New York to allow limited use of medical marijuana

Governor offers few details about his executive order legalizing medical use of cannabis

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gives his State of the State address on Wednesday.
2014 Getty Images

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a longtime foe of medical marijuana legalization, confirmed a sudden change in position Wednesday when he announced that New York will join a growing list of states offering the drug to patients seeking relief from serious illness — a step that gives further momentum to a marijuana legalization movement enjoying an unprecedented wave of popular support nationwide.

During his State of the State speech, Cuomo confirmed that he will bypass the legislature, where medical marijuana measures have stalled for years, and take executive action to revive a 1980 law — the Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substance Therapeutic Research Program — that allows New York to set up a limited medical marijuana model.

"We will establish a program allowing up to 20 hospitals to prescribe medical marijuana," Cuomo said. "We will monitor the program to evaluate effectiveness in the feasibility of a medical marijuana system."

Under the program, New York will initially allow the hospitals to dispense the drug to patients with debilitating or life-threatening illnesses. During his speech Wednesday, Cuomo said research suggests that cannabis can help patients manage pain and the treatment of cancer and other serious illnesses.

With the order, New York will join 20 other states and the District of Columbia allowing marijuana use for medicinal purposes, after California became the first state to do so in 1996.

Cuomo, in part, is responding to unprecedented marijuana reform across the country, which has been bolstered by growing public support for marijuana legalization — for recreational as well as medicinal purposes. A recent Siena College Poll showed that 82 percent of New Yorkers support medical marijuana. And a CNN poll released this week found that 55 percent of Americans think recreational marijuana use should be legal.

But the biggest factor in Cuomo’s turnabout, analysts say, is a coordinated campaign from patients and their physicians urging the governor to help New York change its law. Patient and caregiver groups have long lobbied the state to pass medical marijuana legislation, with organizations such as the New York State Nurses Association, the New York State Psychological Association and the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York all backing medical legalization measures. The state Assembly has responded to that support by passing medical marijuana legislation several times, only to find opposition in the state Senate.

“There has always been activity for that to happen,” said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national advocacy group that promotes drug law reform. “But in the last few years the efforts have been more coordinated and focused. And that has resulted in this shift, because the Cuomo administration has been left facing a tidal wave of support by patients and their caregivers.”

Cuomo’s order, although highly restrictive, nonetheless moves New York toward a drug policy that emphasizes health and public safety. It’s no small feat for a state long associated with the country’s harshest marijuana laws. In the early 1970s, shortly after President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller enacted laws mandating extremely punitive prison terms for the possession and sale of marijuana.

The measures, dubbed the Rockefeller Drug Laws, made life sentences possible for people found guilty of drug possession. The laws required judges to punish offenders with mandatory minimum sentences based on the quantity of the drug involved in the crime. Although the measures were meant for high-level drug traffickers, most of those convicted were nonviolent, first-time offenders.

The Rockefeller laws marked a historic shift in national drug policy, as other states quickly followed New York and enacted punitive measures that dealt with drug offenses solely through the criminal justice system, with little or no regard to policy that focused on health and public safety. Although Nixon inaugurated the war on drugs, it was Rockefeller, analysts say, who provided the legal framework to enforce the policy.

The Rockefeller laws are also partly blamed for establishing distressing racial disparities in New York’s criminal justice system. Blacks and Hispanics, for example, make up roughly 33 percent of New York’s population — but state government figures show they constitute 82 percent of those locked up for marijuana offenses, despite studies showing that whites use marijuana at higher rates than minorities.

In the aftermath of Cuomo's announcement Wednesday, a slew of questions remain about the program. Which patients will be eligible and where the state will obtain its marijuana, for example, remain open queries. Getting pot from law enforcement seizures, an idea that the Cuomo administration has floated, is problematic, experts say. Providing marijuana acquired off the street — with no knowledge of its quality or strain — seems like a recipe for trouble, given sick patients' compromised immune systems. Analysts also wonder who will be tasked with transporting, delivering and selling the drug, when growing pot in New York remains a crime.  

Legalization advocates, nonetheless, see Cuomo’s executive order as an interim step, one that gets the ball rolling until New York approves legislation. The Legislature is contemplating a measure, the Compassionate Care Act, which would allow patients with debilitating or life-threatening illnesses to have access to marijuana. Under that initiative, the Department of Health would issue patient and caregiver identification cards. And pharmacies, hospitals and nursing homes would serve as marijuana dispensaries.

"Unfortunately, the governor didn’t acknowledge the need for legislative reform, and his proposal is a limited interim step at best," Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance said after Cuomo's speech. “If nothing else, having Governor Cuomo come out in support of medical marijuana is a huge development.

"Although the specifics about how patients will get relief remain in doubt, at least we can start to answer that question," he said.

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