Governor Endorses Limited Use Of Medical Marijuana

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Blink, and one could have missed the news last week that some are calling historic, some are lukewarm about, and some are calling dangerous.

In a speech that eclipsed the hour mark, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo spent all of one minute during his annual State of the State address to declare through executive action—circumventing the legislature—the creation of a medical marijuana pilot program.

“We have to make New York healthier,” Mr. Cuomo said. “Research suggests that medical marijuana can help manage the pain and treatment of cancer and other serious illnesses … We’ll establish a program allowing up to 20 hospitals to prescribe medical marijuana, and we will monitor the program to evaluate the effectiveness and the feasibility of a medical marijuana system.”

And without another word, cannabis advocates across the state got from the governor what they had been lobbying the legislature for over several decades.

It represents a full-scale change of heart for Mr. Cuomo, who remained opposed to the Compassionate Care Act, an Assembly-sponsored bill allowing medical marijuana, throughout the 2013 legislative session—until he said in April that he would keep an open mind. The CCA has cleared the State Assembly four times, most recently last year, only to die in the State Senate.

So this time, the governor will bypass the legislature and utilize a little-known provision in the state health law from 1980, called the Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substance Therapeutic Research Program. It allows for the use of controlled substances for “cancer patients, glaucoma patients, and patients afflicted with other diseases as such diseases are approved by the health commissioner.”

Some are speculating, however, that it wasn’t so much a change of heart as it was a looming election year and a Siena College poll indicating in May that 82 percent of the state’s voters like the idea.

With 21 other states already permitting the use of medical marijuana, Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, testified before the legislature last December saying the political gains aren’t worth the potential health risks.

“The Federal Drug Administration has never approved smoking as a safe or effective medication delivery system,” Mr. Reynolds testified. “The American Lung Association reminds us that ‘marijuana smoke contains a greater amount of carcinogens than tobacco smoke,’ and the prospect of giving back the three decades’ worth of public health gains we’ve made in reducing tobacco use is troubling.”

Mr. Reynolds said he finds an important distinction between using chemical compounds found in cannabis for medical purposes, and smoked marijuana. “Quite frankly, the rhetoric, which flies in the face of science, sounds an awful lot like the arguments made by Big Tobacco 50 years ago,” he testified.

But another local drug counselor and psychotherapist from Sag Harbor, Ellen Ruby, disagrees with Mr. Reynolds’ assessment.

“My opinion is, if it will help people, it is a good idea,” she said. “It should be kept professional, though. The stores dispensing marijuana out west look like head shops—all hookahs and water pipes … If it is kept professional, as a pilot program to see if it works and if it could transition into a clinical setting, then I don’t see an issue.”

Local Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said on Wednesday that he is against the governor’s proposal—not on principle, but for a more pragmatic reason.

“In the past, I have voted against the medical marijuana bill,” he wrote in an email, indicating he would support the bill if marijuana were treated like any other prescription drug. “Until federal law is changed, the state bill would still expose people to federal penalties. The federal law should be changed first.”

Even those who have waved the cannabis banner all these years are finding fault with the governor’s plan, saying it is a fine first step, but a step that doesn’t go far enough.

Democratic State Senator Daniel Squadron, long an advocate for medical marijuana, said that while the therapeutic uses are nice, the “in plain view” statute of “our broken marijuana policy” is really the issue.

While simple possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana has been decriminalized, warranting only a violation, public possession of the drug anywhere outside one’s home is a criminal act. If a police officer asks a person holding marijuana to remove it from a pocket, and the person complies, this alone can be considered “in plain sight,” leading to an uneven enforcement of the law by police, according to legalization advocates.

“There is a fundamental reality: A large number of people carry small amounts of marijuana,” he said, citing a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report that said no state arrests more of its citizens for marijuana possession than New York.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, sponsor of the CCA and chair of the Assembly Health Committee, thinks the 1980 law will be too restrictive to help all those in need.

“While I welcome Governor Cuomo’s endorsement of the medical value of cannabis for many seriously ill patients, the 1980 Olivieri law that he is using has serious limitations,” said the assemblyman. “Science is well beyond where we were in 1980.”

He also questioned the ethical dilemma of using marijuana seized by the police off the streets, as the 1980 law allows, to medicate patients.

“Under the Compassionate Care Act, practitioners licensed to prescribe controlled substances could certify patient need, and certified patients would register with the Health Department,” he explained. “Both the certification process and dispensing of medical marijuana would be included in the I-STOP prescription monitoring system for controlled substances enacted in 2012.”

While the governor’s office has given no indication which hospitals would be part of the program or when it would start, those still unhappy with his proposal are pushing ahead with the CCA, adding it to the Assembly’s agenda for this week.

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