Medical marijuana bill passes NY Assembly health committee

March 03, 2004

Robert Lachman, Millbrook Roundtable

Buying, selling or using marijuana is illegal in New York State but a bill legalizing marijuana for medical purposes and supported by two local legislators has passed the Assembly Health Committee.

The Assembly Health Committee voted 18-6 to approve bill A. 5796 on Feb. 24. The bill is sponsored by 41 Assembly members including seven Republicans.

Assemblymen Patrick Manning (R- East Fishkill) and Joel Miller (R- Poughkeepsie) are among them.

Miller said he was the first Republican to sign on to the bill early last year and that for a long time, as a Republican, he was discouraged from being part of a bill sponsored by Democrats. 

'Things have softened lately and this is the first time Republicans have been able to do this,' said Miller. 'This is the worst part of partisan politics.'

The Health Committee is the first of three committees that the bill must pass before it can find its way to the Senate and the Assembly floors. If it passes the Codes and Ways and Means Committees it may have a chance.

'I think the main indicator of it is that the bill now has seven Republican co-sponsors,' said Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard N. Gottfried who began sponsoring this bill in 1997.

'It's a pretty wide ideological spectrum and I'm hoping we will build from that,' he said.

Not enough votes
This is not the first time the bill has passed those three committees. Last year, the bill passed all three committees by large bipartisan margins but there were not enough votes to move it to the floor for a vote.

'There is no Senate sponsor for the bill yet,' said Gottfried.

'It's a pretty controversial issue and I think a lot of my colleagues are reluctant to back it,' Gottfried said. 'But if a patient and his or her doctor agree that marijuana is the most effective treatment for a serious illness, government should not interfere.'

The bill has the support of the Westchester, Putnam, Orange, Dutchess and Rockland Medical societies.

Adam Bradley, Kevin Cahill, Thomas Kirwan, Amy Paulin and Gary Pretlow are among other Hudson Valley legislators who are sponsoring the bill.
The New York County Medical Society and the New York State Health Department's AIDS Advisory Council as well as a number of other medical associations throughout the state support the bill.

'I cannot verify for a fact there are legitimate uses for marijuana as a medication, but physicians can,' Miller said.

'A drug is a drug and a medicament is a medicament and I disagree with any legislation that gets between a patient and a doctor or a doctor and a patient,' Miller said. 

Assembly Health Committee legislative aide Michael Rabinowitz said one of the reasons the bill could pass this time around is because it is so tightly controlled and there is no chance of the drug being diverted from medical to recreational use.

Long touted as effective

Marijuana has long been touted by patients and doctors alike as effective in treating glaucoma, the side effects from chemotherapy drugs, multiple sclerosis and the wasting syndrome associated with AIDS.

No conditions are specified in the bill because, according to the Health Committee spokesman, 'We didn't want a bill that was out of date.'

Perhaps medical marijuana's time has come in New York State. A statewide Zogby Poll conducted last year found that 66% of New Yorkers would be more likely to vote for their legislators if he or she voted to legalize the medical use of marijuana.

'Thousands of seriously ill New Yorkers could benefit from medically supervised marijuana,' stated Vincent Marrone of New Yorkers for Compassionate Care, a coalition of health practitioners and patients. 

'The Health Committee's action provides hope that someday soon physicians and patients can make treatment decisions without fear of criminal sanction,' Marrone said.

According to Rabinowitz, if this bill passes it would allow physicians and other health care professionals who can prescribe controlled substances the right to treat patients with life-threatening or degenerative diseases with marijuana.

Patients could then legally possess limited amounts of the drug from strictly regulated non-profit state sponsored organizations.

'It's an uphill battle but I would ask my Republican colleagues to put partisanship aside and support this bill,' Miller said. 'We're not legalizing marijuana for sale in Wal-Mart. It will only be available by prescription.' 

'I don't think it has ever been proven that marijuana is a gateway drug and I think it has a better chance of passing than ever before,' he said.

©Millbrook Round Table 2004

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