ALBANY – Efforts to legalize medical marijuana advanced at the state Capitol today with word from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that formal talks have begun with legislators to permit the drug to be dispensed to patients with certain health conditions or diseases.
This morning the medical marijuana measure advanced from the Senate Finance Committee to the Rules Committee, the last stop before going to the floor for a full Senate vote.
“We will have a final product in time for the end of this legislative session,’’ said Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat who is the lead sponsor of the measure. She has said 40 senators back her effort, and her bill is co-sponsored by several Republicans, including Western New York Sens. George Maziarz and Mark Grisanti.
The Assembly for years has passed measures to legalize medical marijuana and will all but certainly approve whatever emerges in the final round of talks now underway.
With legislators pushing the effort along, Cuomo, who had been a staunch opponent of the initiative, earlier this year changed his mind and said the state would offer a medical marijuana program. But advocates call Cuomo’s plan too limiting and say it would prevent access for tens of thousands of patients with cancer, HIV and other conditions.
On a public radio interview this morning, Cuomo said of the issue, “In concept, it’s a good idea.’’
“It is not dead,’’ Cuomo said of the medical marijuana bill. He said there are still “a lot of questions’’ about how the drug will be grown and distributed in such a way as to prevent diversion of marijuana to individuals who don’t get a prescription to receive it.
Some advocates thought the bill might be in trouble when Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse Republican, said earlier this week he would not let the measure be voted out of his Senate Finance Committee.
One Senate Republican earlier this week, after hearing DeFrancisco’s remarks, said, “We are not doing a lot of other bills, but medical marijuana is getting done this session.’’
So today, without a public meeting, Savino’s bill was reported out of Senate Finance and to Rules. But it was not done with a vote, but rather by use of a provision in the rules of the chamber that permits the Senate Rules Committee to simply snatch a bill from any committee and move it onto its agenda.
Sources said the Cuomo administration is looking at a number of issues with the bill sponsored in the Senate by Savino and in the Assembly by Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried. There are protections against people losing their housing or jobs that the administration wants to tweak, and Cuomo advisers also want specific training protocols for doctors who would be permitted to prescribe the drug. They also want only doctors who are legal New York state residents, and not, say, a doctor who lives in Connecticut but works in New York, to be able to participate in the program.
Savino, in a hallway session with reporters today, said none of the changes being sought by Cuomo would limit the availability of the drug to people who have one of the health conditions eligible to be treated with medical marijuana. The bill also bans anyone under age 21 from obtaining marijuana that has to be smoked; those patients will be eligible to obtain oil-based or spray-based compounds.
Savino said the final deal will end up with the “most regulated program in the United States.’’
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have authorized some form of medical marijuana programs.
Advocates say the drug has been shown as effective in helping to treat certain health problems, such as chronic pain conditions or loss of appetite associated with chemotherapy treatments for cancer patients, in ways more effective, cheaper and less addictive than traditional prescription painkillers.
Critics say that if the state legalizes the drug’s use for medicinal purposes, it would be sending a bad message to teens and others that marijuana use is acceptable.