A ‘disappointing’ State of the State for pot advocates

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Dan Goldberg

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Advocates for medical marijuana expected more from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's State of the State speech on Wednesday.

“It's disappointing to say the least,” said Gabriel Sayegh, New York policy director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The governor didn't provide any details.”

Cuomo had raised expectations over the weekend, when the New York Times reported that the governor would embrace medicinal marijuana in his speech, with a new plan that revived a dormant 1980 statute allowing designated hospitals to prescribe the drug to approved patients.

But his remarks on Wednesday did little to answer a number of questions surrounding the plan.

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A briefing book that accompanied the State of the State speech says, “the medical marijuana program will allow scientific research and evaluation into whether medical marijuana can be dispensed in an effective and controlled way without being abused.”

It does not say how the marijuana would be obtained, or how hospitals would be qualified to dispense the drug. It also does not say whether specific strains of marijuana can be grown to help patients with specific ailments. 

“This is not creating a medical marijuana program, and it would not be appropriate to call New York the 21st state with a medical marijuana program," said Sayegh.

That leaves Sayegh and other advocates in much the same position they have been in for more than a year: fighting to pass comprehensive legislation in the State Senate, which has so far refused to bring a bill to the floor.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, chair of the health committee and author of a more expansive marijuana bill, believes the Senate would pass legislation if the leadership allowed such a bill to come for a vote.

After Cuomo's speech, Gottfried said the underlying law was unworkable.

“[Cuomo's] position on medical marijuana ends up opening the issue so that we can really get something workable done,” he said. “His endorsement of the principle is enormously important, but the law he wants to use really can't work.”

The 1980 Olivieri law, which allows the state's department of health to choose up to 20 hospitals to dispense marijuana, or the criteria under which hospitals will be chosen. Cuomo would sign a more robust bill allowing independent dispensaries, nor is it clear if Cuomo intended this to be a real beginning or a small pilot program.

“At my most cynical, I would say this would be an effort to generate headlines without generating action,” Sayegh said. “I would like to take a more optimistic view. That even though this is not being rolled out in an effective way that the governor is [with us] and we are going to get this done.”