View from the Assembly: Medical Marijuana

By state Assemblyman Will Barclay

The 2013-14 NYS legislative session has come to an end.

During the final week, hundreds of bills were passed. However, the legislation that got the most attention was legislation that legalized medical marijuana.

On a number of occasions in the past, I have voted against the legalization of medical marijuana. I did so for a number of reasons.  

Among those reasons were: (i) my concerns that this was really a back door way in which to legalize the recreational use of marijuana; (ii) the lack of sufficient safeguards to prevent the widespread distribution and use of marijuana; and (iii) the lack of research demonstrating that marijuana had any medicinal benefits.

I was not alone with these concerns.  Past reiterations of this bill have garnered significant “no” votes in the Assembly and consistently failed to get enough support in the Senate to even get to the floor for a vote.

However, in what is a rare occurrence in Albany, the sponsors of the initial legislation to legalize marijuana agreed to sit down with the governor and others and amend the legislation in order to take into account the legitimate concerns of those who opposed it.

As a result, a compromise was reached and legislation to legalize medical marijuana was passed in both houses with limited opposition. Indeed, I changed my vote and this time supported the bill because the changes that were made addressed many of the concerns I had.

As a general matter, I, and I think most legislators, have great sympathy for those patients who are suffering from terrible illness and who find therapeutic relief from the use of marijuana. Who wants to deny a patient relief particularly when they are terminally ill?

Indeed, current law allows drugs much more dangerous than marijuana to be prescribed (e.g., morphine or hydrocodone) to help patients control pain and improve quality of life. Advocates for the legislation argued why then shouldn’t doctors be able to prescribe marijuana.

They have a good point although there is very little evidence that demonstrates that smoking marijuana has any medicinal benefit.

I was convinced to support the version of the legislation that passed because it significantly tightened the controls over the use of marijuana for medical reasons.

First, the legislation that passed, unlike previous versions, does not allow marijuana to be smoked. Rather it can be ingested in pill form or through a vaporizer.  For me, not allowing medical marijuana to be smoked serves the important purpose of not taking that step towards legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

Additionally, some in the medical field expressed concern with allowing marijuana to be smoked because of the dangers of smoking and respiratory problems. If the use of marijuana provides therapeutic relief for patients, that relief should occur regardless of whether the drug is smoked, taken in pill form or through a vaporizer.

After all, your body is still ingesting the drug.

Second, the illnesses for which medical marijuana can be prescribed for were significantly curtailed from what was allowed in earlier versions of the bill.

Under this legislation, the medical conditions marijuana may be prescribed for include epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, spinal cord injuries, cancer and HIV/AIDS.

Within these medical conditions, doctors are also able to prescribe marijuana only if these patients present certain symptoms such as severe nausea, seizures, and muscle spasms. Also, only doctors who are certified will be able to prescribe medical marijuana.

 Third, to prevent abuse and the widespread distribution of marijuana, only five private companies will be able to grow marijuana and operate up to a statewide total of 20 dispensaries.

These companies will be responsible for the plants from seed to sale. The companies will have to be approved and registered with the state and the commissioner of health will grant certification only if the company demonstrates, among other things, that it will maintain effective control against the diversion of marijuana, that the company and its managing officers are of good moral character, and that the company has the sufficient ability to carry on the manufacturing and distributing activity.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, if the governor on the advice of the commissioner of health and the state police finds that the system is being abused, the governor is authorized to stop the program.  This offers a final fail safe against the program getting out of control.

Abuse may still occur as it has with other prescription drugs. However, I feel that this legislation strikes a balance by providing sufficient safeguards against widespread distribution and use of the drug versus the ability of patients to use marijuana for medicinal reasons.

Accordingly, I was pleased that it passed and pleased to support it.

 If you have any questions or comments or if you would like to be added to my mailing list or receive my newsletter, contact my office by mail at 200 N. Second St., Fulton, NY 13069, by e-mail at barclaw@assembly.state.ny.us or by calling 598-5185.

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