ROSENDALE, N.Y. -- Jen Pinto was in the prime of her life.

She had a good job, a nice home and a positive outlook on her future.

What happened to her at age 40 would change all that and severely diminish her quality of life.

It would also give her a voice in the growing chorus of advocates for the legalization of medical cannabis.

Without warning, Pinto awakened one day in October of 1999 and could not walk. Day by day, the condition worsened, and she feared the onset of paralysis.

Doctors told her she had spinal stenosis, a narrowing of spaces in the backbone that can put pressure on the spinal cord.

"I was told I had a spine of an 80-plus-year-old," said Pinto of Rosendale.

By December, she was undergoing an emergency cervical lamenectomy at New York University Medical Center to remove part of the vertebrae as a way to reduce pressure on her spinal cord and surrounding nerves.

Since then, it hasn’t gotten much better for Pinto, now 55.

She suffers from arthritis, spinal disc problems and scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine.

At one time, Pinto was taking eight prescription drugs, including opiates, which led to addiction. She then made the decision to stop taking drugs altogether and suffered withdrawal.

The pain, however, forced her back on medication to control the muscle spasms.

In between all that, Pinto’s career as a project manager for construction companies in Westchester County had abruptly ended.


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She moved to Ulster County to be with her children and grandchildren and now gets disability benefits.

"When you have all this, you end up on so many different medications," she said. "You get depressed, and you start having all these other medical issues, and it’s all stemming from the pain.

"You lose your career, the ability to make money and a place to live. When you lose your spine health, you lose everything."

Pinto is among the majority of New Yorkers in favor of legalizing marijuana to reduce pain and suffering among the sick.

A Quinnipiac University poll released in mid-February, in fact, showed that 88 percent of respondents support such legislation, while nine percent oppose it.

Fifty-seven percent would even like to see it legalized for recreational uses, according to the poll which surveyed 1,488 registered state voters.

It is an issue that is getting a lot of attention these days as New York becomes one of about a dozen states to consider legalizing medical cannabis.

Already, 21 states and Washington, D.C. have such laws in place, and that has brought out the anti-marjuana forces, which continue to point out that making it legal will, among other things, lead to misuse and abuse.

There’s no denying, however, that the issue is rolling ahead and gaining momentum with support from those in the public as well as the state Legislature.

Two lawmakers, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, and Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, are co-sponsoring a bill to make the drug legal for medical purposes and create a growing network for distribution.

The two took note in January when Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his State-of-the-State address proposed reviving a 1980 law to that would permit 20 hospitals to dispense medical marijuana under certain conditions. Pot seized in drug busts would be used in the program.

Gottfried and Savino’s bill, the so-called Compassionate Care Act, is much broader, and though it has picked up support, it was not part of the state budget adopted on March 31 and is being held up in the Senate.

John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope, said he would support the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes under the supervision of a doctor and in a hospital.

"Medical marijuana is evolving as a potential treatment to alleviate pain for severe illnesses, and it must be regulated carefully and responsibly by licensed medical professionals. Therefore, I will have to review the details of any final bill before voting on it. I will add that I am not ready to do what Colorado has done and make it a recreational drug," the senator said.

Even with all the delays and setbacks, advocates like Gabriel Sayegh say they’re hopeful the bill won’t go up in smoke.

"We’re very confident that it can pass this year and the votes are there to support it," said Sayegh, the state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

"You’ve got strong bi-partisan support in the state Senate for this ... and we’re very confident that the bill will pass if it’s brought to the floor for a vote. The question is when will that happen?"

For those in pain like Pinto, it couldn’t come soon enough.

"People who don’t understand what it’s like to be in pain, don’t understand the concept," she said.

"I was a functioning adult, a single parent. I worked. I had a career making good money. I was self-sufficient and then, boom.

"Pain literally destroys lives. It sucks the life out of you. Most people will try anything to be out of pain. I think that’s what the non-pain people need to understand," Pinto said.