ALBANY — New York will become the latest state to legalize medical marijuana after the Senate on Friday passed a bill allowing the drug in non-smokeable form.
After a lengthy, emotional debate, the Senate voted 49-10 to approve the bill, which would authorize marijuana for therapeutic purposes for patients with serious diseases or conditions like cancer, AIDS and epilepsy. The Assembly approved the bill around 2:45 a.m. Friday, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already pledged his support.
The Senate debated the measure for more than two hours Friday, where some senators passionately urged their colleagues to help patients and support the bill while others raised concerns about putting faith in the state Department of Health to regulate the program.
As lawmakers voted, advocates for medical marijuana — including parents with their young, epileptic children — watched from a gallery above the chamber floor, applauding loudly as Senate clerk announced the final vote.
“We can try to tweak a bill forever, and we can be here not passing any legislation because we don’t have a perfect bill,” said Sen. Ted O’Brien, D-Irondequoit, Monroe County. “But the fact of the matter for me remains this: People are suffering right now. That suffering can be alleviated as soon as we make this available to them.”
The bill would require the state to have its medical-marijuana program up and running within 18 months. It would expire after seven years, though Cuomo could suspend the program at any time if State Police of the Department of Health find it is being abused.
Patients would not be able to smoke the drug, though vaporizing and oil-based cannabis extracts would be authorized. It grants broad authority to the state health commissioner to oversee the system and certify doctors who can prescribe the drug.
Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, delivered an emotional speech on the Senate floor, recalling his own battle with prostate and lung cancer and chemotherapy treatments, which he receives at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.
Libous, who has said he would likely try medical marijuana if it is legalized and recommended by his doctor, said he had concerns about offering “false hope” to patients looking for a cure. He said he couldn’t support the bill because of concerns over whether it can be handled by the Department of Health, which he called “one of the biggest bureaucracies in the state.”
The bill had broad support from Democrats in the Senate, while Republicans were split.
Sen. William Larkin, R-New Windsor, Orange County, was cheered by advocates after delivering a fiery five-minute speech in favor of the bill, saying he “doesn’t give a damn” about who supports him, but rather about doing what he believes is right. The 86-year-old senator, whose district extends into northern Rockland County, said he was swayed by parents of children with epilepsy, which has responded favorably to certain oil-based cannabis extracts.
“We can talk about the moon and the sun and everything else,” Larkin said. “But the bottom line is, remember this: Lead or get the hell out of the way.”
When signed by Cuomo, New York will become the 23rd state to approve medical marijuana in some form, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. Several other states, like Utah and Florida, have approved cannabidiol, a cannabis extract, for medical purposes.
Campbell reports for the Gannett Albany (N.Y.) bureau
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