not only his battle with cancer itself, but with the agonizing and debilitating side effects of the medications and radiation treatments required to keep death at bay.
“One struggles to eat enough to stave off the dramatic weight loss that is part of this disease,” he writes. “Eating, one of the great pleasures of life, has now become a daily battle, with each forkful a small victory.”
The only medicine that allows Mr. Reichbach to keep food down and get rest? Marijuana — the real stuff. “The oral synthetic substitute,” he writes, was useless. “Rather than watch the agony of my suffering, friends have chosen, at some personal risk, to provide the substance.” A few puffs a day, he reports, makes life worth living.
Of course, one can find thousands of such testimonials in the media and on the Internet. The medicinal effects of marijuana have been known for decades. What makes this New York Times author important is his curriculum vitae. Gustin Reichbach was a member of the New York State bar for four decades — the last two of them as a state judge. And yet now, he is effectively counselling the wisdom of breaking the law in this specific context. (Sixteen U.S. states permit the clinical use of marijuana; New York is not one of them.) As he correctly concludes, “This is not a law-and-order issue; it is a medical and a human rights issue … medical science has not yet found a cure [for cancer], but it is barbaric to deny [patients] access to one substance that has proved to ameliorate our suffering.”
On this issue, as on many others, Canada is a more progressive place than the United States: Since the late 1990s, our government has provided sick Canadians with an institutional framework for medicinal marijuana access. But this policy largely arose through Charter litigation initiated by AIDS and cancer victims. Throughout it all, federal governments — both Liberal and Conservative — generally have been dragged through the process kicking and screaming. As a result, the federal Marijuana Medical Access Regulations still remain restrictive. Recently, in response to a suit from a Toronto activist suffering from fibromyalgia and other conditions, an Ontario court struck down those regulations. (The ruling is on hold pending an appeal.)
Critics of drug-policy reform warn that the medical-marijuana issue is the thin edge of the wedge: Once citizens get used to the sight of marijuana being used as medicine, they might question other aspects of the war on drugs, including the whole idea of criminalizing recreational drugs in the first place.
But would that be such a bad thing? Last week, 49 headless bodies were discovered near a highway outside the Mexican city of Monterrey. Western reporters covering the story are shocked that local residents are shrugging the massacre off, continuing to go out to restaurants and night clubs. Yet who can blame these people for trying to get on with life? With 47,500 Mexicans already dead in the drug war since 2006, those 49 bodies in Monterrey are just a rounding error.
No one should underestimate the toll of misery and death caused by drugs themselves. Yet the war on drugs arguably has produced far greater misery and death. Stringent criminal sanctions against drug dealers and drug lords do nothing to mitigate the demand for drugs. They merely discourage marginal players, leaving the drug trade to the hard core of murderers and quasi-terrorists who now dominate Latin America (and, where heroin is concerned, Afghanistan), and whose tentacles extend well into the United States and Canada.
And yet, even as many Americans are realizing that enough is enough, Canada’s criminal-justice policies under Stephen Harper are lurching toward a reflexively lock-em-up mindset. To quote from a February, 2012 letter to the Canadian government from the Global Commission on Drug Policy — a blue-ribbon group whose members include several prominent conservatives, including Reagan-era U.S. secretary of state George Shultz — “with the proposed implementation of mandatory prison sentences for minor cannabis-related offences under Bill C-10, Canada is at the threshold of continuing to repeat the same grave mistakes as other countries.”
Drug decriminalization once was mostly the province of campus leftists and fringe libertarians. As the example of Gustin Reichbach shows, the cause is increasingly moving into the political mainstream. It’s time that all of us — on up to Canada’s prime minister — started opening our minds to new approaches for dealing with drugs.