Governor Andrew Cuomo is planning to revive a 1980 medical-marijuana law to allow some New York hospitals to make use of the drug for patients with cancer, glaucoma and other illnesses.
Cuomo, a Democrat, is expected to make the announcement in his Jan. 8 State of the State address, a person familiar with the speech said. The governor plans to use his executive authority to bypass the legislature where medical marijuana bills passed by the assembly have died in the Republican-controlled Senate.
New York, the third-most-populous state, would join 20 states from California to Massachusetts that allow medical marijuana use, bucking federal law, which still classifies pot as an illegal substance. Cuomo’s decision would fall short of legalizing marijuana entirely, as in Colorado and Washington. Until now, Cuomo has opposed medical marijuana.
“This is a huge turning point,” said Gabriel Sayegh, New York State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who was briefed by the Cuomo administration on the plan yesterday. “One of the most powerful and prominent governors in the country not only changed his mind, but has also said he’s not going to wait around for the Senate to act.”
Cuomo, who is 56 and is considered a potential presidential contender, is up for re-election this year. Medical marijuana has the support of 82 percent of New York voters, according to a May poll by Siena College in Loudonville, New York.
In his State of the State address last year, Cuomo backed a plan to decriminalize possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana, part of a push by Democrats to reduce the number of drug arrests in New York City. More than 50,000 people were arrested with 25 grams or less of marijuana in 2011, about 94 percent of them in New York City. Of those, 82 percent were black or Hispanic, the governor has said.
The 1980 law that the New York Times first reported Cuomo would revive is named for Antonio Olivieri, a New York City Council member and assemblyman, who had a brain tumor and advocated marijuana use to overcome the side effects of chemotherapy.
The law allows the state Health Department to distribute marijuana to hospitals. It passed out more than 800 joints to 45 patients, according to a September 1982 legislative report.
The program, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in July 1981, used pot from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal agency that studies drug addiction, according to the report. It also allowed the state to use marijuana seized by police.
The federal government no longer distributes pot to states, and drugs seized by police are unreliable in quality, said Sayegh, whose Washington-based group lobbies for loosening drug laws in the U.S. The Cuomo administration officials told Sayegh that they’ll push for legislation to develop a program that reaches beyond the distribution network in the Olivieri law, which relies on hospitals, he said. The votes to pass the law in the Senate are there, Sayegh said.
“The Senate has said it wouldn’t consider a medical marijuana law because the governor wouldn’t sign it, well now he will,” he said. “In the meantime, the state will use this law and help provide relief to those that it can.”
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