36° Good Morning
36° Good Morning

New York to allow medical marijuana -- but not for smoking

After threatening a veto, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo

After threatening a veto, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo sat down with legislators to try to reach a last-minute deal to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. Shown here at SUNY Old Westbury on June 11, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

ALBANY -- State lawmakers reached an agreement Thursday that would make New York the 23rd state to legalize medical marijuana.

Under the terms of the agreement, the system would prohibit the smoking of marijuana and would allow use only in connection with about 10 diseases and syndromes. The drug would be available only through other forms, such as edibles, oils and vaporizers. Physicians and patients would face criminal penalties for abuse of the system.

The program wouldn't start for at least 18 months. Five regulated manufacturers would be selected to grow the drug in the state and operate four dispensaries each. The drug would have to be cultivated and distributed all within New York borders, and non-state residents wouldn't be eligible for treatment. The state would assess a 7 percent tax on manufacturers.

Additionally, the legislation would authorize medical marijuana for just seven years, with an evaluation after that. Further, it gives the governor power to abruptly stop the program if he sees abuse or other problems, based on input from the state Health Department.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a former opponent of medical marijuana, called that a "fail-safe" provision that made him comfortable enough to back the legislation.

"Medical marijuana has the possibility to do a lot of good for a lot of people who are in pain and who are suffering and are in desperate need of a treatment that can provide relief," said Cuomo, a Democrat who is running for re-election this fall.

"At the same time, it's a difficult issue because there are also risks that have to be averted -- public-health risks, public-safety risks -- and we believe this bill strikes the right balance."

Smoking for medical purposes could be allowed in the future, if the Health Department and State Legislature agree.

The state Assembly expected to approve the medical marijuana bill after midnight. The State Senate, where the issue is more contentious delayed a vote until Friday.

The agreement was struck after several days of intense negotiations by legislators and vocal rallies at the State Capitol by medical marijuana supporters. Activists blamed Cuomo for stalling until the final days of the session and accused him of trying to run out the clock. But in the end the governor won many of the concessions he was looking for, most significantly banning smoking, gaining the power to end the program and cutting the number of eligible conditions in about half.

The measure was almost two decades in the making for Assembly Health Committee chairman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan). "You know, it's really gratifying after all these years to be able to help some very seriously ill people," he said.

His efforts received a big boost this year. Statewide polls this election year showed broad support. Another key was the frequent protests and personal stories told by people, many in wheelchairs and many of them children, suffering pain and chronic seizures that could be eased by marijuana.

"I'm gratified that legislation is going through," said Missy Miller, an Atlantic Beach resident who has been among a regular group of those lobbying at the Capitol for months. "While I'm very happy that we're going to have a program, I'm petrified that my son is not going to live long enough to benefit."

Miller said she's tried almost 20 medications to ease the seizures endured by her son, Oliver, 14, who has a severe form of epilepsy and uses a wheelchair. She said children in other states, such as Colorado, have slowed their seizures through medical marijuana.

State Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), the bill's prime Senate sponsor, had called Cuomo's demands "non-starters" on Monday. Three days later she was satisfied with the compromise. "You can't stand in the way," she said, noting there are alternate delivery methods. " . . . If that [smoking] becomes the only thing that stands in the way, you can't say no to that. It just doesn't make any sense." Savino said the list of eligible conditions is sufficient for now, but allows for expansion.

She said the legislature's bargaining to make the new law's effective date 18 months after the governor's signature was important because without a start date the marijuana industry might have "taken a pass on New York."Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore) had offered an alternate bill that banned smoking among other things. He applauded the compromise.

"This measure will provide relief for people with legitimate medical needs while guarding against individuals diverting toward recreational use," Boyle said in a statement.

--With Michael Gormley

News photos & videos