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State leaders agree on medical marijuana bill

WBFO News photo by Karen DeWitt

State leaders Thursday reached an agreement to legalize medical marijuana in New York.  Governor Andrew Cuomo says the drug will now be available to severely ill patients.  But he says safeguards will be in place to prevent abuse.

"There are certainly significant medical benefits," Cuomo said.  "At the same time, there are difficult issues because there are risks.  We believe this bill strikes the right balance."

The bill will not allow smoking of marijuana.  Cuomo’s acting  health commissioner says 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 says 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,” said Cuomo.

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,  says she’s “excited and relieved” that there will be some sort of measure approved this year, but says 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 had 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 eighteen months, even longer if Cuomo’s health department decides more time is needed to get the program up and running.