Medical marijuana: New York moves to legalize it, but advocates not thrilled

New York announced an agreement for a medical marijuana law Thursday, but the measure is one of the most restrictive in the US, forbidding all smoking of the drug.

Mike Groll/AP
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference announcing an agreement on legislation legalizing medical marijuana in the Red Room at the Capitol on Thursday, June 19, 2014, in Albany, N.Y. New York's legislative measure, an agreement for which was announced Thursday, will be one of the most restrictive in the United States.

New York is poised to become the 23rd state in the nation to legalize medical marijuana, which would make it the largest state after California to permit the use of the drug for certain medical conditions.

But New York’s legislative measure, an agreement for which was announced Thursday, will be one of the most restrictive in the United States: It will forbid all smoking of the drug and will limit prescriptions to only 10 specific conditions, including cancer, epilepsy, and HIV and AIDS.

And the bill allows Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who is running for a second term this year and vying for a sweeping bipartisan win, to suspend or terminate any of the measure’s provisions, with recommendations from the state Department of Health.

“This legislation strikes the right balance,” said Governor Cuomo, who before this year had been firmly opposed to legalizing the medical use of the drug. “Medical marijuana has the capacity to do a lot of good for a lot of people who are in pain and suffering, and are in desperate need of a treatment that will provide some relief. At the same time, medical marijuana is a difficult issue because there are risks to public health and safety that have to be averted. I believe this bill is the right balance, and I commend the members of the Legislature who worked so hard on this measure.”

But the governor has long been cautious stepping along New York’s perilous drug law terrains. The state’s Rockefeller drug laws had long been one of the most notoriously punishing in the nation, with a minimum 15-year sentence for selling as little as two stuffed sandwich bags of pot. These sentencing requirements weren’t changed until 2009.

New York City is still the pot-busting capital of the world, arresting nearly 30,000 people for possessing small amounts in 2013. It’s on a similar pace this year. The vast majority of these arrests – 86 percent – were black or Latino, even though whites use the drug at a higher rate.

So advocates of marijuana reform have been relentlessly pressuring state lawmakers this year – leading Cuomo, a Democrat whose moderate politics and fiscal conservatism have angered many on the left, to take an executive action in January: Based on a long-forgotten rule in the state’s health codes, it allows up to 20 hospitals statewide to begin administering the drug for a small number of conditions.

That cautious move came as polls showed overwhelming support for the medical use of marijuana. In May, a Quinnipiac University survey found 83 percent of New York voters supported its legalization.

Still, powerful members of the political establishment in Albany have retained New York’s tough-on-drugs ethos, and, with the governor, thwarted efforts for reform the past few years.

Advocates gave tepid endorsements of the restrictive medical marijuana bill that passed Thursday, but they made clear it wasn’t what they were hoping for.

“This is not the bill we wanted,” said gabriel sayegh (who uses the lowercase in the spelling of his name), an advocate with the Drug Policy Alliance in Manhattan. “We are disappointed to learn that eligible conditions have been limited, and despite strong medical evidence about the benefits of smoked and raw cannabis, leaders decided to exclude this as an option for doctors and patients in New York. We strongly believe that the decision about the mode of administration for any medication should be left up to doctor and their patients.”

No New York patients will be getting any marijuana anytime soon. For the next 18 months, the state Department of Health will be hashing out further regulations, developing dosage amounts, carefully certifying doctors, and licensing only five organizations to grow and distribute the drug. The state will also impose a 7 percent tax on medical marijuana sales, and health insurers will not be required to cover any of the drug’s costs.

Marijuana prescriptions will be limited to tinctures, pills, or edible forms of the drug. Patients may also inhale marijuana if vaporized. Of the 22 states that have already legalized the medical use of pot (as well as the District of Columbia), only Minnesota has similarly banned smoking the drug.

Even though Cuomo has switched positions on medical marijuana in the face of intense lobbying, he made a number of last-minute demands this week.

“If there are unintended consequences, then we can suspend the program,” Cuomo said on Thursday. “I have the total authority to do it, on the recommendations of those who know best. It would be turned off, you pull the plug out of the wall, the whole machine shuts down.”

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