MEDICAL MARIJUANA DEBATE IN ALBANY NEW YORK HEATS UP
Medical-Pot Debate Rises in Albany
New York lawmakers are preparing a renewed push to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes, potentially reigniting a polarizing social debate that has been dormant in Albany for years.
Medical marijuana has been enacted into law in 16 states and the District of Columbia, but the issue has faced tougher hurdles in Albany, where Republicans who control the Senate have been resistant.
But now, the idea has a new champion in Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat who has allied herself with the chamber’s Republican majority on many issues and is the lead sponsor of a soon-to-be-introduced bill. Ms. Savino and the sponsor in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, Richard Gottfried, said they’re hopeful that they could pass the bill if Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, were to get onboard.
“He hasn’t said no,” Ms. Savino said of Mr. Cuomo. “He’s willing to have a conversation.”
A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo didn’t respond to requests for comment on the issue.
As a candidate for governor in 2010, Mr. Cuomo said the dangers of medical marijuana “outweigh the benefits.” But he appeared to soften his stance last year when he told reporters that his administration didn’t have a “final position” on the issue.
Mr. Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat who is leading the effort in the Assembly, said: “It can still be done this year, especially if the governor gets involved, but that would have to happen pretty soon.”
Wherever Mr. Cuomo settles on the issue, there promises to be a stronger effort than in past years to get the legislation to the floor of the Assembly and Senate.
A Quinnipiac University poll from February 2010 found that 71% of New York registered voters—including 55% of registered Republicans—support the idea of allowing adults to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if a doctor prescribes it.
And there could be support from a handful Senate Republicans with an independent streak. Republicans lead the Senate with a slim majority.
Sen. John Bonacic, a veteran Republican who represents several mid-Hudson Valley counties west of Poughkeepsie, said he is “open” to medical marijuana legalization, if the drug is dispensed with a prescription from a physician. “I think if the safeguards were there, it might have some traction,” he said.
The growing marijuana industry is paying attention to New York’s shifting landscape. Greenwerkz, a major for-profit dispensary in Colorado, has contacted Albany lobbying firms about the possibility of doing business in New York.
“From the company’s standpoint, we’re interested in seeing what the bill looks like. We would love to participate in New York,” said Meg Sanders, a partner at Greenwerkz.
Though advocates say support for medical marijuana is growing in New York, its potential will depend on details.
Mr. Gottfried said a new version of the bill would have a “hardship” provision allowing patients who live far away from a dispensary to grow their own pot plants. It would also extend to patients deemed too sick to travel or too poor to buy the drug. But Ms. Savino said that provision might have to be removed to attract more Republican support.
Albany came closest to passing a bill in 2005. Then, the measure had a Republican sponsor, Vincent Leibell, who has since left the Senate and pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges.
The Republican majority leader at the time, Sen. Joe Bruno, a prostate cancer survivor, said he supported the idea, but balked at language in the Assembly’s version.
The Assembly—where support the measure is broad—passed a medical marijuana bill in 2007 and 2008, both times with wide margins of support.
There are also political parallels to the debate over same-sex marriage, the passage of which in 2011 depended on a small number of Senate Republican votes joining with a much larger number of Democrats.
According to lobbyists, 28 Senate Democrats are supportive of medical marijuana. While Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed to the bill, advocates say they see a potential for at most a half-dozen GOP votes. The bill would need at least 32 votes for passage.
And like with gay marriage, it would also need a green light from Senate Majority Dean Skelos to bring the bill to the floor. A spokesman for Mr. Skelos said he’s “generally opposed” to medical marijuana and that the issue has not come up this year.
Opposition to medical marijuana remains strong, including from the New York State Conservative Party, whose influence in Republican politics was tested in the battle over same-sex marriage.
“There is no control over who is using the marijuana. It opens a Pandora’s box for the illegal use of marijuana,” said party chairman Michael Long.
One important Republican in the debate, Sen. Kemp Hannon, the Long Islander who is chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said it doesn’t make sense to loosen marijuana laws at a time of growing concern about illegal sales and abuse of prescription drugs.
“To start dealing with other substances which have not been vetted or tested is not something I want to go near,” he said.
Under the last version of the bill, patients would have to be certified by a physician that they have a “serious condition” for which marijuana would provide a “therapeutic or palliative benefit.”
The state health department would issue them registration cards that expire after a year.
Under previous versions, certified patients and designated caregivers would be allowed to possess no more than 2.5 ounces of marijuana, excluding the weight of food if distributed in edible form. The drug could not be consumed or displayed in public view.
“This is not about getting high; this is about getting relief,” said Ms. Savino, whose parents and grandfather died of lung cancer. “It’s incredibly painful. You only have morphine. You get to the point where nothing works.”
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