Lawmakers get into the details of proposed pot program

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Diane Savino (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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ALBANY—With a proposal to legalize medical marijuana gaining momentum in the State Senate, lawmakers on Wednesday questioned patients, attorneys and marijuana business owners on the particulars of such a program.

“Many of us in the legislature are conversant I guess with the legislative side of it, but very few of us are conversant with the kinds of questions we’re asking,” said Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a Westchester Democrat, after one witness explained the difference between street names for strains of the drug (including "Bubble Gum Kush") and the technical labels that some states assign.

“We need to be able to understand it, particularly if we need to be able to ‘sell it,’” Hassell-Thompson added, making air-quotes.

The three-hour hearing was led by Senator Diane Savino, the Senate sponsor of the Compassionate Care Act, and other supportive senators wandered in and out, including Republicans Mark Grisanti, Joe Robach and George Maziarz, and Democrats Hassell-Thompson, Joe Addabbo, Dave Valesky, David Carlucci and Jeff Klein.

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Savino has been on a very public information campaign to push for the Compassionate Care Act, in the months since Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to allow for a limited medicinal program under an existing 1980 law. Savino and other lawmakers have argued for a more comprehensive plan, which would establish a program for growing and distributing the drug, which Savino and Assembly sponsor Richard Gottfried have argued would benefit more patients than the governor's plan.

In recent weeks, nearly a half-dozen Republican lawmakers have come out in support of Savino’s bill, with several saying they were moved by the testimony of parents whose children suffer from epilepsy that could be mitigated by medicinal marijuana.

At the hearing, Savino attempted to demystify the drug, and how it would be used in a medical context.

Dean Petkanas, chairman and C.E.O. of KannaLife, a pharmaceutical company that is exploring uses for medical marijuana, showed lawmakers a small aluminum packet, used to adminster the drug to patients in Colorado.

“It’s very important that people see this, the packaging you use in your dispensary,” Savino said as she took the little packet and hoisted it aloft for the audience to see.

Savino pointed out the labeling information, designed to ensure the drug goes only to its intended recipient, to allay some lawmakers’ lingering fears that legalizing the drug could lead to its abuse or diversion for recreational purposes.

And she contrasted her own efforts with those of the state, which has yet to hold hold public hearings, after anouncing its limited plan in January. 

“Has anyone from the New York State Department of Health contacted you?” Savino asked one witness, after his testimony. He and nearly a dozen other witnesses shook their heads.

Savino's campaign seems to have had an effect: lawmakers have begun to articulate some of the more technical aspects of marijuana knowledge that were previously the province of pot connoisseurs, along with the differences between smokeable and oil-based forms of the drug. Others casually toss off facts about the tax implications and federal regulations of a proposed legalization program.

In an interview last week, Senator Joe Robach listed a number of ailments the drug could treat, after meeting with the parents of patients who spoke to him about the drug’s potential benefits.

“When you see some of the parents of these children who with the cannabinoid oil go from 100 seizures a day to single digits and can now lead normal lives, that’s very compelling,” Robach said. “They could use a pill that relaxes their muscles, or even those who smoke it to stop nausea, that’s very compelling to me,” he said.

Senator Dean Skelos, the Republican coalition’s leader, told reporters last week he supports oil-based forms of the drug, but still has concerns about smoking, while he intends to do more research on “vaporizers.”

Senator Tom Libous, a conservative Republican who is also battling a cancer diagnosis, told Capitol Tonight he plans to do his “homework” on the issue.