Legislators Grapple Over How to Legalize Medical Marijuana Use

June 12, 2007

Danny Hakim and Michael Grynbaum, New York Times

Gov. Eliot Spitzer and legislative leaders said this week that the use of marijuana for medical purposes should be made legal in New York State.

But whether all involved can come to an agreement on how that should be done with one week left in the legislative session remains in significant doubt. One question they must answer: Should the state be in the business of growing and distributing marijuana to sick people? And if not, how should those people obtain it?

And even though a dozen other states have legalized marijuana use to ease the pain of a variety of diseases, buying, selling or possessing marijuana remains a federal crime. The deliberation comes on the heels of a similar bill recently passed in Connecticut that is awaiting the signature of Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

In New York, the Democratic-led Assembly passed a bill on Wednesday that would give doctors the authority to grant eligible patients a certification allowing them to legally acquire and use marijuana or to grow up to a dozen plants at a time.

“Thousands of New Yorkers with serious life-threatening conditions could get significant medical benefit from the use of marijuana,” said Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat.

But it is not clear how these plants, or the seeds to grow them, would be acquired. The Assembly’s bill says only that it would be lawful to give patients marijuana or seeds if “nothing of value is transferred in return.”

Senator Vincent N. Leibell, a Republican whose district includes Putnam County and parts of Westchester and Dutchess Counties, said he would introduce legislation that would take a different approach. He said he would prefer that the state’s Health Department be in charge of growing and dispensing marijuana.

“The key issue is control,” he said. “How do you control manufacture, and how do you control dispensement? Those are the two issues that’ll be out there.”

The Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, said that he supported the idea — he has supported efforts to legalize marijuana for medical use in the past — but that “the Assembly version doesn’t work.”

He said he believed there was enough time left in the session to work out the differences, though lawmakers are grappling with a wide variety of issues in the five remaining days of the session.

Mr. Spitzer, the former attorney general, has in the past been opposed to the idea. But he said on Tuesday that he had rethought his position.

“On many issues, hopefully you learn, you study, you evolve,” the governor said. “This is one where I had, as a prosecutor, a presumption against the use of any narcotic which wasn’t designed purely for medicinal and medical effect, and now there are ways that have persuaded me that it can be done properly.”

But the governor said he would sign the bill only if it were “properly structured”; he did not elaborate.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court upheld the federal government’s authority to prosecute people for possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes, even in states that permit it. Federal officials have not appeared to prosecute patients aggressively but have gone after some distributors.

“Marijuana is illegal,” said Rogene Waite, a spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration, adding, “There has been no scientific determination by the federal government that there is any such thing as medical marijuana.”

State laws permitting medicinal marijuana use differ on how much of the drug can be possessed or grown and which illnesses can be treated with it. Hawaii and Vermont issue identification cards to patients who qualify, while Maine and Washington do not require registration with the state, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that supports the legalization of medical marijuana.

In New Mexico, a new law requires the state’s Department of Health to oversee production and distribution of marijuana.

In California, the first state to legalize medical marijuana, a broadly worded law has allowed for the rapid proliferation of cannabis clubs and privately owned distribution centers.

But most other states, wary of venturing into murky legal waters, rely on a classically American business model: do-it-yourself. Approved patients are allowed to grow a limited number of plants, but must buy the seeds themselves — in violation of federal law.

“While it’s not a perfect solution, it’s the easiest one for states to implement,” said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the nonprofit Marijuana Policy Project, which promotes the legalization of the drug.

The talk-show host Montel Williams, who has said he uses marijuana to alleviate pain associated with multiple sclerosis, said he was encouraged by Mr. Spitzer’s “intestinal fortitude” on the issue.

“This is medication for those of us who use it,” he said, speaking from his Manhattan apartment. “We shouldn’t go to jail for it, and I shouldn’t be on the cover of a newspaper being ridiculed, because it’s my choice and my doctor’s choice.”

Mr. Williams has previously met with Mr. Bruno and former Gov. George E. Pataki to discuss the issue. He has said he has used marijuana daily, but would not say whether he had done so on Tuesday.

“I wish I could tell you that,” he said, “but then I’d have every cop in the city looking for me.”



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