Spitzer is open to New York legalizing medicinal marijuana

June 12, 2007

Tom Precious, Buffalo News ( NY)

Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, in a reversal of a campaign position, said Tuesday he could support legislation legalizing the use of marijuana for certain medicinal purposes.

The governor’s position comes as lawmakers stepped up a push in the final two weeks of the 2007 session for New York to join 12 other states and allow marijuana for those suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis and other painful conditions.

In a debate last summer, Spitzer said he opposed medical marijuana. Now he said he is “open” to the idea after being swayed by advocates in the past couple of months.

“On many issues, hopefully you learn, you study, you evolve. 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 persuaded me that it can be done properly,” the governor told reporters.

In 2005, lawmakers were close to a measure legalizing medical marijuana but dropped the effort after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said the federal government could prosecute cases against those using marijuana in states that had legalized its use.

But after federal officials signaled no desire to prosecute individual patients using marijuana, a slowly growing number of states has begun moving ahead again to permit the drug to be used in tightly controlled circumstances. Advocates, who include groups representing physicians, nurses and hospices, liken medicinal marijuana to morphine and other drugs that are used to treat pain but are otherwise illegal on the streets.

A measure pending in the Assembly would permit the drug’s use for life-threatening illnesses and diseases, which could include everything from cancer and AIDS to hepatitis-C, and any other conditions designated by the state health commissioner, a provision the Spitzer administration insisted on, legislative sources said.

The Assembly bill, written by Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, DManhattan, is supported by a bipartisan assortment of upstate and downstate lawmakers, including Buffalo Democratic Assembly members Sam Hoyt and Crystal Peoples.

In the State Senate, the author of the 2005 measure, Sen. Vincent Leibell, a Putnam County Republican, is preparing to quickly introduce legislation again with hopes of passage next week. “I think that’s very significant,” Leibell said of Spitzer’s support. The issue has been backed in the past in the Senate by Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican and a prostate cancer survivor.

Federal court rulings have greatly altered how people medically eligible for marijuana in New York could obtain the drug.

A measure two years ago permitted hospitals, pharmacies and nonprofit groups to apply to grow and sell marijuana for medical use. But the courts ruled the federal government could prosecute, and it has done so in California by raiding state-sanctioned marijuana dispensers. So, New York officials have taken a different route: Marijuana users would be on their own.

Legislation in Albany would permit an eligible patient to grow up to 12 marijuana plants or be in possession of up to 2.5 ounces of harvested marijuana. To get the marijuana, though, patients would need to find their own suppliers, whether on the streets or by other means.

The law would still make it illegal for dealers to sell them marijuana — though not illegal if they give it away. And it would not be illegal for the patient to purchase or possess the drug.

Gottfried, who said the measure now has a greater chance of passage than it has in a decade, believes it could help thousands of New Yorkers suffering from the effects of chemotherapy or severe pain or loss of appetite for HIV-positive individuals. “The current prohibition is political correctness run amok,” Gottfried said.

The State Association of District Attorneys has taken no formal position on the issue, said Rockland District Attorney Michael Bongiorno, president of the group.

“Essentially, personal marijuana use for all intents and purposes has been decriminalized anyway in New York,” said Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark, pointing to state law that makes a first marijuana possession subject to only a violation with a $100 fine.

Clark said that he could see some “general benefit” to a medical marijuana law if it “were crafted in the right way and very strictly limited.”

But, he added, “You mean to tell me the only drug that can treat this particular condition or relieve this discomfort or pain is marijuana? I’m a little skeptical from a medical standpoint.”

The Assembly measure requires certification from a physician that no other treatment alternatives are available before marijuana can be recommended for a patient. The individual also must be a regular patient of the physician.

The state’s small but influential Conservative Party opposes the legislation. “We think it’s the wrong way for society to go,” said Michael Long, the party’s chairman. He said the measure could encourage fraud among unethical physicians trying to cash in on writing prescriptions, and he noted the federal courts have already spoken on the issue. “We are looking for trouble,” Long said.

Spitzer gave backers encouraging signals Tuesday but cautioned that his support depends on the final bill that emerges. “It depends upon access control, how you regulate it, how you ensure you’re not just dispensing a narcotic. There are obviously issues there that have to be dealt with,” he said.

Gottfried said he has been quietly working with Spitzer’s office on the matter for the past several weeks and already amended his bill to resolve concerns raised by the governor’s aides, such as pushing off the effective date until January 2009.

How patients would get access to marijuana is a sticking point. Leibell, the Senate backer, said he wants it done in a “controlled setting,” but Assembly Democrats said that could run afoul of the federal court rulings. Leibell said he also would be open to permitting its use for more conditions, such as glaucoma.

“It just doesn’t seem that big a lift in this day and age to try to help people,” Leibell said of medical marijuana.

tprecious@buffnews.com



Be the first to Comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.