ALBANY — After a legislative session with no progress on legalizing medical marijuana, advocates are hoping that the New Jersey governor’s actions last week and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statement that he is studying the issue will lead to success.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, said his state would move forward with its medical-marijuana act, a reversal from his position last month. He said at the time that he had concerns the state legislation conflicts with federal law and practice.
The U.S. Justice Department earlier this month said it is focused on large-scale commercial providers.
Cuomo, a Democrat, has not supported medical marijuana in the past, and he said last week he has not changed his position.
He did, however, leave the door open on the issue.
“We have proponents of the policy. I know New Jersey’s looking at it. We have opponents of the policy,” he said. “We’re talking to both sides of the issue, if you will, and we’re reviewing it, but we don’t have a final position.”
The governor said that while he hasn’t changed his stance, “we’re always learning and listening and talking and growing, we hope.”
New Jersey became the 16th state to legalize medical marijuana under legislation signed by Christie’s predecessor.
Legislation to allow patients with debilitating illnesses to use marijuana if they are registered with the state and receive a prescription from their physician has passed the Assembly before but never the Senate.
Under the bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and Sen. Thomas Duane, both Manhattan Democrats, hospitals and pharmacies would do the bulk of the dispensing. The maximum amount that could be dispensed would be 2.5 ounces.
“The big obstacle continues to be getting a couple more votes in the state Senate to enable it to pass,” Gottfried said.
The Democrat-controlled Assembly didn’t vote on the bill this year, only because of the difficulty in getting it through the GOP-led Senate.
Getting the support of the governor would help immensely, said Gottfried, adding that he has been in conversations on the matter with members of Cuomo’s administration who are reviewing the issue.
“My gut feeling or prediction is that when that’s done, he will support legislation because I think the merits are overwhelmingly in support and I think certainly, to the extent he relies on health (professionals’) viewpoints, I think it’s a very clear decision,” Gottfried said.
He said the governor should “focus on the thousands of New Yorkers who are needlessly suffering from life-endangering and debilitating conditions whose lives could be made more tolerable and longer if we would join the other states that allow medical use.”
If the governor gets behind medical marijuana, “it can make all the difference in the world,” said Gabriel Sayegh, New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
But the legislation has significant opponents, including the state Conservative Party, which held sway in the recent Senate vote to approve same-sex marriage by threatening not to re-endorse any Republicans who voted yes. Four of them voted yes anyway.
“I don’t see how marijuana helps anybody with any kind of sickness,” said Michael Long, head of the Conservative Party. “There’s plenty of prescribed drugs that people can take when they are critically ill.”
He said if New York adopted a medical-marijuana law, it would be in conflict with the federal law that marijuana is an illegal drug. Legalizing it would only add to law enforcement problems, he said.
“I am telling you that it will create an enforcement nightmare. There’ll be no control over it,” Long said.
Gottfried said he thinks Christie’s move confirms what has been clear since the Obama administration and even under the Bush administration, “that entities that produce or dispense in clear compliance with state law are not going to be interfered with by the federal government and the federal government has never gone after individual patients.”
Sayegh said if the legislation passed, New York would have one of the most conservative medical marijuana laws in the country.
Written by Cara Matthews – Gannett Albany