ALBANY – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is pushing a medical marijuana plan that would ban smoking of the drug and allow it to be dispensed in only a liquid or oil-based form.
The governor’s demand comes at a time when he has ordered the state Health Department to work on a scaled-down medical marijuana program in which the drug could be smoked and comes after he told the Working Families Party to help win their recent endorsement that he supports decriminalization for people caught with relatively small amounts of marijuana.
“I don’t know what he thinks these young people would be doing with marijuana if not smoking it,” said State Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat and lead sponsor of a bill to allow private companies to grow marijuana approved by physicians to treat a limited number of diseases and health conditions, such as cancer and HIV.
The medical marijuana battle is among the highest-profile issues being negotiated at the State Capitol as the Senate and Assembly begin their last week of the 2014 session.
Savino said several portions of Cuomo’s proposal, made only verbally through aides over the weekend, are “nonstarters,” such as limiting dispensing to only 20 locations in the state and putting a five-year sunset on the law that, she said, would keep private manufacturers from coming here to invest in marijuana growing and dispensing operations.
The governor has been sending mixed signals on the medical marijuana issue. For three years, he opposed its legalization but changed his mind this year by issuing an executive order to implement a law put in place, but never used, in 1980 that could get the drug from the federal government or drugs confiscated in police raids.
The governor also reignited his support a few weeks ago for decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana possession.
But on Monday, in an interview on public radio’s “Capitol Pressroom,” he raised cautions about the bill proposed in the Legislature that he said could be unwieldy for the state to operate, permits too many kinds of diseases to be treated with the drug and would allow patients to have up to as many as 200 joints per month.
“We’re talking about a lot of marijuana being distributed to individuals,” he said.
That could put Cuomo in a difficult position in an election year. On one hand, he would seek to portray the measure, if it did pass both houses, as overly broad and dangerous. Advocates for cancer and other organizations will call him out for, in their view, denying them a treatment for things like chemotherapy and debilitating pain as an alternative to sometimes addictive and expensive prescription painkillers.
Asked if the Senate GOP would go along with letting the medical marijuana bill get to the floor without an agreement with the governor, Senate co-leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, said: “We haven’t made that determination yet.”
Richard Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat and longtime sponsor of medical marijuana bills in the Assembly, which has supported the effort for years, dismissed suggestions by Cuomo that the bill he and Savino came up with was done as some sort of political deal.
He noted the state’s criminal-justice services and Health Departments over the years have had a role in helping to reshape their bill.
Gottfried said Cuomo’s idea to limit dispensing sites to 20 in a state as large as New York is unworkable.
“In a five-block stretch in my district, more than 20 pharmacy outlets sell hydrocodone,” he said, adding that the limit Cuomo is proposing “does not make sense.”
Gottfried joined Savino in questioning the governor’s no-smoking idea when Cuomo’s own policy plans would permit medical marijuana to be smoked or for the decriminalization of marijuana possession in certain cases.
“I don’t think it’s logically consistent,” Gottfried said.
The Savino-Gottfried bill, supported by Western New York Senate Republicans Mark Grisanti of Buffalo and George Maziarz of Newfane, bans smoking of medical marijuana for patients under age 21.
The governor Monday did not rule out the use of a “message of necessity” to deal with the medical marijuana issue, meaning the sides could drag out talks until Thursday to produce a final deal.
On other issues, the governor seemed to dash the hopes of Catholic Church leaders and others who are pushing for the Education Investment Tax Credit, a program that backers say will help stem the loss of students at religious and other schools. Cuomo said he did not expect any serious action on that measure this week.
Savino and Gottfried did make a midnight deadline last night to put in an amended version of their bill – the fifth time – that takes into account some of Cuomo’s concerns, and rejected others. The new version, which is going through a legal “aging’’ process and can be live for a Thursday vote, permits smoking of the drug, though not in public places and, like an earlier version, by no one under the age of 21. It strikes out three diseases or conditions – lupus, post-concussion syndrome and diabetes – from eligibility list for which marijuana can be prescribed and reduces from 2.5 ounces to 2 ounces the maximum amount a doctor can prescribe for a patient each month.
The bill also includes no sunset – Cuomo wanted the program to be a test pilot ending in five years – though it gives more wiggle room to Cuomo’s health commissioner in creating the marijuana dispensing program.
Lawmakers rushed to beat the midnight deadline and introduced dozens of bills before Monday became Tuesday. The deadline was important because it marked the final time a bill could be introduced – without special permission from Cuomo – and still be voted on Thursday, the scheduled end of the 2014 session.
Bills getting introduced at the last minute included a two-year extension of the brownfields and Superfund cleanup programs, used to help developers restore abandoned and often contaminated industrial sites, and the addition of one new family court judge in each of 16 counties, including Erie and Chautauqua counties. A program bill by the governor to ban the sale of rhino horns also made it in by midnight.
Apparently not getting a sponsor in the Assembly by midnight, according to a check of bill introductions last night, was a bill to match a Senate plan to allow funeral homes to sell food and beverages, including “Danish, cookies, sandwiches, assorted platters and hot trays of food.”