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The Pot Thickens

The Republican-controlled state Senate moves on medical marijuana, shifting the spotlight to the governor’s office

by Ali Hibbs on May 22, 2014


Medical-marijuana legislation, introduced in some form every year since 1997, was approved by the New York State Senate Health Committee on Tuesday—for the first time ever under a Republican-controlled Senate. While the passage of the proposed bill known as the Compassionate Care Act (by a vote of 9-8) has been heralded as a victory by politicians and advocates alike, hurdles still remain before the bill can become law, and it is not clear whether those hurdles can be cleared by the end of the 2014 Senate session.

“We still have some pretty serious obstacles,” said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “As you know, here in Albany, there’s really no slam-dunk on anything.”

The bill still must be brought up and passed by the Senate Finance Committee before it can be brought to the Senate floor for a vote, where Sen. Diane Savino has said that she is sure there are enough votes for it to pass. Getting the bill to the floor, however, could also be difficult. Upon overcoming those hurdles, Gov. Andrew Cuomo still must approve the legislation before it can become law—and he has sent some mixed messages about his intentions if the Compassionate Care Act does, in fact, land on his desk.

If the legislation does not pass during this session, Sayegh anticipates that its proponents will become more organized and vocal during the upcoming elections, in which all 63 Senate districts will be up for grabs.

“We’re very optimistic that if the bill gets brought up for a vote in the Finance Committee, it will pass,” said Sayegh, referring to the makeup of the committee. “The Finance Committee is a lot more reflective of the entire Senate. In the entire Senate, there is a majority of senators—IDC, Republicans and minority Democrats—who support the bill. That composition is more reflective of the Finance Committee [than the Health Committee] and so, if the bill were brought up for a vote in the Finance Committee, we’re confident that it would pass.”

Whether the bill will be brought up in the Finance Committee is uncertain. A spokesperson for Sen. John DeFrancisco, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, told Metroland that no decision had been made yet and that the senator hoped to be able to compare the bill with other proposed medical-marijuana legislation before making any decisions: specifically, with Cuomo’s proposition to make use of a law from circa 1980 to “study” the effects of the drug, and another proposition by Republican Sen. Phil Boyle, who has sponsored a bill that would make the drug available in smokeless form only. Supporters of the Compassionate Care Act decry both alternate approaches as too limited for patients who are dying or in chronic pain.

“There are good reasons to think that it’s possible,” said Sayegh. “But we’re certainly not going to be taking any chances. We’re going to be advocating and pushing for the committee to bring the bill up for a vote. And then it becomes about getting the bill to the floor, which is really a question of leadership. . . . It’s a complicated dynamic, and the Senate doesn’t always operate in ways that seem obvious.”

Pointing out that the legislation is a priority of the Independent Democratic Conference and that the IDC leader, Sen. Jeff Klein, is co-leader in the Senate, Sayegh said that there are reasons to be optimistic but that “we’re not going to take any chances. We’re going to push.” Republican Senate co-Leader Dean Skelos has been vocal about his reservations regarding medical marijuana and could conceivably keep the bill from coming up for a Senate-wide vote.

If and when the bill passes the Senate, Cuomo must still approve it. Given the contradictory nature of past remarks made by himself and his office, this represents another uncertainty. Last January, a top Cuomo aide went on television and indicated that if a medical marijuana plan that was more comprehensive than Cuomo’s own proposition were to pass the Legislature, he would be supportive of it. More recent iterations of his stance on the bill seem quite a bit cooler, however, with the governor promising only to review such legislation. “Which really doesn’t say anything at all,” said Sayegh. “”By definition, he has to review all bills that land on his desk. That’s his job.”

“If it doesn’t pass this year, we’re going to see a lot more patient activity at the local level during the elections,’ said Sayegh. “I’m not saying that it will decide an election or not, but I do think that, unlike previous years, that this is going to become an electoral issue. Patients are far more organized and their families are far more organized and energized about this than they have ever been. We are seeing really vibrant advocacy at the local level.” Pointing to Western New York and, more specifically, to Buffalo, Sayegh says that grassroots advocacy by patients and their families has been enormously effective in galvanizing support for the issue from the community and area legislators. He added that he expects to see much more of that sort of activity from around the rest of the state if the bill does not become law during this session.

“This is one step,” said Savino after the health committee passed the bill on Tuesday. “It’s historic for all of us, but now we go on to the next step.”