The announcement by New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow 20 hospitals in the state to dispense medical marijuana is a sea-change shift in policy. The Democrat is up for re-election this year and is going against the grain in the state known for the strict Rockefeller drug laws. Possibly this change is intended to offset potential challengers, such as rebel writer and television producer Richard Stratton, from gaining political traction with liberal voters. For whatever the reason behind this liberal initiative, Cuomo’s executive action has widespread repercussions for tribal neighbors.
Cuomo unveiled the plan during his State of the State address in Albany. The utilization of an obscure law passed in 1980 by the state legislature created the policy framework. The Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substance Therapeutic Research Program began under the act. The law honored the legacy of the namesake state assemblyman and former New York City councilman who died of a brain tumor. While undergoing chemotherapy, Olivieri utilized marijuana to cope with the treatment discomfort.
The 20 New York hospitals which will dispense the medical marijuana have yet to be identified. By any reason of the imagination, the designated hospitals should be assigned regionally in relation to the severity and propensity of the illnesses that they treat. Presumably, a cancer diagnosis will remain one ailment that such a controlled substance prescription will address.
I would advocate that hospitals near the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-designated Superfund sites in New York State be given priority as “high intensity” pollution locations. Furthermore, the doubled injury of American Indian reserves being located in these regions should elevate the hospital status even one step further to designation to medical marijuana prescription status. Onondaga, Cattaraugus, and Tuscarora reserves are just some of the polluted Native lands adjacent to New York State.
One aspect of the original law is the procurement of the prescribed medical marijuana. The law allowed some flexibility in how the pharmaceutical marijuana would be attained. The law would be discharged, in part, by the New York State Commissioner of Health. The law reads: “if, within a reasonable time, the commissioner is unable to obtain controlled substances pursuant to subdivision one of this section (from federal government sources), he shall conduct an inventory of available sources of such drugs, including but not limited to the New York state police bureau of criminal investigation and local law enforcement officials.” In other words, the medical marijuana could be previously seized as drug evidence.
This is a particularly ironic aspect of this executive initiative. The St. Regis Indian Reservation, also known as Akwesasne, is located near three EPA Superfund sites. The reserve has been repeatedly blamed by state and federal officials for a significant volume of high-grade marijuana entering the United States. Some tribal police in Akwesasne are cross-sworn as federal agents in part to combat the apparently thriving drug trade. Many hundreds of pounds of this imported marijuana have thus been confiscated.
Is it possible that some of this “reservation marijuana” is being counted on to help inventory the state hospital pharmacies that will be involved in this nascent program? Is there enough pot to supply the entire participating hospital network? And could federal agents confiscate the contraband to spite New York States’ consumptive needs?
The level of prosecution in New York State for marijuana-related crimes has earned it a stiff reputation. New York City alone saw nearly 450,000 misdemeanor substance-related charges from 2002 to 2012, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. Richard N. Gottfried, a Democrat assemblyman from Manhattan and chairperson of the New York Assembly’s health committee supports going beyond the medical marijuana trial run. “New York is progressive on a great many issues, but not everything,” Gottfried said.
The vaunted “Rockefeller Drug Laws” the state adopted in the 1970’s under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller set a national standard for drug crime sentencing. Rockefeller, up to that point considered politically liberal, surprised many in his response to violent street crime by targeting drugs as a public mandate. Mandatory prison sentences of 15 years to life were handed down for small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin. The reduction in murder rates in New York City were attributed to the hardline stance. However, subsequent analysis of post-conviction sentencing showed a disproportionate number of minorities and the impoverished were affected the hardest by the stance. These laws have since been slowly rolled back to more moderate levels. The stigma of reservation drug trafficking remains elevated however, almost dogmatically.
Social activists in Akwesasne scoff at the drug corridor label. “Criminalizing another plant given to us by Creation,” is often heard, in reference to the historic tobacco trade. In fact, the retail tobacco market here is overseen by both tribal and traditional government. Similar regulatory tribal taxing of the medical marijuana trade is one option that has not yet been attempted.
“Sovereignty is not only the right but the ability to care, govern and protect our own. Challenges continue to be waged against our sovereignty on a daily and constant basis. This is irrefutable and proven,” said Lorraine M. White, attorney and former chief of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. “That is why state, and to an extent, federal laws have been found to be inapplicable to Akwesasne. The traditional and elected systems working together provide the ideal form of representation on behalf of our people and our community.” At tribal meetings the outspoken mother and wife has suggested that the tribe seriously consider implementing tribal laws to provide for medical marijuana as an option to pharmaceutical cancer prescriptions. “If our tribal representatives truly believe in our sovereign rights to govern and regulate, then we are prime to provide such an important medical remedy to our own people,” she said. “Traditional governments here best understand the value of land, human rights and social justice, especially concerning border-related issues. I would encourage our tribally elected Chiefs to set aside egos and agendas in order to bridge the political gaps that exist between themselves and our other community representatives.” White concluded.
Progressive politicians have taken notice of the social imbalance present in the New York State drug laws and challenge these double standards as a foothold to seek an opening to the state’s Executive Office. Richard Stratton, a candidate for Governor in 2014 who filed 2012 registration papers as a Republican, knows about the situation in Akwesasne as well as in New York State. Stratton is a high-profile former inmate of the federal prison at Ray Brook, convicted for selling marijuana and freed by a vacated sentence. He is also a gifted writer and the former High Times Magazine editor. Stratton, while incarcerated, wrote the underground novel “Smack Goddess,” considered a cult classic. More recently he has produced a number of documentary and dramatic television productions. His point of view is obvious.
“We simply can’t afford to continue to spend millions to incarcerate the 13,000 non-violent drug offenders that are currently jailed in this state. I am committed to being the voice for New Yorkers who are interested in drug reform, marijuana law reform and, most importantly, those who are sick…” Stratton stated.
Many others hope that this medical marijuana plan is not just a pipe dream.
Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.