Friday, the New York State Assembly delivered to the Governor a bill to expedite access to medical marijuana for critically ill patients. In June, with overwhelming bipartisan support, both houses of the legislature passed A.7060 (Gottfried) / S.5086 (Griffo), directing the state to establish a program to help critically ill patients obtain emergency access to medical marijuana as soon as possible.
"The law that created New York's medical marijuana program was passed in 2014 and is supposed to be up and running by January 2016. But there remains a real danger that many seriously ill patients will not be able to access medical marijuana, and their conditions will deteriorate, potentially jeopardizing their lives," saidAssembly sponsor Richard N. Gottfried, who chairs the Assembly Health Committee. "Many of these patients are young children with severe forms of epilepsy who have been successfully treated with particular forms of medical marijuana in other states. I have been in discussions with the Cuomo administration about the bill for months and have answered every question raised by the Governor's staff; I am not aware of any argument against the bill."
The bill instructs the state to issue patient cards to qualified, critically ill patients as soon as possible, making it clear that they are medical marijuana patients and affording them protection from law enforcement and child protective services.
"We've been waiting an outrageous 15 months for expedited access to medical marijuana," said Missy Miller of Atlantic Beach, whose son Oliver suffers from life-threatening seizures. "Every day we wait is a day I watch my son lose ground. We can't afford any more delays. And delays seem likely considering I have not heard even one word about how to register my son for this program and many of the dispensaries are having difficulties securing their sites. Governor Cuomo should finally do the right thing and sign the bill so families like mine can get long awaited help."
Since the medical marijuana law passed a year ago, not one patient in New York has been able to access medical marijuana. Tragically, at least four children who would have likely benefited from it have died while waiting to obtain this much-needed medicine. Just last month, longtime medical marijuana advocate Beverly McClain, who had metastatic cancer, passed away without ever benefiting from the law she helped pass.
"With less than three months to go before New York's medical marijuana program is slated to roll out, I'm really concerned that there could be delays in the program," said Maryanne Houser of Suffern. "My daughter Amanda has been waiting since July of 2014 when she stood next to Governor Cuomo at the bill signing and he promised to help her. He can help her now by signing the emergency access bill."
New York's medical marijuana program is slated to become operational in January of 2016, but the state has yet to launch a system for patients to register and just unveiled the mandatory doctor training in mid-October. Advocates have expressed concern that too few doctors will be trained and too few patients able to register in time to take advantage of the program come January.
"As a doctor and the parent of a child with a seizure disorder, I'm disappointed the state hasn't acted sooner to get medicine to the critically ill," said Amy Piperato, M.D., of Thiells. "With the physician training just coming online a few weeks ago and still no system for registering patients, I'm convinced the program won't be operational in January. The Governor should sign this bill so critically ill patients can get access as soon as possible."
In addition, recent media accounts suggest that several of the planned dispensaries are having trouble finalizing sites. With only 20 dispensaries statewide for almost 20 million people across 54,000 square miles, the failure of even one dispensary to open is significant, especially to those who are critically ill.
"If one of the twenty dispensaries fails to open in January, that could pose a real hardship for patients who may already be facing drives over an hour to access the medicine," said Kathy Annable of Marcellus whose daughter suffers from severe seizures. "My daughter Kaylie cannot keep waiting. We need an emergency access system so that people in life-threatening situations, like my daughter, can get medicine immediately."
Since July, advocates have been pressuring the Cuomo administration to create an interim emergency access program for patients who may not survive the eighteen months or longer that the Governor has said is needed to get the full medical marijuana program up and running. The original version of New York's medical marijuana bill included a provision to provide emergency access to medical marijuana for patients too ill to wait for the full program to become operational, but the Administration removed it during bill negotiations, leaving critically ill patients vulnerable.
Currently, those with terminal or critical illnesses and their families are forced to break the law, move to a state where medical marijuana is legally available, or watch their loved ones suffer knowing that there is a medication that could help them.
"It's unconscionable that patients in life and death situations are still waiting to access medical marijuana," said Julie Netherland, deputy state director at the Drug Policy Alliance. "We're not confident that the program will be fully operational in January, and critically ill patients cannot afford additional delays. Governor Cuomo should stick by his promise to do everything in his power to get medical marijuana to children suffering from life-threatening forms of epilepsy."