A bill that would legalize the use of medical marijuana in New York state passed one of its first legislative hurdles Wednesday at the state capitol in Albany, while two days earlier in New York City a resolution expressing the city council's support for a state medical marijuana bill also moved forward.
The medical marijuana bill in Albany, A0576, was okayed by the Assembly's Health Committee on an 18-6 vote a day after dramatic and sometimes wrenching testimony before the committee, including some from surprising sources. "If you have ever seen anyone on their deathbed, dying in agony, screaming in pain every day as I had with my father who had cancer, the risks of smoking marijuana are outweighed by the therapeutic benefits," conservative Assemblyman Robert Prentiss (R-Colonie) told his colleagues.
The bill is rapidly picking up bipartisan support in the Democratic-dominated Assembly, with 41 Democrat and seven Republican cosponsors. It is now headed for the Assembly Codes committee, then the Ways and Means committee before coming up for a floor vote.
"We are on our way," said Vince Marrone, who is working the issue as a paid lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org). "We got through that first committee in good shape, and the Codes committee, which must review all legislation that impacts the criminal justice system, already approved it once last year," he told DRCNet. "And we have Republicans on the Ways and Means committee who will vote for this, so I think it is safe to say we will have this bill on the floor of the Assembly by the end of the year. The question then becomes whether the leadership will act on it."
But Marrone is already looking forward to the next phase: the Republican-controlled state Senate. "We do have a bill introduced in response to constituent requests by a Democrat from Brooklyn, but that doesn't really help in the Senate," Marrone explained. "We need Republicans. I'll be meeting with some Republican members next week. There are a number who say they will vote for it, but they are nervous about getting out there and sponsoring it. I hope to help them get over that."
Even though some of his colleagues are hesitant, Assembly Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick), said his chamber will also consider the bill. "We're going to look at that," he told the Albany Times Union Tuesday. "We're very aware that there are addictive substances that have a medical value."
The broad support for the bill in the state's medical community may help ease Republican fears. So far, the bill has been endorsed by medical societies in New York, Westchester, Putnam, Orange, Rockland and Duchess counties, and it is being supported by the state Health Department's AIDS Advisory Council, the New York State Association of County Health Officials, the New York State Nurses Association, the Hospice and Palliative Care Association of New York State, the Statewide Senior Action Council, Gay Men's Health Crisis and the New York AIDS Coalition.
But despite those endorsements, Gov. George Pataki (R) remains opposed. "The Health Department tells us, and many health experts agree, that there are already approved legal medications in place that treat symptoms like nausea and help deal with pain management," a Pataki spokesman told the Times Union. He did not identify those health experts.
Meanwhile, the city councils of Albany and Buffalo have passed resolutions supporting a medical marijuana bill, and the New York City council took steps in that direction this week as well. After being besieged by Tom Leighton and his Marijuana Reform Party (http://www.marijuanareform.org) for nearly a year on the issue, the council's health committee took it up Monday.
"It went great," Leighton told DRCNet. "We already had 13 sponsors going in and we picked up four more during the hearing. This is something we've been working on almost single-handedly, with no movement financial support, for a long time."
The committee heard from a number of patients and doctors, including testimony from National Review editor Richard Brookhiser, who told of his struggle with testicular cancer and chastised committee conservatives for failing to support the resolution. Bronx resident Ann Wilson provided some of the hearing's most moving moments, though, as she described how her brother had used marijuana to ease the side-effects of chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer before he died two years ago. "How can we deny marijuana to our friends and loved ones when it has the potential to ease their pain and possibly prolong their life?" an emotional and tearful Wilson asked.
That was enough to prompt her councilmember, Madeline Provenanzo (D), to ask then and there to be added to the list of the resolution's supporters.
One important medical marijuana authority who was unable to give oral testimony was Dr. John Morgan of the New York University School of Pharmacology and coauthor of "Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts." Although originally scheduled for the first panel of the hearing, he was bumped from that group and the next panel as well, at which point he left.
"That was a shame," said Leighton, who himself sat through hours of hearings before getting a chance to address the council at the end of the session. "There was a point when committee members were raising questions about any downsides, and no one on the panel was really prepared to address it. We needed a man with Morgan's scientific and medical expertise up there then."
With 51 members on the health committee, committee chair Councilwoman Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) is cautiously counting votes before calling a vote. Although she congratulated the committee for putting the issue "front and center," she said she wanted to gauge support across the committee. No date is set yet.
Securing passage of the resolution would be an important signal to Albany, said Leighton. "We're talking about 40% of the state's population here. If you have a legislative body that represents those people saying we want medical marijuana, that's not small potatoes."
MPP's lobbyist, Marrone, who addressed the committee on one of the early panels, pointed out that most New York City members of the state Assembly already support the medical marijuana bill, but still saw passage of the resolution as an important step. "It would draw more media attention and it would convey a sense of momentum," Marrone said. "It would show the politicians that the issue is not as politically scary as they think it is."
Visit http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?bn=A05796 to read the text and legislative history of the medical marijuana bill online.