ALBANY – Legalizing the use of medical marijuana passed a crucial hurdle Tuesday when the Senate Health Committee approved a bill allowing its use by patients with certain health conditions and under tightly regulated growing conditions.
The vote is the furthest that the measure has ever gotten in the Senate, where it has died year after year following passage in the Assembly. But this year, it gained momentum with a push by a growing coalition of patient and medical groups, and had the political advantage of being sponsored by Sen. Diane J. Savino, a hard-driving lawmaker from Staten Island who is part of a small coalition of independent Democrats who rule the Senate with Republicans.
The measure now moves to the Senate Finance Committee. If it makes it through that panel and goes to the floor, its passage is certain, Savino has said, because she has at least 40 votes in the 63-member chamber.
While the Senate Finance Committee has the numbers to kill the bill, it is all but certain that the issue will become part of the end-of-session horse-trading that comes in the middle of June on all sorts of legislation as the 2014 session heads to a close.
The Senate version has been heavily amended from past measures that stalled, including banning homegrown marijuana, limiting it to specific medical conditions and allowing up to 20 manufacturers that will have to take specific precautions in an effort to keep the drug off the black market.
The Senate version would ban smoking of medical marijuana for people younger than 21. There are oil-based forms of the drug that some children with serious seizure issues have turned to in Colorado and California.
“In the end, smoking may be the only way that some people can achieve the relief that medical marijuana can provide, and I don’t think we should have a blanket prohibition on it,” Savino told her colleagues during a hearing Tuesday.
But Sen. Martin J. Golden, R-Brooklyn, a former New York City police officer, said that medical marijuana will be legalized someday but that it should not be now. He said the federal Food and Drug Administration should act before New York State does.
The measure passed the Health Committee by a 9-8 vote, with the sole Republican vote coming from Sen. William J. Larkin Jr., an 86-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel who represents West Point in the Mid-Hudson Valley; he saw combat duty in World War II and the Korean War and has been a state legislator for 35 years.
“To pick up Sen. Larkin was tremendous,” said Gabriel Sayegh, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which has coordinated the push for the measure for years.
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have legalized some form of medical marijuana dispensing.
The Assembly has long passed medical marijuana legalization and is all but certain to go along with anything that the Senate ends up passing.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said his administration would begin a limited pilot program, with fewer than a couple of dozen hospitals, based on a 1980 New York law that approved, but never implemented, the use of medical marijuana. That law is more restrictive than the measure passed by the Health Committee on Tuesday. The 1980 law also envisions marijuana being obtained partly through drugs confiscated by police in raids. Health officials today, and even the State Police in 1980, called that idea unworkable and dangerous for users, given the unknown ingredients in confiscated drugs.
The new measure by Savino, she said, “would create the tightest, most regulated program in the nation.” She noted that the prescription process would be highly regulated and that only certain serious health conditions would be eligible for treatment with the drug.
“What we’ve done is adopt the best practices from other states and rejected the worst,” she told her colleagues.
The Senate hearing room was packed with advocates of the bill. Critics have dismissed the measure as a dangerous step to eventual legalization of all marijuana use in New York.
Savino said the safeguards include giving a preference for participation in the program to manufacturers who have relationships with distributors to better protect against the drug falling into the black market. Every plant grown at one of the 20 manufacturers in New York would have a bar code to track it as it goes from farm to distributor to patient.
“We need to make sure patients have access to a clean product that they can trust and that their doctors can trust,” Savino said.
The measure has received an added push this year by parents of children who are afflicted with rare seizure conditions, including a number of families from Western New York who have told their stories to The Buffalo News and have threatened to move to Colorado later this year if New York does not legalize medical marijuana.
Colorado and California have legalized special oil-based marijuana for children – with the compound that gets people high all but removed – and some parents have provided anecdotal reports of initial success in reducing instances of seizures in their children.
Sayegh said he believes that the Senate Finance Committee offers fewer hurdles than the Health Committee, which he called “one of the biggest obstacles we’ve faced” in the current push that has been stepped up this year. He said his group has not yet received clear signals from Cuomo’s office about the Savino bill, which he said also has been the work of the Assembly sponsor, Richard N. Gottfried, D-Manhattan, chairman of the Assembly Health Committee.
The issue has received increasing GOP support this year in the Senate. With Larkin, there are now at least six Senate Republicans who support the measure, including Sens. George D. Maziarz, of Newfane, and Mark J. Grisanti, of Buffalo.
Interestingly, gone from the short debate was past criticism by some lawmakers that medical marijuana would send a message to young people that the smoking of marijuana is acceptable. Instead, there was criticism that the state was jumping ahead of the federal government or that the system to run the distribution of medical marijuana would be difficult to create.
Among those closely watching Tuesday’s vote were companies that grow marijuana in other states and have hired lobbyists in New York. “Today, there are thousands of seriously ill New Yorkers who should be more optimistic than they were yesterday,” said GAIA Plant Based Medicine, a Colorado firm.
The bill would permit marijuana’s use to treat 20 “serious conditions,” which include cancer, AIDS, traumatic brain injury, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and other “severe debilitating or life-threatening” conditions.