By Tom Precious
ALBANY -- Lawmakers have introduced a measure with stricter provisions than failed past efforts to legalize marijuana sales to New Yorkers with a "severe debilitating or life-threatening'' health condition.
The new bill, which ends such past ideas as letting people grow their own marijuana, would have the state health department regulate the process that would include allowing a certain number of private for-profits or not-for-profits to grow the plants and sell the drug under new security protocols to patients with treatment plans approved by a physician, physician assistant or nurse practitioner.
The measure was introduced by its past sponsors, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat, and Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat. Savino has more political power this year as one of five breakaway Democrats who jointly run the Senate with Republicans. The bill has 68 co-sponsors, including 10 Senate Democrats. It has previously sailed through the Assembly.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has opposed the idea of medical marijuana legalization, though advocates believe he could be flexible, especially since he is already promoting a plan to relax marijuana possession laws. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws. Advocates say the measure will more strictly regulate the drug than prescription painkillers; patient advocates in the past have said marijuana will be cheaper, less addictive and less dangerous than many of the painkiller prescriptions they take.
The bill defines those eligible to be certified by the health department to obtain marijuana as someone with a "serious'' health condition, including cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, epilepsy, diabetes, post-traumatic stress syndrome and others. The patient would have to be under a doctor's supervision. Patients who a doctor believes have less than a year to live would also be eligible to buy the drug. Medical marijuana would also be listed as one of the covered drugs on a new state prescription drug tracking system intended to reduce doctor and pharmacy shopping by addicts.
Marijuana could be grown and dispensed by hospitals, for-profit companies and not-for-profit corporations, and an excise tax would be imposed on the facilities with part of the proceeds shared with local "host'' communities.
"The bill is much more restrictive than the New York laws regulating highly dangerous drugs like morphine, Oxycontin or Valium,'' Gottfried said.
"Anybody who ever had a family member suffer from a debilitating disease learns very quickly the limitations of modern medicine at treating pain,'' added Savino.
The bill's backers include the American Public Health Association, American Bar Assocaition, New York State Nurses Association, Pharmacists Society of the State of New York, New York AIDS Coalition, th Independence Party of New York and the Drug Policy Alliance.
Critics, including some Senate Republicans and the state Conservative Party, have said marijuana could be diverted by patients to others not eligible for the drug and that the plan sends the wrong message, especially to teenagers, about a drug some call a gateway to stronger drugs.
UPDATE: The head of a Long Island addiction services agency writes in to note his concerns with the plan. Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, says the new version is stricter than past efforts, but there are still problems.
Notably, he says, the measure is overly broad about defining who can get access to marijuana. And he is not wild about leaving the oversight to the state health department, which he believes has not done a great job addressing the growing opiate abuse problem in New York, and that agency cutbacks there could make oversight even more challenging.
Reynolds also worries the bill is silent on impaired driving issues for people who could obtain marijuana. And he notes what he says is a troublesome provision: that the state and local governments would be banned, absent a court order, from cooperating with the federal government if Washington ever sought to enforce federal marijuana drug laws if medical marijuana was legalized in New York state.