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State Legislature votes to legalize marijuana for some severely ill patients

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ALBANY — The state Legislature voted overwhelmingly Friday to legalize marijuana to alleviate pain and other symptoms for some severely ill patients, approving a compromise reached among legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The 49-10 approval by the Senate followed the 117-13 vote earlier Friday by the Assembly. Cuomo was expected to sign it shortly.

It will make New York the 23rd state to legalize marijuana for medical uses, but the drug won’t be available in the state for at least 18 months while regulations are written and five producers and distributors are state-approved and licensed. The Department of Health will establish appropriate doses, with prescriptions limited to 30 days and short extensions. Insurers won’t pay for it, making it essentially a cash business.

“If it were up to me, we would start tomorrow,” said Sen. Diane J. Savino, a Staten Island Democrat and chief Senate sponsor. “But we have to work within the regulations that exist.”

Many senators said it will help alleviate suffering of children with seizure disorders, as well as others, while restrictions pushed by Cuomo and Senate Republicans removed some concerns it will fuel further drug addictions and expand the black market.

The bill doesn’t allow the drug to be sold in plant form or smoked. It could be administered through a vaporizer or in an oil base. Marijuana could be prescribed for 10 diseases, including cancer, epilepsy, AIDS and neuropathy.

It requires physicians to register and get a few hours of training to prescribe it for patients with listed conditions, while establishing a new felony for doctors who knowingly give it to others. Patients are prohibited from sharing.

“The point about it is we’ve got a crisis,” said Sen. William J. Larkin, a military veteran and Orange County Republican whose committee vote earlier was critical in advancing the bill. Among the disorders the Health Department must consider whether to add to the treatment list within 18 months is post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some parents brought children in wheelchairs to lobby legislators, saying the drug can hugely reduce the frequency of their seizures. Advocates who watched the three-hour Senate debate clapped and cheered after the final vote.

Sen. Thomas W. Libous, a Binghamton Republican with metastatic cancer, voted against the bill, saying the marijuana won’t cure anything and he’s concerned it’s giving people false hope.

Sen. J. Kemp Hannon, who chairs the Senate Health Committee, said there should be peer-reviewed clinical trials first, not the Legislature approving a new drug.

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, voted against the bill, and in a statement she said she did so because she did not feel the controls and conditions of the legislation were adequate.

“At a minimum, this bill—which has already undergone six different revisions this year alone—could have benefited from additional time for study and public comment,” she said.

She said she would prefer the federal government to set a national policy for medical marijuana use, calling it a decision that “should be made by medical experts and scientists, and not by legislators in the separate states.”

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, said in a statement that the new legislation was a compromise that would help patients and protect other residents.

“By limiting the form in which this medicine can be prescribed and tightly controlling its production and purchase, this legislation strikes the right balance between compassion and common sense,” she said.

Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, opposed it.

“I feel great sympathy for those who experience pain and suffering as the result of a serious illness,’ he said, in a statement. “But I continue to believe that the negative consequences of legalization — however unintended — outweigh the benefits.”

Other media reports showed Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, supported the legislation.

Times staff writer Gordon Block contributed to this report.

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