Advocates: Cuomo pot plan not enough

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Andrew Cuomo. (Governor Andrew Cuomo)
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Dan Goldberg

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday he is “comfortable” dusting off a 34-year old law to begin a medical marijuana program in the state.

But many advocates don't believe the so-called “Olivieri law” is comprehensive enough to provide the kind of medical marijuana program they say the state deserves.

“There is no dispute about that fact,” said Gabriel Sayegh, New York policy director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The Olivieri law is an interim step. It is not a program, as written, that will produce a system that New York needs.”

The law, for example, does not allow people to grow their own medical marijuana. It allows the commissioner of health to obtain pot from police — a somewhat unreliable and outdated method — and from the federal government, which no longer provides marijuana to states.

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It also calls for the commissioner of health to transfer medical marijuana that he obtains to as many as 20 hospitals for distribution to patients.

That might be a first step but it is not acceptable, said Richard Gottfried, Chair of the Assembly Committee on Health and sponsor of the Compassionate Care Act, which would create a statewide medical marijuana program.

“There is really no reason why a patient ought to have a medication approved by a hospital they have nothing to do with,” he said. “If your doctor prescribes hydrocodone or valium, two powerful narcotics, you don't have to go before some committee.”

But the bigger question is, would any hospital want to participate?

In other states, hospitals have been reluctant to involve themselves with medical marijuana for fear of losing federal funds.

A spokesman for the Greater New York Hospital Association said the trade group did not speak to the governor about the program nor was he aware of any individual hospitals that did.

“Hospitals don't want to become involved because they accept federal money and that's why colleges and universities don't want to be involved,” said Ken Wolski, a registered nurse and executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey.

Gov. Chris Christie learned that after he asked Rutgers, a state university, to grow, and have teaching hospitals sell, medical marijuana. Rutgers refused, citing concerns over funding.

New Jersey, in may ways, provides a case study for what can happen when a governor gives less than his full-throated support for a robust medical marijuana program as Cuomo appeared to do during Monday's press conference.

New Jersey's program, signed just before Gov. Jon Corzine left office in 2010, has been stymied by Christie. More than three years after its passage, only three dispensaries are operating and lack of access has frustrated patients and activists alike.

Access would appear to be a similar challenge in New York if only 20 hospitals are allowed to dispense.

“There are patients who have been on a waiting list for two years now,” said Roseanne Scotti, state director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance. “If you are going to go down this road, there have to be an adequate number of dispensaries.”

Medical marijuana programs “are only as good as the executive,” said Reed Gusciora, the Assemblyman who sponsored New Jersey's law.

"I know Cuomo is sometimes a cautious guy but he is open to the benefits of medical marijuana," he said. "Cuomo's challenge is to make sure there is enough legislative support.”

But that does not appear to be the governor's intent.

"This is not a law that implements a system," Cuomo said Monday. "This is the state undertaking ... a limited program."

The governor's office did not respond to requests asking if he supported any further legislation.

Sayegh said he is cautiously optimistic that the governor will throw his support behind some sort of legislation when he provides more details on Wednesday during his State of the State speech, and his group plans to continue to lobby the State Senate.

“If the governor characterizes the Olivieri law as a solution,” he said, “well, it's simply not a solution.”

Gottfried believes he has the votes in the Senate to pass his bill but said Republicans are reluctant to bring it to the floor.

“What they say privately is they don’t want to move a bill that doesn't have the governor's support,” Gottfried said. “The governor is really the gatekeeper. He could change this from night to day by saying he wants to work with the legislature.”