Medical marijuana bills gain support
June 16, 2004
Elizabeth Benjamin, Times Union
A bipartisan agreement on legislation that would let doctors prescribe marijuana to ease the pain and other medical symptoms of very sick patients could be reached before the year is out, state lawmakers said Wednesday.
A bill initially introduced in 1997 by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, that would legalize pot for medical use was overwhelmingly passed Tuesday by the Assembly Ways and Means Committee and is now in the Rules Committee -- the last stop before a full house vote.
For the first time, the measure now also has a sponsor in the Republican Senate majority. State Sen. Vincent Leibell, R-Brewster, said his introduction of a medical marijuana bill is 'imminent' and the legislation has a good shot at being identical to the version pending in the Assembly.
Aides to Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, said he is sympathetic to the medical marijuana issue and is interested in seeing something done on it this session.
Aides to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said he is waiting to see what the Senate does on this topic before he decides whether to let the Assembly bill to the floor for a vote.
On Wednesday, Gottfried said he believes his bill would be approved by the Assembly if it is allowed out of the Rules Committee. The measure so far has 49 assembly sponsors, 10 of whom are Republicans.
The biggest remaining roadblock the state Legislature appears to face on this issue is Republican Gov. George Pataki.
On Wednesday, Pataki spokesman Andrew Rush said the governor is willing to 'review' a medical marijuana bill passed by both houses. But, Rush added, Pataki still backs the state Health Department's belief that drugs like Marinol, a synthetic version of tetrahydrocannabinol -- marijuana's main psychoactive ingredient -- provide similar benefits to smoking or eating pot.
Support for legalizing marijuana for medical use has been gaining nationally over the past several years. To date, 10 states allow doctors to prescribe marijuana, including California, Oregon and Vermont.
In New York, a 2003 Zogby International poll found 66 percent of New Yorkers favored changing state law to allow seriously ill people to smoke pot. The poll included 834 likely voters statewide and had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Support for legalizing medical marijuana in New York has accelerated rapidly over the past several weeks. One event that helped push the issue at the state Capitol was a lobbying effort in May by TV talk show host Montel Williams, who uses marijuana to assuage the pain of multiple sclerosis and has launched a nationwide campaign to have the drug legalized.
Williams met with Silver, Bruno, Leibell and other lawmakers, many of whom described the television star as a passionate and effective advocate for his cause.
On Tuesday, Williams appeared at a pro-medical marijuana news conference in New York City with Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who endorsed legalizing the use of pot for sick people.
In addition, a host of medical experts and associations have signed on to Gottfried's bill, including the Medical Society of the State of New York, which represents 30,000 licensed doctors, medical residents and medical students.
Leibell said the presence of such high profile and reputable supporters helped convince him to sponsor the medical marijuana legislation, as did his personal relationships with people who are suffering from MS and cancer.
'(Marijuana) is not good for the average person,' Leibell said. 'But for a very limited set of people, it would provide substantial relief from pain.'
Leibell said he is not concerned that legalizing medical marijuana at the state level would run New York afoul of federal laws. Over the past year, the federal government has lost several court cases after it tried to crack down on pot use by people who are ill in places where medical marijuana is legal.
Pot should be no different from other narcotics that are illegal on the street but can be prescribed by a doctor, Leibell said, adding that he doesn't see making medical marijuana legal as a 'slippery slope' that some opponents say will lead to its full legalization.
'We certainly don't want to send out signals that smoking marijuana is good for the average person,' the senator said. 'This bill is very narrowly written to help a limited set of people. Any number of prescription drugs are harmful in the hands of the wrong people.'
Gottfried's bill would require doctors to certify that patients have a serious condition and could benefit from the use of marijuana, which would allow them to receive a month's supply of pot from organizations authorized by the state Health Department to grow and distribute it.
In 1980, New York was the first state to approve limited marijuana use in a program that required a prescription from a doctor involved in marijuana research and approval from a state board. The program, which advocates say was too cumbersome for patients, has been inactive since the late 1980s.