By Tom Precious
NEWS ALBANY BUREAU CHIEF
ALBANY – The Senate’s lead sponsor of a measure to legalize medical marijuana has amended her bill in a way that is designed to address concerns raised by some legislators, paving the way for a possible vote by both houses of the Legislature on the long-stalled effort before the 2014 session ends in the next two weeks.
Sources say changes introduced by Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat, are expected to be matched on Monday with amendments to the Assembly bill by its lead sponsor in that house, Richard Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat.
If a final deal is struck, the two houses could vote on the bill as early as this coming week, though it remains to be seen if the Senate's Republican leaders will let it to the floor for consideration by the full Senate.
The Assembly has already passed a medical marijuana legalization bill, but the legislation did not match changes Savino had made some weeks ago designed to lure more lawmakers onto her bill. As a result, Savino and Gottfried need to match their bills, which they did on Friday, sources say. (The Assembly for years has passed a medical marijuana bill and appears willing to go along with what Savino can get through her legislative chamber.)
Savino says she has 40 senators she is counting on as yes votes, and the newly amended bill includes 26 co-sponsors, including Western New York Senate Republicans George Maziarz and Mark Grisanti of the Buffalo area and Joseph Robach of Rochester.
Savino and Gottfried last week both said they were negotiating a set of new amendments to introduce a same-as bill. If approved, the new measure would be sent for consideration by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has been moving on a separate track that advocates say is too restrictive and time-consuming to get the drug to qualified patients.
The new version of the legislation tightens some rules as to the conditions that can be treated with medical marijuana, eliminating psoriasis from the list, but keeping in such conditions as cancer, HIV, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and adding Huntington’s disease to the list of covered conditions for access to the drug.
It establishes rules to prevent what could be seen as marketing marijuana to teenagers, and keeps in place a previous ban on smoking of marijuana for approved patients under the age of 21. The new bill also sets limits on the levels of THC – the compound in the drug that gets people high – for oil-based medical marijuana; such forms of marijuana are used in Colorado and California to treat children with rare and debilitating seizure disorders.
The new version also sets more rules on doctors dispensing the drug, including requiring them to state such things as the dose and variety of marijuana to be used by a patient. It requires, for instance, specific doses directed at treating “the patient’s specific certified condition.’’
The amendments also put pressure on the state Health Department not to delay implementation of the program, if it is approved by the Legislature and Cuomo, and places an expedited process for the department to get the drug into the hands of patients in serious, debilitating states of health; sources say that provision is designed to ensure that children suffering from the rare forms of seizures can get access to the oil-based form of marijuana soon.
A number of Western New York parents have been lobbying for the bill for their children, and some have begun the process of moving to Colorado if New York does not legalize medical marijuana for their children.
The amended bill also gives a percentage of money the state receives under the program to state and local law enforcement efforts.