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New York poised to legalize medical marijuana

Decision comes as federal lawmakers introduce a bill to prevent the DEA from interfering with state marijuana laws

New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers announced a deal on Thursday that would allow limited access to medical marijuana and make New York the 23rd U.S. state to offer some kind of availability of the drug for therapeutic purposes.

The program, which would bar the smoking of marijuana but allow it to be eaten or vaporized, would be regulated by the state's Department of Health. It includes a "fail-safe" provision that would allow the governor to stop the program at any time, Cuomo told a news conference in Albany.

The plan still needs final approval in the state legislature.

"I always supported the concept of it. If you can get the medical benefits of medical marijuana to a suffering patient, clearly you would want to do that," said Cuomo. "My trepidation has always been the risk. This bill virtually eliminates the risk."

Under the plan, the Health Department would license five private companies to produce and distribute marijuana through dispensaries.

"Production, manufacturing and distribution all has to happen within New York state boundaries," Dr. Howard Zucker, the state's acting health commissioner, told the news conference.

The legislation has been the subject of heated last-minute negotiations as New York's current legislative session draws to a close. Versions of the bill have been approved by the liberal state Assembly on multiple occasions since the 1990s.

The current bill must still be voted on by the state Senate, where Republicans have a power-sharing agreement with a breakaway group of Democrats.

Sen. Diane Savino, like Cuomo a Democrat, is one of the bill sponsors and says marijuana can be prescribed for at least six diseases, including epilepsy, AIDS, ALS and neuropathy.

Marijuana advocates called the bill a partial win, but said the state should allow patients to smoke marijuana as well.

“We strongly believe that the decision about the mode of administration for any medication should be left up to doctor and their patients,” Gabriel Sayegh, the New York State director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said a statement. “The cost of purchasing a vaporizer and the extract products will likely leave many low-income patients behind, and there is little research on the long-term health effects of using extracts.”

Support growing across US

Cuomo’s support of the bill was just the latest sign that medical marijuana is gaining political favor across the United States.

Also on Thursday, Senators Rand Paul, R-KY, and Cory Booker, D-NJ, offered an amendment to a federal spending bill that would prohibit the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) from using federal funding to undermine state marijuana laws.

Paul and Booker's amendment mirrors an amendment passed recently in the House that would stop the DEA from using federal money to go after medical marijuana operations that are legal under state law. The DEA and the Department of Justice have raided dispensaries in states where such clinics are legal.

Once all amendments are offered, Senate leadership will decide which of them will be brought to the floor for a vote. Then the Senate will vote on whether to approve each amendment, which requires a standard majority.

“We’re very optimistic because this has had strong bipartisan support on the House side, and the Senate dynamics are similar,” said Michael Collins, policy manager at Drug Policy Alliance.

“It’s picked up the support of the majority of Democrats and some Republicans. It would be hard to imagine the Senate going back and having to explain to voters that they have to live in fear of the DEA for simply adhering to what is legal under state law.”

The bill comes as government and public support for medical marijuana is at an all time high.

In May, Minnesota became the 22nd state, in addition to the District of Columbia, to allow some sort of access to medical marijuana, according to the advocacy group the Marijuana Policy Project.

And a recent Pew Research Center poll found that almost three-quarters of Americans think the federal government’s efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they’re worth.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Renee Lewis contributed to this report.

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