New York isn’t counted among the 18 U.S. states allowing medical marijuana. It should be.
A 1980 state law set up a program requiring the Health Department to distribute marijuana cigarettes using pot obtained from the federal government or a state police evidence locker. In the first year, New York distributed more than 800 joints to 45 patients, according to a 1982 legislative report. The program was shut a few years later after it grew cumbersome and patient interest waned. It’s still on the books.
An effort by Democratic lawmakers to revive and overhaul the program is gathering support after voters in Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana in November. The new measure will be similar to Colorado’s medical marijuana law, which tracks pot from seed to distribution and allows private companies to grow and sell it, Senator Diane Savino and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried said. To push for it, a Colorado-based medical pot company has hired a New York lobbying firm with Republican ties.
“It bothers me that there are people who want it, and nobody addressed this law that’s already there that could give people relief,” said Arlene Williams, 75, who has used pot to reduce nausea caused by chemotherapy. “It’s unbelievable that all these other states have done it, and New York hasn’t. We’re supposed to be progressive.”
Williams, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, turned to marijuana on her doctor’s advice in 1980 when she was routinely vomiting before and after the chemo treatments she needed to fight breast cancer. She didn’t use the New York program, nor a federal one available at the time, because her doctor worried she’d be dead by the time he got the paperwork done, Williams said in a telephone interview.
After starting to smoke pot, which she bought from a dealer in a Manhattan park, her weight climbed to 175 pounds from 85 pounds, she said. Williams, a great-grandmother known as Ganja Granny, has been advocating for medical marijuana ever since.
“We need to get more people to write letters and make phone calls to their legislators to get this done,” Williams said. “All things people say won’t happen do. There’s gay marriage -- even the pope stepped down -- and this too will happen.”
The 1980 law is named after New York City Councilman Antonio Olivieri, who had a brain tumor and pushed lawmakers in Albany to pass it. The bill was written by then-Assemblyman Alan Hevesi, who was elected comptroller and then convicted of approving a pension-fund investment for a kickback. Governor Hugh Carey, a Democrat, signed it into law. Olivieri died at age 39, a few months later.
Marijuana was distributed by the Health Department to hospitals and then to glaucoma and cancer patients who received approval from their physician and a five-member patient-qualification review board, according to the September 1982 report. The program was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in July 1981, and the state acquired the pot from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal agency that studies drug addiction.
A pamphlet given to patients advised them to “inhale deeply, hold for 10 seconds and then exhale.” It warned that the most common side effect was sedation, which “rarely requires special attention, although some people find it annoying.”
Patients took notes on the effects and provided the information to the Health Department. After one year, the first results suggested that “inhalation of marijuana is an effective antiemetic for cancer patients” on common chemotherapy treatments, the report said.
“It has been on the books for 30 years and hasn’t led to any further activity,” Savino, a Staten Island Democrat, said in an interview. “It’s a fine historical reference, but we need to work on a plan that works for New York now.”
The Olivieri program is outdated and allows only patients treated by physicians based in hospitals to have access, said Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat who heads the Assembly’s Health Committee. He called it an “administrative nightmare.”
Gottfried and Savino are rewriting measures Gottfried has pushed through his chamber several times. They want to tighten regulations and make it possible for companies such as Colorado Springs-based Gaia Plant Based Medicine to grow and sell marijuana, as it does in its home state.
Much like the existing Colorado law, the proposal may use barcodes on plants and security cameras to track marijuana grown for medical purposes as it develops from a seedling and is picked, shipped and distributed, Savino said. The measure would also add marijuana to iStop, a program signed into state law last year that’s designed to reduce abuse of pharmaceutical drugs by tracking prescriptions.
Gottfried’s previous attempts to pass a new law stalled in the Senate. Now, a coalition of Senate Republicans and five breakaway Democrats that includes Savino may give the new proposal an opportunity for a vote, lawmakers said. When the members of Savino’s group are included, Senate Democrats have a voting majority.
Savino said she also believes some Republicans will support it. Gaia has hired Patricia Lynch Associates Inc., a lobbying firm, to help make medical marijuana a reality in the Empire State.
“This model is well crafted, and we can provide a benefit to patients and the state,” said Patrick McCarthy, the managing partner at Patricia Lynch who worked in Republican Governor George Pataki’s administration and is a former executive director of the New York Republican State Committee. “We’ve found a lot of people with open minds. It’s not the same old, same old.”
A tightly regulated medical marijuana program may help avoid the types of clashes seen in California between dispensaries and the federal government, McCarthy said. Pot is illegal under federal law, and the U.S. Justice Department is reviewing the new laws in Washington and Colorado.
They’ll also have to convince Governor Andrew Cuomo. The 55-year-old Democrat has said he’s open to the idea of medical marijuana, though he doesn’t favor it. In his State of the State address last month, he introduced several measures backed by Democratic lawmakers. He included a proposal to decriminalize as much as 15 grams of pot. Medical marijuana wasn’t mentioned. Gottfried said the governor’s office is studying it.
Josh Vlasto, a Cuomo spokesman, didn’t respond to an e-mail requesting comment.
David Holland, the legal director for the New York branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a pro-pot group, said Cuomo’s reluctance isn’t about the science.
“This is purely political,” he said. “Nobody wants to be the drug governor.”