Buffalo News: Approval predicted for medical marijuana
State legislators likelyto act this session
ALBANY — Long-stalled efforts to permit the medicinal use of marijuana in this state appear to have a good chance of passage before lawmakers end their session in June. It would make New York the 15th state to legalize the drug for medical reasons.
Advocates say they believe the Democratic- controlled Senate and Assembly have the votes to pass legislation permitting qualified patients to grow their own marijuana plants, or obtain the drug on the streets or through a state-sanctioned dispensary.Gov. David A. Paterson also is said to be supportive of the legalization.
“It’s looking pretty darn good,” Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat and Health Committee chairman, said of the bill’s chance to become law this session.
The lawmaker, who has sponsored the measure for years, renewed a public push Tuesday, using the cases of two New Yorkers who have turned to marijuana to relieve their chronic pain as evidence of the need for the bill.
“I’m looking for all the help we can get to get this passed,” said Joel Peacock, a Buffalo resident and self-described conservative, who turned to the drug in the past to help with severe pain he still feels from a 2001 car accident.
The effort was jump-started by the Obama administration’s decision in February to stop raids on marijuana-dispensing centers in California, where medical marijuana is legal. U. S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. signaled that federal prosecution would cease in states that legalize medical marijuana, even though U. S. law bans the drug’s use.
The Assembly is considered certain to pass the measure. Advocates are working on the Senate Senate, where control switched in January to Democrats from Republicans.
In 2007, the measure had the backing of a half-dozen Republicans. Supporters say they fear as many as four Democrats, including Sen. William T. Stachowski, D-Lake View, might oppose it. That would require GOP help to get it passed in a chamber where Democrats hold a thin, 32-30 majority. Stachowski could not be reached to comment Tuesday.
Paterson’s office said the governor is not taking a stance on the bill, but sources described him as very supportive and said he even offered to introduce his own legislation legalizing medical marijuana.
Proponents say marijuana helps to relieve pain from such diseases as multiple sclerosis and to calm nausea, as well as to aid the appetite of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. The measure has the backing of groups representing physicians, nurses and hospices.
The association representing the state’s district attorneys has not taken a formal position on the bill, said Daniel Donovan, the Staten Island district attorney and president of the group.
Speaking for himself and not his organization, Donovan, said a number of other drugs — from methadone to oxycondone — have been legalized to help with such things as relieving pain. “I’m not opposed to the idea. I’m open to the idea of seeing studies — and will trust the medical field,” he said.
The most vocal opposition comes from the state’s small but influential Conservative Party, which helped to kill the 2007 bill in the Republican-led Senate.
“If this passes, this is the beginning of a slippery slope that opens the door to legalize drugs,” said Michael R. Long, the party’s chairman.
Long said patients have plenty of alternatives to marijuana for pain relief. He claimed a lack of controls to prevent marijuana prescribed for a patient from getting into the hands of the patient’s children or from being sold on the streets.
“This is not helpful to our society,” Long said.
But Peacock, the subject of a 2007 profile in The Buffalo News, said his pain medications cost him and his insurer $39,000 a year. Pulling a package of painkillers from his pocket Tuesday — which cost $26 a dose — Peacock said marijuana would be both cheaper and more effective.
Peacock, who is enrolled in the Conservative Party, used marijuana during a construction job in Louisiana several years ago and then in Florida. He does not use it now because it is illegal in this state. “It took the pain away. I was absolutely amazed,” he said Tuesday at a news conference in Albany.
Joe Gamble, a Liverpool resident, a former Army paratrooper and commercial pilot, turns to marijuana now to relieve his pain from multiple sclerosis. He called for “a little compassion.”
“It’s not for everybody, but it certainly does work for me,” he said.
Backers say this is the first time the Assembly and Senate have had the same versions of medical marijuana bills. They note its Senate sponsor — Sen. Thomas K. Duane, a Manhattan Democrat — is chairman of the Health Committee, which has oversight of the matter.
Duane predicted the bill will pass with Democratic and Republican backing, saying: “This is about compassion. This is about medicine. This is not about politics.”
The bill would make marijuana legal for those sanctioned by a physician with a “serious condition,” defined as a “severe debilitating or life-threatening condition or a condition associated with or a complication of such a condition or its treatment, including but not limited to inability to tolerate food, nausea, vomiting, dysphoria or pain.”
It permits the possession of up to 12 marijuana plants or 2z ounces of marijuana. Those approved for the program can grow the plants from seeds purchased in the illicit drug market or through state-approved dispensing centers. The centers also could dispense marijuana.
The bill calls for the state Health Department to play a role in regulating entities that produce and sell marijuana to eligible patients. Patients that violate the terms of the bill would be subject to stricter penalties than someone now caught possessing marijuana.
Those eligible to legally smoke the drug for medical reasons would be given a card good for a year before requiring new approval by a physician or an approved caregiver. Doctors could not prescribe marijuana for themselves.
Patients deciding to grow their own marijuana must keep it in a locked, enclosed area, such as a greenhouse or closet accessible only to the patient or caregiver. Patients could not smoke the drug in a public place, and no caregiver could be responsible for more than five patients approved for medical marijuana.
The bill allows the state to charge dispensers a fee, and the entities could be anything from a pharmacy to a hospital clinic to a registered marijuana producer. It does not require insurers to cover the treatments.
Critics have said wording that lets eligible patients get the drug on the streets will only encourage the illegal drug trade.
A growing number of states, including Minnesota, Illinois and New Jersey, are considering medical marijuana laws, especially after the Obama administration’s policy change on the issue. In November, voters approved the drug’s use in Michigan and Massachusetts.