By Allison Hibbs
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo came out in support of medical marijuana earlier this month, he announced a plan to use existing state legislation to make the drug available to a small number of severely ill patients. The shift sparked statewide interest and enthusiasm from advocates and lawmakers who are hoping that the move signifies a willingness to consider more robust legislative change—but the governor has made it clear that he wants to start small and move slowly.
“This is not a law that is implementing a system,” Cuomo told reporters. “That’s not what this is. This is the state undertaking, under state control, a limited program through the government’s health facilities.”
The governor emphasized that initially the program would be administered by no more than 20 hospitals. “This does not start with the premise, ‘Oh, this is a slam dunk, we can do it, and we can do it without any ancillary problems,’ ” Cuomo said. “It’s the exact opposite.”
Even with the governor’s limited proposal, there are potential hurdles ahead. The plan, which relies on an obscure 1980 law, depends on the federal government’s approval of a research program to enable the state to procure and distribute the plant. The parameters of the law would limit the number of patients who qualify for treatment and require hospitals to dispense the drug. Medical marijuana advocates argue that the use of the law, if it even proves feasible, simply is not sufficient to alleviate the suffering of many New Yorkers.
Others who advocate for the full legalization of marijuana—regulated and taxed by the state like alcohol or tobacco—believe that such a change would help reduce social inequities and save New York billions of dollars annually. The governor has insisted that his plan is not a first step toward allowing pot for recreational use, asserting that full legalization is a “nonstarter.”
Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and state Sen. Diane Savino, both supporters of legalizing the drug for medicinal purposes, have repeatedly introduced legislation known as the Compassionate Care Act, which has passed the Assembly but keeps stalling in the Republican-controlled Senate. The most recent iteration of the bill, A.6357-A, has already passed the Assembly Health Committee this year. It would set up a regulated and controlled system for producing and dispensing medical cannabis, allow for licensed practitioners to prescribe the drug and require patients to register with the state Department of Health.
“I think that the interim step that the governor is taking is important, because it can begin to be implemented now without legislation,” said Gottfried, the longtime chair of the Assembly Health Committee. “But very clearly, there will be tens of thousands of patients who ought to have access to medical marijuana who will not under the 1980 law. And I think the governor’s staff understands that and so I hope we will be able to work out a comprehensive bill this session.”
Gottfried pointed to the 20 other states that have already enacted marijuana legislation as providing ample evidence of the benefits of the proposal. “With his support,” the lawmaker said of Cuomo, “I think enacting it is almost a sure thing.”
At an Albany rally for the Compassionate Care Act on Jan. 13, Savino told attendees that the bill was not yet ready for the Senate floor, but that there was “sufficient support in both Conferences,” adding, “You can’t force a bill to the floor until the bill is ready.”
The 1980 state legislation that would permit the governor’s limited marijuana program, the Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Program, does not go far enough, Savino argued. She told City & State that in 1980, “No one could have envisioned the future use of medical marijuana and the number and types of conditions it could provide relief for.” The governor should use the Olivieri law to begin making regulatory changes to implement t h e Compassionate Care Act “when it passes the Legislature,” she said, adding that Cuomo could also use it to establish the nation’s first state medical marijuana research program in conjunction with New York’s university system.
Republican lawmakers have traditionally opposed medical marijuana. “There are other members of the Senate—Senator Savino, who’s not complacent with that point of view—but at the moment the governor has been there, and he would have to be the one to do it,” said state Sen. Kemp Hannon, a Republican who chairs the Senate Health Committee. “Indications are there are actually some hospitals that would be helpful along those lines, and I think that’s the direction that, for the moment, we’ll go.”
Gabriel Sayegh, the New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, argued that the only current impediment to passage of the bill in the Senate is political. “Having the leadership bring it to the floor for a vote—that is the single and only hurdle we have,” he said. “We’re confident the votes are there.”
Sayegh claimed that a number of Senate Republicans who have voiced their support privately are reluctant to do so publicly. While Senate Co-Leader Jeffrey Klein has been supportive of the legislation, Republican Conference Leader Sen. Dean Skelos has openly opposed it in the past. Without Republican support, it is unlikely that Skelos will allow a vote on the legislation.
“We’re less concerned about Senator Skelos supporting the bill itself than about making sure that there can be a clear vote where legislators can vote their conscience without interference by a lot of this political back-and-forth that has essentially stalled the bill for 16 years in the state Senate and ultimately led to a great amount of suffering for New Yorkers,” Sayegh said.
A bill supported by Gov. Cuomo that would have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana died in the Senate last year. The bill would have made the possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana punishable by a fine, rather than criminal arrest. According to lawmakers supportive of the bill, tens of thousands of New Yorkers have been arrested over the last decade as a result of a loophole in the current decriminalization legislation that was written in 1977. They contend these arrests have been costly to the state and applied discriminatorily, disproportionately affecting the black community. The new legislation was designed to close that loophole, and enjoys the support of 60 percent of New Yorkers as well as the New York City Council, Democratic and Republican district attorneys, and various law enforcement leaders.
The governor announced his support of decriminalization last year as debate raged over the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactics. But with Bill de Blasio, who ran on reforming stop-and-frisk in New York City, having been elected mayor, the governor has since dropped the issue.
“It was really about stop-and-frisk, that issue; stop-and-frisk was driving it,” Cuomo said. “Stop-and-frisk is obviously not the issue that it was last year, and we didn’t have the votes for it last year. So it’s not timely the way it was last year.”