NY Medical Marijuana in the Works - Drug Week


By Tanya Silverman

Medical marijuana. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, New York State’s top health official announced that a system providing patients medical marijuana will be “up and running as soon as possible,” likely within one year.

Dr. Nirav Shah’s words came at a budget hearing and follow plans that Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled last month: 20 hospitals will be allowed to distribute medical marijuana to patients who suffer from severe illnesses like cancer and glaucoma.

By such guidelines, New York is to establish a preliminary experimental system where designated hospitals distribute medical marijuana to patients in order to test whether the drug benefits them sufficiently, i.e. alleviate the pain people suffer from cancer. Beginning with the trial-run program will help New York State eventually set up an effective medical marijuana procedure. Many hospitals already expressed interest in distributing the drug, according to Shah, who praised the related research as valuable for the state and beyond.

The proposed program is not legislation, but an executive order based on a 1980 law that permits New York State to dispense medical marijuana on a limited basis for research purposes. As the Cuomo administration is moving forth with enacting the measure throughout New York, 20 states and the capital already allow some form of legalized medical marijuana, including bordering Connecticut, Vermont, and New Jersey.

Meanwhile, certain New York State lawmakers are skeptical about the executive plan, considering the prospects of testing unnecessary for setting up an effective state medical marijuana structure. They argue that the drug has already been thoroughly researched, plus it cannot reach out to enough people if it’s solely used for highly regulated research projects.

Further, some stand by a more far-reaching bill that has stalled in the Senate. Dubbed as the Compassionate Care Act, the legislation proposes to legalize the “possession, acquisition, use, delivery, transfer, transport, or administration of medical marijuana by a certified patient or designated caregiver for a certified medical use” of up to 2.5 ounces. The bill’s passage would permit not only hospitals to distribute marijuana, but also nursing homes, community health centers, pharmacies, non-profit organizations, or for-profit businesses. Chronic conditions like cancer and glaucoma could merit prescription, as could other illnesses such as HIV, PTSD, arthritis, and epilepsy.

Manhattan Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a sponsor of the Compassionate Care Act, has also cited a report that concludes marijuana is an effective treatment for appetite loss, pain, anxiety, and nausea.

A notable medical marijuana proponent, Gottfried told CNN last month that Cuomo’s initiative was a step in the right direction “but to have a truly comprehensive and well-working system will take legislation.”

Then on Monday, Staten Island’s Diane Savino–the bill’s second sponsor–argued back at Shah’s proposals.

“There are people suffering right now in New York,” she said about his one-year timetable, contending that local residents are relocating to other states where they do not have to wait to obtain medicinal marijuana. She supports a more direct system where patients and practitioners handle treatment.

New York State Governor Cuomo. Photo courtesy of Pat Arnow.

Last April, the governor said that he opposed the bill that Savino and Gottfried sponsor, as he believes it would cause more illegal use and distribution and does not wish to create a new system.

Ultimately, though, what matters most is the patients who need medical marijuana, not which New York official wins the argument.

Lots of personal stories have surfaced recently where New Yorkers of all ages require medical marijuana, whether it’s 84-year-old neighbors dealing with cancer chemotherapy, or the 14-year-old son who experiences seizures. Some residents have even expressed prospective plans about moving to states like Colorado or California in order to get the treatment they need.

Additionally, if only 20 hospitals are allowed to distribute, would that be sufficient to reach out to everyone? Where would the hospitals be located? A cancer patient in Watertown, NY will face difficulty obtaining legal marijuana if the nearest dispensing hospital is established in Albany or Schenectady.

If Cuomo’s executive order is the only way that medical marijuana will be distributed in the near future, and people truly need it, hopefully the program will be timely rather than tied up in bureaucratic red tape, easily accessible, and effective in providing the research the administration deems essential.