Cuomo and leaders strike ‘balance’ on medical marijuana

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Diane Savino and Richard Gottfried. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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ALBANY—Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders announced the framework of a deal on Thursday to legalize marijuana for medicinal use.

“We’re going to be sending up a bill shortly that we believes strikes the right balance,” Cuomo told reporters during a press conference in the Capitol's Red Room. 

The proposed bill “has the capacity to do a lot of good for a lot of people who are in pain ... and are in desperate need of treatment," Cuomo said.

The deal, which would make New York the 23rd state with medical marijuana, was reached after days of negotiations among Cuomo and the bill’s sponsors in the Senate and Assembly.

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Cuomo did not begin discussing the contours of the legislation until last week, despite months of advocacy on behalf of the the legislation from Sen. Diane Savino, the Senate sponsor of the bill, and patients and patient advocacy groups. Advocates have been a near-constant presence at the statehouse during that time, meeting with Republican lawmakers and holding informational press conferences to sway votes in the bill’s favor.

The bill would prohibit smokable forms of the drug, and the compromise curtails both the number of manufacturers allowed to grow the drug and the companies that could dispense it, compared to the prior bill sponsored by Savino and Assembly sponsor Richard Gottfried. Only five manufacturers would be granted grow licenses, and up to 20 dispensaries would be allowed statewide.

Senator Jeff Klein, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, said he expects Republican leader Dean Skelos to allow the bill to the Senate's floor for a vote, and said he expects it to pass with the support of several Republican senators. 

Cuomo negotiated for a sunset provision in the legislation that would automatically end the program after five years, but the bill also includes a "failsafe," Cuomo said, to enable the governor to shut down the program if it somehow goes awry, or leads to increased drug diversion and illegal use. The governor could recommend suspending the program “at any time,” Cuomo said, if it is determined that “there is a risk to public health and public safety.” The legislation would also include a sunset provision that ends the program in seven years. 

Under the terms of the deal, the program would be operational within 18 months of the bill’s enactment. Only doctors could administer the program, which would be run by the state's health department. 

Marijuana could be prescribed to treat about half a dozen medical conditions: epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, A.L.S. (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, neuropathies, spinal cord injuries, cancer and HIV/AIDS. Other diseases can be added to the list of covered conditions after being approved by the state’s Department of Health, said acting state health commissioner Howard Zucker.

Patients who receive the drug will receive an ID card, which they must carry with them at all times.

The bill would also increase criminal penalties for people who defraud the program, Zucker said. 

Zucker said the prohibition of smoking was a continuation of the state’s current attitude toward smoking.

“Regarding the delivery of marijuana, it can be delivered by vaporization, oils, pills, or other possible mechanisms as new research demonstrates is effective,” Zucker said. “I want to make a key point: As the governor has mentioned, smoking will not be a form of delivery. We have spent billions of dollars in the effort to eliminate smoking, and it goes against all the wisdom of public health to turn our backs on all that we have done is this area. And data shows the use of vaporization can deliver marijuana effectively,” he said.

The bill would still allow patients to be prescribed as much as two ounces of the drug every 30 days, Gottfried said.

Zucker said the legislation would allow for the number of manufacturers and dispensaries to be expanded in the future, if there is additional need. The dispensaries can be for-profit businesses, and the manufacturers will be selected based on regulations the state’s health department must develop in the coming months. The bill and its regulations would include some safeguards to ensure that there is “geographical diversity” in the location of manufacturers and dispensaries, officials said.

And the measure will also yield some tax revenue for the state. The bill would include a 7 percent tax on gross receipts of the sale of the drug. State officials said they could not give an estimate of how much revenue that tax would yield on an annual basis.

The drug, which is still illegal at the federal level, would likely not be covered by insurance plans. The bill does not require insurers to cover medical marijuana, Zucker said. But any doctor who wishes to become a prescriber would have to be licensed to practice in New York State and would have to undergo a training program, which the state will develop, officials said Thursday.

Gottfried, who has been pushing to legalize medicinal marijuana for more than a decade, said the bill was a compromise.

“It’s certainly not everything that I would want, but this is large, diverse state,” Gottfried said. “I think I figured out when I was about 14 that the world was not going to do everything I wanted."

Gottfried said he believed the state’s health officials would quickly realize the number of dispensaries was not enough to meet demand for the drug.

“The commissioner is authorized to increase the number, I expect he will realize that that’s necessary,” Gottfried said. He also expressed reservations about the 18-month timeline for the program’s implementation, saying he hopes the administration finds a way to deliver the drug to patients who need it during the interim.

“In New York it can take forever to change a lightbulb. I am concerned about how long it’s going to take to get this up and running. I think it’s especially important that at least on a limited basis some product be made available,” he said.