Last night, in an unusual show of bipartisan support, the New York Senate voted 50 to 12 in favor of a bill, sponsored by Senator Joe Griffo, that directs the state to establish a program to help critically ill patients obtain emergency access to medical marijuana as soon as possible. The Assembly version, sponsored by Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, passed last week by an overwhelming majority (130-18). The bill now goes to Governor Cuomo for his signature or veto.
The passage of this bill comes almost exactly one year after the legislature passed New York's medical marijuana law and almost ten months after the Governor urged the Health Commissioner to do everything in his power to get medical marijuana to children suffering from life-threatening forms of epilepsy. To date, not one patient has received medical marijuana, and at least four children, who might have benefitted from medical marijuana, have died since the governor signed the bill last year.
"Even though we worked tirelessly to pass New York's medical marijuana law, for the past year, my family and I have continued to watch Oliver suffer relentless, damaging seizures, all the while knowing that there is a medicine that could help him," said Missy Miller of Atlantic Beach, whose son Oliver suffers from life-threatening seizures. "Every day we go without this medicine is a day that Oliver loses ground, every day we live with the risk of him dying from these seizures. I hope Governor Cuomo will finally step up, do the right thing, demonstrate some compassion, and sign this bill into law ASAP."
The bill instructs the state to establish an emergency program for critically ill patients so that they can start receiving medical marijuana as quickly as possible. It also instructs the state to issue patient cards to critically ill patients who qualify as soon as possible making it clear that they are medical marijuana patients and affording them some protection from law enforcement and child protective services.
Recently, Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia swiftly signed a medical marijuana law to help children with severe epilepsy and announced the system should be up and running in the next 30 to 60 days. He went further and issued temporary patient cards to several families who had moved to other states as they awaited action so that they could return home with their medical marijuana without fear of being prosecuted. Governor Cuomo has insisted he cannot provide the same protections to New York families that Governor Deal provided to families in Georgia.
"Our daughter, Mackenzie, suffers from seizures all the time, and we are terrified that the next seizure could result in a fall that takes her life. Our entire family is constantly on guard," said Julie Kulawy, a nurse and mother of a child with epilepsy from Mills, New York. "We are grateful that Senator Griffo introduced and that the senate passed the emergency medical marijuana access bill and hope that the Governor will sign it and give our little girl a chance at life."
Since last 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 he needs to get the full medical marijuana program up and running.
Almost a year later, while other states had moved quickly to provide medical marijuana to children with epilepsy, the Cuomo Administration has offered bureaucratic and legalistic excuses, but no progress. Desperate for action, parents and patients turned to the legislature for help.
"As a four-time cancer survivor I know that medical marijuana can, not only relieve suffering, but extend lives by making it possible to tolerate life-sustaining treatments," said Nancy Rivera of Troy, NY. "People who are facing terminal illnesses, cannot wait much longer for relief. I hope Cuomo will have some compassion and sign this bill into law quickly."
The original version of New York's medical marijuana bill included a provision to provide emergency access to medical marijuana for those patients too ill to wait for the full program to become operational. The Governor's Office had that provision removed during bill negotiations last year, leaving critically ill patients vulnerable. Among the most at risk are children with serve forms of epilepsy, a condition which medical marijuana seems to help alleviate. Since the bill was signed, four New York children, who sought medical marijuana, have died -- three from seizure disorders and another brain cancer.
"I wanted my daughter Donella to have access to medical marijuana at the end of her life because I saw how it helped her," said Nathan Nocero of Niagara Falls, whose daughter Donella died of brain cancer in December. "Unfortunately, because of the inaction of the Cuomo Administration, Donnie died without access to a medication that would have relieved her suffering. I just hope they act now so that other children who are suffering can find relief."
In a strange twist, Senator Diane Savino of the Independent Democratic Caucus, who sponsored the original medical marijuana legislation, including a version of the bill that provided for emergency access, argued and voted against the bill, as did her entire caucus. In doing so, she repeated many of the same arguments as the Cuomo Administration about why they have failed to take action to save the lives of New Yorkers. But Sen. Savino's disappointing opposition couldn't stop the wave of support from Republicans and Democrats alike.
"I am thrilled that Senators from both sides of the aisle cast a vote for New York's critically ill children, like my daughter Morgan," said Kate Hintz of North Salem. "We've been asking the Cuomo Administration for access to medical marijuana for months to help Morgan, and finally, after endless delays and excuses from the Governor's office, the legislature has taken action."
The emergency access program would operate until the full medical marijuana system was up and running. Applications for producers were just submitted on June 5th, and the earliest the full program would be operational is January 2016.
"Too many people have suffered and died waiting for action by the Cuomo Administration," said Julie Netherland, PhD, deputy state director at the Drug Policy Alliance. "Yesterday's vote was a huge victory for patients and families across New York. Two years in a row, legislators - Republican and Democrats alike-- have supported access to medical marijuana for patients with serious illnesses. Now the Governor has the opportunity to do the right thing by signing this bill into law and getting help to our sickest and most vulnerable citizens. It's the right thing to do."