Medical marijuana bill moving toward a deal

May 10, 2005

Elizabeth Benjamin, Albany Times Union

ALBANY -- For the second year running, Senate Republicans are dangling the possibility of a legislative deal on legalizing medical marijuana, but Gov. George Pataki appears unlikely to let the measure become law.

Sen. Vincent Leibell, R-Brewster, and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, announced in a news conference Tuesday they are working on a bill to allow seriously ill people to use marijuana under a licensed physician's supervision.

'In this day and age ... it's incomprehensible how anyone who is in pain, who's seriously ill, cannot find a remedy for that, especially when it is known and available,' said Leibell, a former prosecutor who stressed this is about easing suffering, not legalizing pot for general use.

Gottfried, who chairs the Assembly Health Committee, has sponsored a medical marijuana bill in his Democrat-led house for several years, but this is the first time such a bill will be sponsored by a majority member in the GOP-controlled Senate.

The measure remains in draft form, but could be introduced in the Assembly and Senate health committees as early as next week, the lawmakers said.

Television personality Montel Williams, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and uses pot to ease his pain, endorsed the measure.

'I'm not coming here and saying the term 'medical marijuana,' really what I'm trying to say is 'medicinal medication,' ' said Williams, who insisted that without the pot he had eaten prior to boarding a red-eye flight from California to New York for Tuesday's event, he would have had too much pain to attend.

Joining him were representatives of the Medical Society of the State of New York, the Associated Medical Schools of New York, the New York Nurses Association and the StateWide Senior Action Council.

The bill also has its detractors, including the state Conservative Party, which has accused supporters of using sick people as cover for full legalization.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, said Tuesday a law is needed 'that allows (marijuana) to be used in tightly controlled instances with a doctor's supervision and that is compassionate toward patients who are desperate to ease their pain.'

Bruno, who has battled prostate cancer, said he understands how difficult it is to live 'day-to-day with a painful, life-threatening illness,' and expressed confidence a deal on a medical marijuana bill can be made this year.

But some Assembly Democrats are waiting to see whether Bruno will make this issue a priority, noting he made similar statements last year. Aides to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said it's unlikely his chamber will act unless the Senate does first.

Even if the bill passes both houses, it seems unlikely Pataki will sign it into law. Department of Health spokesman Bill Van Slyke said department experts are 'skeptical of the use of marijuana for medical purposes' and believe pharmaceutical alternatives work just as well.

This debate comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing whether the federal government can prosecute patients who smoke under state medicinal marijuana laws. The case originated in California, one of 10 states where the practice is legal.

Williams argued it is hypocritical for the federal government to crack down on people legally using marijuana and also provide pot to a select few individuals through a government research program that was discontinued in 1992.

'The majority of our elected officials in Washington, D.C. are too stupid to know that they're the ones who are sending out the marijuana,' Williams said. 'They don't even know they're providing drugs to people in this country -- the same drug they're fighting other people from getting.'

The now-defunct Compassionate Care Investigative New Drug Program provided government-grown marijuana to a limited number of people as part of a research effort. A small number of people were allowed to continue receiving the pot after the program ended.

Today, seven people are regular recipients of marijuana cigarettes mailed by the federal government.

The longest-living of the seven is Irvin Rosenfeld, a 52-year-old Florida stockbroker who suffers from a condition that makes tumors grow from the ends of his long bones, painfully poking into his muscles and threatening to turn malignant.

Rosenfeld said he has smoked pot for 33 years -- 23 under the federal program -- and nothing else alleviates his symptoms. He smokes pot between 10 and 12 times daily, using the 300 marijuana cigarettes he gets from the government once every 25 days.

He rejected the idea that legalizing pot for medical use in states will lead to increased use of the drug. 'Nobody wakes up and says: Boy, I wish I had cancer, so I could get chemo and be nauseous and use marijuana legally,' he said. 'I feel very fortunate that I have the medicine I need. There's nothing worse than having a debilitating disease you've got to fight every day of your life, then to finally find a medicine that works and be labeled a criminal.'

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