Marijuana Getty Images News/David Ramos
By Kaetan Mazza

Last year, the New York State Legislature passed the Compassionate Care Act, allowing for the medical use of cannabis products. This year, the law will be implemented, with licenses distributed and dispensaries opened. The bill that was signed into law represents the kind of compromise that only politicians could possibly conjure. It’s restrictive in many ways that all but assures there will be many patients without access, and that the door will be left comfortably ajar for Albany’s infamous corruption and cronyism.

That said, there is one thing, I think, that this bill gets absolutely right. The CCA requires that all cannabis medicines be provided in the form of vaporizable oils, edible products, and tinctures of non-smokable herbs, and requires the supervision of doctors and pharmacists. While many decry this as an unreasonable restriction, legislators are absolutely right in affirming that the marijuana flower in and of itself is not medicine.

Anyone who knows me would probably be shocked to hear me express this opinion. After all, I experimented when I was younger (by that I mean about 10 minutes ago). I also find that marijuana smoke is extremely effective in treating a wide range of ailments, from bowel trouble to back pain to boredom. Why then would I say that marijuana is not medicine when I have experienced firsthand its therapeutic effects? Because it simply isn’t. To understand, we should clearly define what “medicine” is, what it is not, and why the distinction is important.

Medicine is something prescribed by a doctor to treat or cure an illness or condition. It’s measureable so the doctor can tell the patient how much they should be consuming, and properly gauge its effectiveness. The dosing is consistent; each time a patient consumes a medicine it should be identical in chemical composition and strength as the previous dose. Medicine is not something taken without trained medical supervision at random intervals with unknown levels of chemicals until it feels right (I’ve never heard a doctor say, “Just take some antibiotics until you feel better”), even when the chemicals in question are as benign as those found in cannabis.

Some of you may be rolling your eyes right now, thinking, “What the hell is his point? Cannabis is safe, natural, and effective without distillation.” I won’t argue that, because it’s absolutely true, but it misses the heart of the matter. There probably aren’t severe drawbacks for a guy alleviating back pain with a couple unsupervised puffs on a joint. He’ll be OK. But that’s not medicine, nor should it be. That’s just a guy relieving his symptoms, like a meditator relieving anxiety or a coffee drinker fighting drowsiness.

Casual smoking being equated with medicine becomes problematic when cannabis is used to treat more serious disorders. Childhood epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder are all debilitating, potentially deadly, conditions in which cannabinoids (the chemicals in the cannabis plant) have proven effective in treating. It is negligent for a doctor to merely recommend that these patients just go smoke a joint or eat an infused brownie, as they do in California or Colorado, and see how they feel — that’s terrible science. Even if symptoms are relieved, doctors have a responsibility to monitor dosage and effectiveness of cannabis, and understand how it can be applied to other patients. There must be an effort to develop a specific course of treatment for these serious disorders. Cannabis definitely should be a part of it, if deemed effective, but the doctors who provide treatment need to know exactly what chemicals in the plant are useful and at what levels they should be used.

I understand that the movement behind medical cannabis is inextricably intertwined with the effort to legalize recreational marijuana. Therefore, activists meet any restriction with dismay. I wholeheartedly support the struggle to legalize. It’s one of the few causes that unite a fight for individual civil rights and social justice (and personally, I would prefer the convenience of a store). But the two issues are separate and should be treated that way. One is about expanding care and medicinal science for the benefit of the sick. The other is about the freedom to do what one wants with a plant without fear of state violence. Both are important, and those fighting for them are on the right side of history. There is no need to compromise the integrity of either movement. Neither should be cheapened by the other with a bloodshot wink and a nod.