The chairman of the State Assembly Health Committee held a hearing Wednesday in the chamber of the Nassau County Legislature on a bill to authorize the medical use of marijuana in New York State.
Assemb. Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) is co-sponsoring the bill, known as the Compassionate Care Act, with State Sen. Diane Savino, (D-Staten Island). On hand for the hearing in Mineola was the ranking Republican Assemblyman on the committee, Andrew Raia (R-East Northport), who supports the legislation, though he had opposed similar bills in the past.
“The reason for voting ‘no’ for so many years and now voting ‘yes,’” Raia told the Press, “is because once you have states that have legalized recreational use and you have states right around us…that are legalizing medicinal marijuana, then at what point should we be the last one off the train?”
Over the years, the Assembly has passed medical marijuana legislation four times with varying degrees of bipartisan support, according to Gottfried. So far, the State Senate has not taken up Savino’s amended measure or even held a hearing on it.
More than 50 people testified at the hearing, ranging from anguished parents holding their children stricken with severe seizure disorders to doctors, patients and advocates saying that it’s time New York joined neighboring states like New Jersey and Connecticut, where medical marijuana is legal in the treatment of those with serious health conditions. On the other side were those like Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, who expressed concern that approving marijuana use—no matter whether it was smoked outright or its active ingredients were taken in a pill—would open the door to drug abuse and worse social problems.
The legislation would set up a tightly regulated and controlled medical marijuana system in which healthcare practitioners licensed to prescribe controlled substances would certify the patient’s need. The medicinal marijuana would be for patients with severe debilitating or life-threatening conditions. So far, 20 states plus the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws on the books.
At times, the testimony was emotionally wrenching. Paula Joana and her husband Philip drove in from New Jersey to recount how their 18-month-old daughter with severe epilepsy had died while they waited to qualify for their state’s newly enacted medical marijuana program. Carly Tangney Decker and her husband Jeff Decker, who was holding their lively 7-month-old daughter Mabel, had driven down from Kingston to say that they were leaving for Colorado right after the hearing because they recently learned that they could obtain a legal strain of a marijuana derivative that offered the best chance of helping their daughter who suffers from a rare genetic disorder causing severe seizures.
“It’s not about smoking pot,” Cindy Tangney, Carly’s mother, told the hearing. “Passage of this bill would let my granddaughter remain in New York.”
Jennifer and Gary Ruta of Sayville brought their 28-year-old daughter, Stephanie, with them in her wheelchair and explained how she’d been suffering from epilepsy since she had her first seizure when she was 6 weeks old. Pharmaceuticals and surgery were the only options her parents had back then, but these methods did not work. The side effects of the medications only grew more and more debilitating while her daughter’s condition only deteriorated.
“For our daughter’s sake and for the sake of others, we must be advocates for the legalization of the use of medical marijuana,” her mother testified.
Whether these parents’ pleas will pass muster in Albany remain to be seen.
State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), the head of the Republican caucus and co-leader of the Senate, did not return calls for comment. Skelos is in a power-sharing role with Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), who heads the four-member Independent Democratic Conference.
Raia wasn’t sure how the Compassionate Care Act might fare with his Republican friends in the State Senate considering the uncertain coalition currently holding it all together.
“If you’d asked me two years ago if we were going to be passing minimum wage and gay marriage in the Senate—and basically every single thing the Conservative Party is against,” Raia said, “I would have said it will never happen. But the Senate majority is not the Senate majority. It’s a Senate majority with a group of four Democrats. And if that’s forcing them a little bit more toward the center, then I guess anything’s possible.”
But he was sure of one thing. “I think if the governor wants it, it will happen,” said Raia. “But so far the governor’s been pretty mum on it.”
Savino was optimistic about the legislation’s chances in the Senate—and she’s a member of the Independent Democratic Conference.
“Currently, we have far more votes than necessary to pass the bill,” she told the Press in an email. “The real obstacle has been the governor, who has a different marijuana policy issue that he was lobbying for: the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana in public view.”
She doesn’t see that as a deal breaker in the next session, given that a new mayor and police commissioner in New York City may defuse the public furor over the controversial “stop and frisk” policy there and allow political momentum to promote medical marijuana use.
She said she’ll be “aggressively pushing this bill this year,” and because she says “it is a priority for the Independent Democratic Conference…that moves the issue front and center.”