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Politics and Government

Lawmakers skeptical medical marijuana program can be ready in a year

The Cuomo administration is moving ahead with a bill to allow limited access to medical marijuana. The governor's health commissioner told lawmakers at a budget hearing that the program could be up and running within a year, but his claims were met with some skepticism.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s health commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, told lawmakers at a recent budget hearing that he prefers the governor’s plan for limited medical marijuana in New York, rather than a broader program backed by some in the legislature.

Shah says the plan could be implemented more quickly than anything the legislature might approve.

“I’m focusing all my energy on making sure that we have the medical marijuana program up and running within a year to meet New Yorkers’ needs,” Shah said.

Cuomo wants to use a 34-year-old law to provide medical marijuana to some cancer and glaucoma patients in New York. Using the 1980 law, Cuomo and Shah would permit marijuana to be dispensed at 20 hospitals in the state. New York would get the drug from a federal marijuana growing lab in Mississippi. The law also permits the use of pot seized by police in drug busts.

Dr. Shah was questioned by the legislative sponsors of a wider bill, who are skeptical that Cuomo’s plan would work.

Assembly sponsor and Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried says his bill would take advantage of the burgeoning new industry of medical marijuana growing in other states, where new strains of the drug are being developed to treat more conditions. He asked Shah whether the Cuomo administration plan would allow for distribution of an oil based derivative, known as Charlotte’s Web, which is used in many other states for a previously untreatable form of severe epilepsy.

“Is the federal government producing oil extract of the so-called Charlotte’s Web strain?” Gottfried asked.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Shah answered.

“I didn’t think so,” Gottfried said.

Senate sponsor Diane Savino cast doubt on the state’s ability to get a federal waiver to dispense marijuana at hospitals.

“In many respects you’re wasting your time,” Savino advised. “It is inconceivable that the federal government is going to give New York state a waiver to allow hospitals to dispense medical marijuana.”

Dr. Shah says the limited medical marijuana treatments could also form the basis for research on whether it makes sense to expand the program. Savino says the studies already exist, and the Cuomo administration would only be reinventing the wheel. She says New York is the only state north of Delaware in the eastern United States that does not have a medical marijuana statute.

“If you’re interested in research perhaps you should just pull out the old E-Z Pass and go to New Jersey or go to Connecticut or go to Massachusetts,” Savino said. “Or fly to Colorado if you want to do some research.”

Parents of children with severe epilepsy lobbied at the state Capitol for the Savino-Gottfried bill, saying it allows for treatment with the oil-based derivative shown to help with the condition. Afterward, aides to the governor told the advocates that Cuomo would consider the bill if it passed both houses of the legislature.

Gottfried asked Shah to clarify those comments.

Shah says he’d rather work with the 1980 law that already exists than talk about a hypothetical bill that has not yet been approved in the legislature.

It’s unclear whether there are enough votes in the state Senate to pass the medical marijuana bill.