NY Lawmakers, Pataki divided over medical marijuana use

May 10, 2005

Jay Gallagher, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

ALBANY — Gov. George Pataki and lawmakers Tuesday appeared headed for a showdown on whether New York should allow seriously ill people to use marijuana as a pain reliever.

The Legislature's top Republican said he was confident that a bill to allow its use under a doctor's supervision would pass this session. But a spokesman for Pataki's Health Department said patients can get similar relief from other medications.

"The Legislature needs to act to enact a medical marijuana law that allows the drug to be used in tightly controlled instances with a doctor's supervision," said Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, Rensselaer County. "I'm confident we can achieve this goal this session."

The Assembly will likely go along if the Senate approves the measure, said Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan.

The supporters of the measure brought TV talk show host Montel Williams to the Capitol Tuesday to lobby for the measure. Williams, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, said marijuana is the only drug that relieves the chronic pain in his legs and feet.

"Other painkillers haven't worked," he said. "If it weren't for medical marijuana, I would not be standing here today." He said he ingested some in a cake in California Monday night before flying to New York.

The supporters also included representatives from the state Medical Society, the state Nurses' Association and the deans of the state's 15 medical schools.

"The use of marijuana for medical purposes is scientifically established," Jo Weiderhorn, executive director of the Associated Medical Schools of New York State, said in a statement. "The deans of New York's medical schools recognize this and support efforts in the Legislature to make marijuana available to patients under the supervision of a doctor."

The state Health Department, however, disagrees, according to a spokesman.

"Our experts ... indicate there are legal medications available that provide the same medical benefit as marijuana," said the spokesman, William VanSlyke.

But a bill supporter said that the weight of medical opinion is mostly on the other side.

"I would suggest that the Health Department listen more closely to those many people in our state who are suffering, many of whom have communicated to myself and other lawmakers that this is the only place they can get relief from their pain," said Sen. Vincent Leibell, R-Patterson, Putnam County, sponsor of the bill.

Leibell and other lawmakers wouldn't speculate Tuesday on whether they could rally the two-thirds vote necessary to override a potential Pataki veto, assuming such a bill is adopted by the Legislature.

When asked to explain the opposition to the measure, Leibell said that marijuana is a "political hobgoblin" that some politicians can't see beyond. But he said they have to take a broader view because legalizing its use could dramatically reduce the suffering of many people.

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