New York to Allow Limited Medical Marijuana

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Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature have agreed to a limited medical marijuana program for patients with cancer, AIDS, and childhood seizure disorders.

Cuomo, who had expressed reservations about allowing medical marijuana, said the bill will grant sick people access to the drug while imposing limits that will prevent abuse of marijuana.

"It strikes the right balance,” Cuomo said.

The bill will not allow smoking of marijuana. Cuomo’s acting health commissioner said using a vaporizer can work just as well.

Only doctors will be allowed to prescribe the drug, and will have to take a special course before they are permitted to do so.

Patients will have to register with the state Health Department, and will have to carry their registration cards with them at all times.

And there will be criminal penalties for doctors and patients who try to sell or use the drug for other purposes.

The governor said one of the most important provisions, to him, is that he can shut down the program at any time, for any reason.

“You can just pull the plug out of the wall at any moment and the entire system stops,” Cuomo said.

Advocates for medical marijuana, who held a vigil at the Capitol for the past several days, were cautiously supportive.

Holly Anderson, with the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester, said she’s “excited and relieved” that there will be some sort of measure approved this year, but added that she finds it “disappointing that smoking has been eliminated." She’s also concerned that some of the restrictions on doctors, including possible felony charges for any alleged abuses, could discourage physicians from prescribing the drug.

Senate sponsor Diane Savino initially said that eliminating smoking of marijuana as a treatment was a “non-starter." But she now says she had to compromise in order to get relief for children with severe seizure disorders, who can benefit from an oil-based derivative of marijuana. Several of the children had also been in the halls outside the governor’s office. “You can’t stand in the way,” Savino said. “How could we say no?"

Under the plan, the state Department of Health will choose five private companies to grow and distribute the marijuana, all within New York State. Each company will be eligible to run four dispensaries for a total of 20 statewide.

It will be some time before patients will have access to the drug. The new law would not take effect for 18 months, or even longer if Cuomo’s health department decides more time is needed to get the program up and running.