By Phillip Smith
The New York legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (R) reached a last-minute compromise on medical marijuana this week, and yesterday, the state Senate and Assembly approved the compromise bill, Program Bill 57. Gov. Cuomo says he will sign the bill into law, making New York the 23rd medical marijuana state.
The bill is more limited than many patients and advocates would have preferred. It forbids smoking medical marijuana, although patients may vaporize or consume it in edibles. It also forbids using the raw plant. And it limits access to those with specified qualifying conditions, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, and epilepsy.
In all, patients with ten specific diseases or conditions will qualify for medical marijuana. The state will be able to add other conditions, and, under the bill, it must determine within 18 months whether to add Alzheimer's, PTSD, muscular dystrophy and dystonia, and rheumatoid arthritis.
The bill also places restrictions on healthcare providers, such as requiring that all recommendations for medical marijuana be made by physicians (excluding nurse practitioners or physician assistants who can prescribe many other medications) and mandating that participating physicians take a training course, an extremely uncommon requirement in US medicine.
Cuomo, who has never been a big fan of medical marijuana, through a spanner in the works late last week, demanding a number of changes be made to win his support. This came after the Assembly had already passed the Compassionate Use Act and the GOP-dominated Senate had signaled it would allow a vote.
The sponsors of the Compassionate Use Act, Assemblymen Dick Gottfried (D-Manhattan) and Senator Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) worked over the weekend and through this week to craft a compromise that addressed the governor's concerns, and now, New York has a medical marijuana bill, albeit more restrictive than originally envisioned.
For patients and advocates it was a bittersweet victory.
"Today, the Senate passed a medical marijuana bill that will help some patients in New York, and that is good news," said Susan Rusinko of Auburn, who has multiple sclerosis. "But this bill they passed is far from perfect. With any medication, the decision about the best mode of administration, including smoking for some patients, should be left up to healthcare providers and their patients, and this bill does not do that. We fought hard to get this far, and we'll keep fighting to make sure that New York's medical marijuana program becomes the best in the country."
"I'm pleased that the New York Senate stood with patients and on the side of compassion when they passed the medical marijuana bill today," said Holly Anderson, executive director of the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester. "This was a long, hard fight, and we are elated that cancer patients and others will have one more tool to help alleviate disease symptoms and side effects of treatments. But this bill has flaws, including the exclusion of smoking, which may be the cheapest and most effective way for many patients to use medical cannabis. We call on the Commissioner of Health to quickly implement a program that is accessible to all patients, regardless of their income."
"Today the Senate passed a medical marijuana bill that will help some, but not all, seriously ill New Yorkers who could benefit from medical cannabis," said Kate Hintz of North Salem, whose daughter, Morgan, has Dravet's Syndrome, a serious seizure disorder. "As a parent of child with a seizure disorder, I'm glad that my family will be able to access medicine that can help my daughter. But I must remind these lawmakers that they are not doctors. The decision if and how to treat a condition with medical marijuana should be left up to the patient and the doctor, not our government. We will keep fighting for the regulated, flexible program that all New Yorkers deserve."
"This is a huge step for patients in New York who will benefit from this legislation, and without question, today would not be possible but for the dedicated and sustained organizing work by patients, families, and advocates," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York State director for the Drug Policy Alliance.
"And we are especially appreciative of the leadership shown by Assemblyman Gottfried and Senator Savino," he continued. "This bill is far from perfect. Many of the limitations in this bill - like the restrictions on conditions and physician-patient relationships- are unnecessary and not supported by the science. And we know that overly restrictive medical marijuana programs leave patients behind. But if implemented quickly and effectively, this program will help thousands of sick and suffering New Yorkers, who need help now."
"Passage of this measure comes as a relief to thousands of seriously ill New Yorkers and their families. Medical marijuana can be an effective treatment option for a variety of debilitating conditions. For some patients, it is their only option," said Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.
"While the bill's passage is a significant step forward, it leaves behind thousands of patients. We hope the governor's staff promptly implements the measure and that the health department will approve additional qualifying conditions," O'Keefe added. "Voters overwhelmingly agree that seriously ill people should have legal access to medical marijuana."
Both the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project have worked along with state and local organizations for more than a decade to pass a medical marijuana bill in New York.