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Pot Gains in Albany

Steven Wishnia May 25, 2005

A bill to legalize medical marijuana in New York State took a major step forward this month, when it finally gained a Republican sponsor in the state Senate.

Sen. Vincent Leibell (R-Brewster) announced on May 10 that he would introduce the legislation. Assemblymember Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) is sponsoring its counterpart.

The bill would “provide the strictest controls of any medical marijuana statute in the nation,” says Bob Farley, Leibell’s counsel. Under it, patients with “life-threatening conditions” – cancer, AIDS, or multiple sclerosis, but not glaucoma or migraines – could get up to 5 grams a day of cannabis if their doctor certified it would be the best medicine for them. The state Department of Health would license “agricultural producers” to grow the herb, in secure state-owned or state-leased premises, and patients would get it from either state or local government clinics or licensed nonprofits. They could obtain up to 17 days’ supply at one time.

Other states with medical-marijuana laws allow people with less serious illnesses to use pot, but the New York State Medical Society, which has endorsed the bill, insisted on the narrower grounds, according to Farley and Vincent Marrone of New Yorkers for Compassionate Use, the main activist organization behind the bill.

Supporters say the bill has a good chance of passing both houses this year. Governor George Pataki is officially undecided, but could very well veto it. (Pataki’s press office referred questions to the Department of Health, which did not return phone calls.)

If the bill did become law, it would be merely symbolic unless the state can find a way around federal law, which bans all cannabis cultivation and declares there is no such thing as medical use. The Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that “medical necessity” was not a valid reason to break the laws against distributing pot.

Having the state license medical-marijuana growers “gives the federal government a target,” says Marrone, “but it’s the only way the Senate would pass the bill.”

“We think this is legal under federal law,” says Farley. The herb would be grown under state auspices, and, he contends, “the federal government usually defers to the states” on questions of medicine.

The Bush administration has made prosecuting medical-cannabis growers a top priority, he was told. It’s possible that Alberto Gonzalez becoming attorney general might change that, he responds.

Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws doesn’t know Gonzalez’s position, but says it would be “hard to get much worse than John Ashcroft.”