The Senate is making a renewed push to legalize medical marijuana in New York, hoping to make it the 16th state to legalize the drug for patients with serious, debilitating or life-threatening illnesses.
The Assembly passed a medical-marijuana bill twice in recent years, but the Senate did not. Legislation that would legalize its use passed a key Senate committee Tuesday, and the same bill is making its way through the Assembly committee process.
"This bill is about compassion for people who have horrible cancer, HIV/AIDS, Crohn's disease.... This really is for desperate people," Assembly Health Committee Chairman Tom Duane, D-Manhattan, said before the bill was reported out of the Senate Codes Committee Tuesday by a vote of 11-5.
At the same time, the Senate included the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes in its budget resolution Monday. The Senate estimates that basic processing and administrative fees would bring in about $15 million in the 2010-11 budget year, which begins April 1.
If a tax were placed on medical marijuana, that could raise up to $500 million a year, according to Senate estimates.
But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said Tuesday he didn't expect medical-marijuana legislation to be part of the 2010-11 budget.
"I don't believe we're going to have it in," he said. "We passed a bill as a stand-alone in the past, so I didn't look at it as a revenue raiser, per se."
Gov. David Paterson is waiting for more details on the proposal before commenting on the issue, spokesman Morgan Hook said.
Under the bill, a licensed practitioner would certify that a patient has a serious condition that should be treated with marijuana. Patients would register with the state Health Department and obtain the drug through licensed dispensaries. Patients could not possess more than 2.5 ounces at any time.
Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, said New York's law would be the most restrictive in the nation, both in terms of the conditions for which a physician could certify its use and who could produce and sell it.
Gottfried, who first introduced legislation to legalize medical use of marijuana in 1997, said it has taken a long time for public support to build and even longer for lawmakers to "catch up with the public."
A Quinnipiac University poll in February found that 71 percent of New York voters support legalizing medical marijuana. Fifty percent of voters polled by the Siena Research Institute last week supported marijuana for medical use.
There was doubt that the state could license dispensaries until about a year ago, when the Obama administration said it would not interfere with state laws on medical marijuana, Gottfried said.
"There are thousands of New Yorkers who have a serious condition whose life could be made better, more comfortable, healthier, longer by the medical use of marijuana," he said.
California was the first state to legalize the medical use of marijuana 14 years ago. Since then, 14 other states have passed similar laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Sen. Dale Volker, R-DePew, Erie County, said he opposed the bill because it would cause the illegal use of marijuana to spread. He said pot is more dangerous than people realize and is an "access" drug for heroin and other illegal drugs.
Sen. Martin Golden, R-Brooklyn, said he doesn't want people to suffer, but there should be more safeguards in the bill.
Leba London, a nurse from Swan Lake, Sullivan County, said she doesn't think lawmakers would have the same opinion if they had a friend or family member whose pain could be relieved by marijuana.
"It's really time for the close-minded senators to take themselves out of the dark ages here and release us from the gallows," she said.
Opiates prescribed for pain are good as a short-term solution only, and they can be addictive and cause side effects, London said. The only side effect for marijuana "is living with the fear of going to prison," said London, whose conditions include fibromyalgia, severe osteoarthritis and degeneration of the lower spine.
By Cara Matthews
March 24, 2010
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Could this be the year for medical marijuana in New York?