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Medical pot bill largely welcomed by surveyed north country residents

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WATERTOWN — Patients with certain diseases will be able to seek relief by using marijuana, but they won’t be allowed to smoke it.

That news appears to be largely welcome in the north country, according to residents’ reaction Monday to the medical marijuana bill that was signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Some said the Compassionate Care Act should have gone even further by allowing people to smoke the drug, which they argued is a more effective treatment than ingesting it in other forms. Others said they support the smoking ban, which they believe will prevent abuse of the drug.

State Assembly members Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, and Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, voted in favor of the final version of the bill. State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, voted it against it, expressing concerns about potential abuse. Mr. Cuomo put his signature to the bill on Saturday but held a signing ceremony on Monday.

The law will allow patients with one of 10 listed diseases — including cancer, epilepsy and AIDS — to get varieties of the drug that can’t be smoked. The bill allows marijuana to be ingested orally, or through oils and tinctures. It may be inhaled only if it’s been vaporized, like electronic cigarettes. To ensure the drug is only in the hands of health care providers and approved patients, registry identification cards will be issued by the state Department of Health to certified patients.

But patients will have to wait. The law is not expected to go into effect for 18 months, as the state forms regulations and approves businesses to dispense the drug.

New York became the 23rd state allowing medical marijuana as a medical treatment, but it is only the second state to approve a law that bans patients from smoking the drug. Minnesota is the only other state with such a provision.

Watertown resident Donald F. Michael, 75, said he will consider talking with his doctor about getting a prescription for medical marijuana. He said that he has acute back pain that could be treated with the drug.

“I support the law, because there’s nothing wrong with medical marijuana,” Mr. Michael said. “I’m 75 and have a bad back. I would have to talk with my doctor to see what he thinks about it.”

Watertown resident Jason D. Cronk, 40, said that his 58-year-old mother, Robin M. Edmonds of Adams Center, has throat and spine cancer that could be treated with the drug. But he contended that the smokeable form of marijuana is a more effective treatment for patients than the vaporized form.

“I think they should allow people to smoke it, because they’re getting more out of it than they can by ingesting it,” he said. “It’s way better to smoke it.”

He also contended that allowing smokeable pot makes better sense from an economic standpoint. He said it would be more practical to allow businesses to sell the drug to be smoked by approved patients.

“I think it would bring a lot more money back for the state and get us right back out of debt,” Mr. Cronk said. “I know there are a lot of growers out there that grow marijuana, and they could use the money to help people out.”

Watertown resident Kevin C. Thathackston, 60, Watertown, said that he supports the bill because it bans marijuana from being smoked, and should therefore prevent abuse among those who aren’t patients. He said his 87-year-old mother has glaucoma and may decide to seek treatment with the drug.

“I think the law is great because it will prevent the type of partiers who would be smoking it from getting it,” he said.

Cape Vincent resident Richard Wiley wrote in an email to the Times that “New York State is wise to legalize medical marijuana.”

“The legislation has the potential of creating a viable industry and many good jobs without the need for government subsidy and start up gifts,” he wrote. “Unless, of course, the farmer does not demand his fair share up front and then starts crying for more help from the government.”

Mrs. Russell said Monday that she was opposed to earlier versions of the Compassionate Care Act because they would have allowed the marijuana to be smoked. She said she was concerned that, if smokeable pot were allowed, caregivers and patients could be arrested by the federal government at the border for marijuana trafficking — even though they wouldn’t be in violation of state law. The final version of the bill will eliminate that ambiguity between state and federal law, she said, because legal forms of pot will be clearly distinguished from its smokeable forms. A patient with medical marijuana in a vaporized or edible form will be less likely to be improperly detained by federal border patrol agents, she said.

“I put on a full court press for not doing it like other states, where you can buy low-processed marijuana like buds and joints,” Mrs. Russell said. “That was the key for me being able to support this legislation. If you allowed a smokeable form, residents in the north country would get caught between the inconsistency of federal and state law.”

Mr. Blankenbush, who voted against earlier versions of the bill, said he voted in favor of the final bill because of its more stringent regulations and smoking ban.

“Unlike other medical marijuana bills, this one, the one I voted for, limits the scope of the drug to specific and serious diseases and conditions,” he said in a quoted statement. “This law will also sunset in seven years, requiring the state and legislature to evaluate its efficacy. Finally, which I find most important, the law prohibits smoking of marijuana; that way there is no confusing that this is meant for medical purposes only. Had this bill not contained important fail-safes, it would have not gained my support.”

Mrs. Ritchie said she voted against the approved bill in the Senate because she believes not enough regulations are in place to prevent marijuana abuse. In a prepared statement, she said she met with people with diseases who believed they could be helped by the drug. But she also heard from people who worried the bill would be vulnerable to potential abuses of the drug.

“In the end, I did not believe the controls and conditions set in place by this bill are sufficient, and therefore could not support this bill,” she said in the release. “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.”

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