Medical Pot Emerges as N.Y. Fight for Cuomo, Lawmakers

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, fresh off a deal with lawmakers on a $137.9 billion budget, now confronts a battle over medical marijuana.

After at least four Republican senators signaled support, the legislature is poised to pass a bill creating a medical pot program that would monitor the drug from seedling to sale. Cuomo, a 56-year-old Democrat, instead wants to use an executive order to revive a 1980 law that created a marijuana research program run by hospitals. His plan, which limits pot to patients approved by the health department, doesn’t allow it to be grown in New York.

“I applaud the governor, but I do think you need a comprehensive plan that this legislation works toward,” said Joseph Robach, a Rochester Republican who supports the medical marijuana bill.

The measure, called the Compassionate Care Act, would make New York the 21st U.S. state to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana. The Democrat-led assembly has repeatedly passed it, only to have it die in the Republican-controlled senate. A February poll by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, found that 88 percent of New York voters support legalizing pot for medical use.

The shift in the senate started that same month after WGRZ, a Buffalo television station, aired a story on Anna Conte, an 8-year-old with Dravet syndrome, a form of epilepsy. The disease can cause hundreds of seizures a day starting in infancy, and an oil derived from pot has been shown to be an effective treatment, according to the Landover, Maryland-based Epilepsy Foundation.

Colorado Move

The report described a plan by Anna’s mother, Wendy, to move with her daughter from western New York to Colorado, where pot is legal, and leave behind her husband, 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. All four Republican senators who support the bill come from the region surrounding Anna’s home in Orchard Park, a Buffalo suburb.

The family traveled to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, last month on a Make-A-Wish Foundation trip for Anna. The child suffered a seizure at their hotel and her brother had to help her breathe with a respirator bag, Conte said. A mix of sedatives she takes wasn’t helping.

“These kids are dying, and every seizure wipes out brain cells and cognitive function,” Conte said by phone. “She should be out playing with Barbies, and instead she’s in a drug-induced coma on the couch with the medications I can give her. It shouldn’t be a political issue.”

Defunct Program

The Compassionate Care Act would allow the particular pot plant that can help with the seizures to be grown in New York and the oil derived from it to be distributed to children like Anna. It’s low in the chemical that makes pot users high, and has others that may help prevent nerve damage, Conte said.

Cuomo, who faces re-election in November, has proposed reviving the 1980 law by having 20 hospitals prescribe pot to “monitor the program and evaluate the effectiveness and the feasibility of a medical marijuana system.” His plan would open the program to patients with cancer, glaucoma and other illnesses who are approved by the health department.

“Medical marijuana, I understand the upside -- I also understand the downside,” Cuomo said at a January press briefing. “I’m not proposing a law, so it’s not the legislature telling me what I have to do, and that gives me great comfort because if it goes bad, we can correct or improve all within our own control.”

Cop Stash

The 198O law allows marijuana to be acquired only from a now-defunct federal program or from law-enforcement confiscations. That would make it almost impossible to get the plant that provides oil that helps people with seizures.

“Cuomo is conflating a research program with a patient-access system,” said Gabriel Sayegh, the New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports medical marijuana. “It would not be sufficient to give access to medicine that many patients need.”

Sheldon Silver, the Manhattan Democrat who leads the New York Assembly, included the Compassionate Care Act in his chamber’s budget proposal. It didn’t survive closed-door negotiations with the governor and other legislative leaders.

“We just couldn’t get anyone interested,” Silver said yesterday in Albany.

In the senate, the bill is sponsored by Diane Savino. The New York City lawmaker is among five Democrats who broke away to form a coalition with Republicans to run the chamber. Under the power-sharing deal, Republicans must approve any bill that comes up for a vote. Dean Skelos, the Long Island Republican who co-leads the senate, has said he’ll consider allowing a vote.

On a March 29 conference call with reporters, Cuomo said, “There hasn’t been any serious discussion of any alternatives” to his plan.

That should change in the coming weeks, said George Maziarz, a Republican senator who supports the bill.

“There’s going to be some negotiating,” Maziarz said. “A deal will be brokered between the governor’s program and the Compassionate Care Act.”

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