ALBANY – There has been a mood change among some members in the Republican Senate conference that could lead to the legalization of medical marijuana in New York State.
“There’s no question some members have indicated their support for it, but at the appropriate time we’ll discuss it and see if we take any legislative action,” said Senate co-leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican.
Advocates who have been pressing for medical marijuana use to help children suffering from severe seizures have been “very effective” in making their case, Skelos said.
The significance of Skelos’ comments is that they come from a legislative leader who has single-handedly killed past efforts to legalize medical marijuana. He said Wednesday his house “potentially” could pass legislation this session in some fashion to permit use of marijuana by some people with debilitating health conditions.
His comments came after several Senate Republicans, including three from Western New York, indicated some level of support after years of opposition to marijuana for use by cancer patients and children suffering seizures. The drug would be in liquid or gel form, with little or none of the substance that gets people high.
A group of advocates descended on the Capitol earlier this week to push the measure, including parents profiled by The Buffalo News who say they are considering moving to Colorado to obtain a special strain of medical marijuana for their children with rare forms of epilepsy.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo this year reversed course and said he supports medical marijuana, but critics say his program would be too limited and cut out too many patients, including children who need the drug in a form that would not be available in New York.
Medical marijuana use is now favored by Republican senators Mark Grisanti of Buffalo, George Maziarz of Newfane and Patrick Gallivan of Elma. In the past they either were opposed or did not push the issue.
“I feel comfortable with a medical marijuana bill,” Maziarz said.
He said the Senate GOP opposes any sort of relaxation of marijuana laws for recreational use. But he said parents, patients and doctors have made a compelling case that medical marijuana can be effective for certain health conditions.
“I’m sensing some movement,” Maziarz said of the issue in the Senate, where medical marijuana bills have died for years after being passed in the Assembly. He said he sees a compromise being reached between the regulatory approach Cuomo proposed and a bill in the Senate proposed by Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat who is a member of the coalition with breakaway Democrats and Republicans.
“It’s exciting. It’s like a domino effect,” Savino said of sudden GOP interest in approving a bill instead of Cuomo’s regulatory approach.
Savino added, “We certainly have enough votes to pass it now.’’
Sen. Joseph Robach, a Rochester-area Republican, said advocates have presented him stories on how taking marijuana – in forms ranging from smoking, vaporizing, liquid or pills – have improved their ability to get through the day. Robach urged a more measured approach than medical marijuana laws in California and Colorado. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and polls in New York show strong support for its use here.
The issue has been discussed twice in the past two weeks in closed-door conferences by Senate Republicans.
“I’ve spoken out for a lot of years against medical marijuana when I was Erie County sheriff. One of the things I always held my hat on was the lack of medical evidence that it was effective,” Gallivan said. “I think recently there’s been some medical evidence” that medical marijuana in certain forms can work.
Gallivan said he does not favor a broad medical use of marijuana, but believes it should be restricted to strains that have high cannabidiol, or CBD, but low tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the compound that gets marijuana users high. CBD, some doctors say, can provide relief for a variety of conditions. Many advocates say marijuana with a normal THC levels can be important for many, such as cancer patients on chemotherapy with appetite problems or those suffering conditions with chronic and severe pain who want to get off what they say are addictive and expensive traditional painkillers.
The fact that a former sheriff such as Gallivan is open to a form of medical marijuana use has advocates at the Capitol hopeful that the measure will get through the Senate this year. Lawmakers believe it likely will not be handled as part of the budget talks in the coming weeks but be a part of the end-of-session rush of bills later this spring.
“I think his position is clear, that if you can get it done, he will sign the bill,” Savino said of Cuomo’s position. “I think he realizes now the bill’s going to happen.”