By Jessica Dye
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A cancer-stricken judge in New York has become an unlikely voice in support of legalizing the use of medical marijuana with the admission that he smokes pot to ease the side-effects of his treatments.
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Gustin Reichbach, who is being treated for pancreatic cancer, wrote in a New York Times article on Thursday that he had been using marijuana provided by friends at "great personal risk" to help him cope with the nausea, sleeplessness and loss of appetite from chemotherapy treatments.
"This is not a law-and-order issue; it is a medical and a human rights issue," wrote Reichbach, 65, who has spent 21 years on the bench in Kings County Supreme Court, and continues to hear cases even as he receives cancer treatment.
In the past, admitting to taking a few puffs of marijuana has been enough to derail some judges' careers. U.S. appeals court Judge Douglas Ginsburg saw his nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court go up in smoke in 1987 after admitting he had used marijuana several times in the 1960s and 1970s.
In 2011, a Georgia judge was removed from the bench for various infractions including publicly admitting to smoking pot regularly.
New York is not among the U.S. 16 states and the District of Columbia that allow medical marijuana. Cannabis remains an illegal narcotic under federal law.
Under New York's Code for Judicial Conduct, judges are required to "respect and comply with the law." First-time possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana is punishable by a $100 maximum fine.
While Reichbach's editorial amounts to an admission he broke the law, his story is more likely to elicit admiration than condemnation, judicial ethics experts said.
"It's brave and wonderful, but it's heart-wrenching," said Ellen Yaroshefsky, a law professor at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law. "There are key moments in history where a judge makes a bold stand. This is one of the moments, and we should be proud of it."
LEGAL CONSEQUENCES UNCLEAR
In New York, disciplinary actions involving judges are handled by the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct, which reviews allegations of criminal activity and other wrongdoing and decides on an appropriate reprimand. That could range from a confidential cautionary letter to dismissal, although more serious forms of punishment require approval from the state's chief judge.
Robert Tembeckjian, counsel for the commission, declined to say whether any inquiry could or would be opened into Reichbach's statements.
"Information relating to the conduct of judges that appears in newspapers is routinely reviewed by the commission," Tembeckjian said.
The Brooklyn District Attorney's Office did not immediately comment on whether any action was being contemplated against the judge. But first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana is classified only as a civil offense.
A spokesman for the state court system, David Bookstaver, also declined to address whether Reichbach might face consequences for the editorial, saying only that "everyone's thoughts in the court system are with Justice Reichbach as he battles a very serious disease."
One potential conflict that may arise from Reichbach's comments is his ability to hear cases involving marijuana possession, said Monroe Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University.
"He has admitted to unlawful conduct," Freedman said. "Ordinarily, that could be a problem, but it's a very narrow, specific situation and I would hope nothing would come of it that would be adverse to the judge."
Support for medical-marijuana legislation is gaining support among New Yorkers. A poll from Siena Research Institute released on Wednesday found 57 percent of New Yorkers supported establishing a legal framework for allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for cancer, chronic pain and other illnesses.
On Tuesday, a New York Assembly committee approved medical-marijuana legislation, and the Democratic-controlled Assembly appears poised to pass it for the third time in five years. A spokesman for the state Senate Republican majority said that chamber was unlikely to act on the measure this year.
(Reporting by Jessica Dye; Editing by Peter Cooney)