Hempire State of Mind: Where Leaders Stand on Medical Marijuana in NY

On Wednesday, a group of New York State lawmakers held a press conference, where they announced that a new medical marijuana bill has made its way through the health committee and will soon go up for vote in the Assembly. Similar versions of the bill, which would allow patients suffering from “serious, debilitating or life-threatening” illnesses to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, have been passed twice in the Assembly, but have never passed in the Republican-controlled Senate.

This photo shows marijuana growing in the home of two medical marijuana patients in Medford, OR. Medical Marijuana bills are currently in the New York State legislature. AP/Jeff Barnard

However, there’s reason to believe this year could be different. For one, public resistance to medical marijuana has dropped. A Siena Research Institute poll released Wednesday says 57 percent of New York State voters support it. Connecticut’s legislature passed a medical marijuana bill, which was sponsored by a Republican in the Senate, earlier this month, and New Jersey issued its first permit for a medical marijuana dispensary in April.

And on March 16, New York State Supreme Court Judge Gustin L. Reichbach wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about his own marijuana use during his struggle with cancer.

As the debate over medical marijuana in New York State heats up, MetroFocus looked at some of the key power players.

The Supporters

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan)

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried. Photo courtesy of the New York State Assembly

The takeaway: Gottfried, chairman of the Assembly’s Heath Committee since 1987, has been pushing medical marijuana bills in the Assembly for over a decade, to no avail. However, Gottfried says that four out of seven of the committee’s Republican members support the bill that he introduced in April. Gottfried hasn’t come close to passing a medical marijuana bill since 2005 — the last year the bill had a Republican co-sponsor — but now Gottfried has a new partner in State Senator Diane Savino. At Wednesday’s press conference, Gottfried stressed that New York’s medical marijuana law would be one of the most heavily regulated in the U.S., unlike laws in California and Colorado where people with non-life threatening illnesses can easily obtain prescriptions.

Munchies for thought: “Thousands of New Yorkers suffer from serious debilitating and life-threatening conditions whose lives could be made more livable and longer in many cases if we allow them to be treated under medical supervision with the use of medical marijuana.” – May 16, 2012, reported by the Democrat and Chronicle.

Sen. Diane Savino (D-I-WF North Shore/South Brooklyn)

Sen. Diane Savino. Photo courtesy of the New York State Senate

The takeaway: Elected in 2004, Savino gained fame for her passionate support for gay marriage in 2009. Since 2005, Sen. Tom Duane has been Assemblyman Gottfried’s co-sponsor on the medical marijuana bills, but this year Savino is taking over that role. On multiple occasions, Savino has argued that it’s hypocritical for New York to allow doctors to dispense powerful narcotics like Vicodin and Oxycontin for pain relief, while criminalizing patients who treat similar symptoms with marijuana.

Munchies for thought: “The benefit of New York doing this now, compared to five years ago, is we have a lot of other states to follow as models and improve on their cases.” – May 16, 2012, reported by the Buffalo News.

The Opponents

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo. AP/Evan Agostini

The takeaway: When campaigning for office in 2010, Cuomo said the dangers of medical marijuana “outweigh the benefits.” In 2011, his office said the governor hadn’t taken an official stance on the issue but claimed that he was studying it, suggesting that he’d relaxed his position. But then on April 9, a day after the legislature’s current bill was introduced, Capital Tonight reported that Cuomo reaffirmed his campaign-era position that medical marijuana is more dangerous than it is beneficial, but suggested he was open to having his mind altered on the issue.

Munchies for thought: “My position has been that there are tremendous risks here, also. I understand the benefits, but there are also risks and I think the risks outweigh the benefits at this point. I understand there’s more research and there’s more evidence and it can always be re-evaluated. I don’t think there’s going to be time this legislative session to analyze that issue.” – April 9, 2012, reported by Capital Tonight.

Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long

Michael Long, Chair, New York state Conservative Party. AP/Mike Groll

The takeaway: The former New York City Councilmember has been a staunch opponent of medical marijuana for years, and claimed he doesn’t see how marijuana helps sick people in 2011. His current role as head of the state’s Conservative Party gives him a great deal of sway over the more conservative faction within the New York G.O.P. machinery.

Munchies for thought: “There is no control over who is using the marijuana. It opens a Pandora’s box for the illegal use of marijuana.” – April 8, 2012, reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau County)

Sen. Dean Skelos. Photo courtesy of New York State Senate

The takeaway: The question of whether the medical marijuana bill can pass in the Assembly isn’t the supporters’ worry, it’s pushing the bill through the Republican-controlled Senate. Majority Leader Skelos has signaled he’s generally opposed to medical marijuana. In April, the Wall Street Journal reported that 28 Senate Democrats support medical marijuana and advocates believe they can potentially sway about a dozen Republicans. The bill would need 32 votes to pass in the Senate. It’s noteworthy that on May 16 Sen. Skelos said he hasn’t ruled out investigating Cuomo’s controversy-plagued ethics commission, JCOPE, which could influence the governor’s decision on marijuana if the bill were to pass in the Senate.

Munchies for thought:  A spokesperson for Sen. Skelos’ office told the Wall Street Journal that Skelos is “generally opposed” to medical marijuana. – April 9, 2012, reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Nassau County)

Sen. Kemp Hannon. Photo courtesy of New York State Senate

The takeaway: Hannon is the chair of the Senate Health Committee, the main body weighing in on the dangers and benefits for patients. In the past, he’s said that he is concerned about loopholes in medical marijuana law. Recently, Hannon said that he’s very concerned about legalizing medical marijuana at a time when it’s illegal under federal law — the Justice Department has taken an ambiguous stance on the issue — and believes there isn’t enough information available about the potential health risks.

Munchies for thought: “To start dealing with other substances which have not been vetted or tested is not something I want to go near.” – April 9, 2012, reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The Lobbyists

On May 16,  The New York World published a list of groups that have lobbied in relation to the medical marijuana bills in the legislature in the past two years. The state’s ethics committee does not list whether a lobbying group was for or against the bills, or how much they contributed, so it can’t be said with certainty which way these lobbyists went. However, in some cases it’s pretty obvious. Here is  The New York World‘s list, along with evidence found by MetroFocus that suggests whether the organizations support or disapprove of medical marijuana in New York State.

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