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Medical marijuana next big issue for state legislature after lengthy spring break

Now that the state budget is done, the focus at the Capitol is shifting to other priorities, including whether to allow medical marijuana. Advocates came to the Capitol to lobby lawmakers, but the bill is getting bogged down over political skirmishes.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver caused a bit of a stir when he seemed to say that a bill to legalize medical marijuana might be dead for the year, saying he does not think it has a future in the 2014 session.

Silver quickly walked that back. He issued a statement reminding people that Assembly Democrats had put the medical marijuana bill in their state budget proposal, and that the chamber has approved the measure numerous times. Silver says if the Senate does decide to take up the bill, Assembly Democrats would be “delighted to pass it once again."

The Senate, which is ruled by a coalition of Republicans and a handful of break-away Democrats, has so far not put the measure on the floor due to opposition by some GOP Senators. The Senate sponsor, Diane Savino of Staten Island, a member of the co-ruling Independent Democratic Conference, talked about her measure earlier this year. She says it would empower the state Department of Health to grant licenses to marijuana dispensers to provide the drug to patients, who would be prescribed marijuana to help treat a number of conditions, ranging from cancer to multiple sclerosis to seizure disorders.

“Also, it would allow for the creation of an industry that would grow and cultivate marijuana,” Savino said. “Which could produce thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.”

Savino maintains there are enough votes in the Senate to approve the measure, if the bill comes to the floor for a vote.

Savino was the subject of an article by Capital New York, which said the senator was trying to use a parliamentary maneuver to try to advance the bill and was attempting an end run around Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos. Savino refused a request for comment. Her spokesman says the senator does not want “politics to distract from the issue.”

But there are signs that Republican opposition is softening.

Advocates, who came to the Capitol to lobby for the bill, say several Republican senators in western New York have recently changed their minds on the issue.

Holly Anderson, with the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester, says the list includes GOP Senators Joe Robach, George Maziarz,  Mark Grisanti and Tom O’Mara.  

“Republican senators are on board for this,” Anderson said. “They’ve committed to helping get this legislation passed.”

A spokesman for Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos says they are studying the medical marijuana measure.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed an alternative plan. It would permit a limited experiment, dispensing medical marijuana at a few hospitals for a smaller number of illnesses. The drug would come from a federal center in Mississippi. The proposal is outlined in a 1980 health department regulation, which also suggests obtaining marijuana from street busts, something the Cuomo Administration says it would not be doing.

Cuomo recently defended his plan during a conference call with reporters, saying alternatives, like the legislature’s bill, had not really been discussed.

“Frankly there hasn’t been any serious discussion, in my opinion, of any other alternatives,” Cuomo said.

Advocate Holly Anderson says Cuomo’s proposal falls far short of what’s needed.

“The bottom line is it’s just not enough,” Anderson said.

A spokesman for Cuomo says if the Senate and Assembly pass their broader bill to legalize medical marijuana, then the governor will take a look at it.

There won’t be any action on the bill in the legislature for a while, though. Both houses are taking a three week spring break.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.