Assembly passes medical marijuana bill

An employee pulls marijuana out of a large An employee pulls marijuana out of a large canister for a customer at the LoDo Wellness Center in downtown Denver, Colorado, on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. Photo Credit: Bloomberg / Matthew Staver

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ALBANY -- The Democratic-led state Assembly approved a bill Tuesday to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes after a far-flung debate that touched on gummy bears, excise taxes, drug dealers large and small, children with seizures, drug trafficking along the Canadian border and marijuana-induced paranoia.

But the bigger question remains whether the politically split Senate and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will join a growing chorus of New York lawmakers who support the concept this year.

The Assembly easily passed the measure, 91-34, the fifth time the overwhelmingly Democratic chamber has endorsed medical marijuana. It would make medical marijuana available to a patient that a "health practitioner" certifies has a "severe debilitating or life-threatening condition."

Assemb. Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) said the bill would set up regulated and controlled medical marijuana system that would be the "tightest in the country." It would impose an excise tax on those who manufacture and dispense the drug, generating an estimated $142 million annually, Gottfried said.

Among those in favor, Assemb. Steve Katz (R-Yorktown) said lawmakers should approve it on the grounds of benefiting patients, creating tax revenue and granting individual freedom. He once opposed medical marijuana, but changed his mind after being arrested for pot possession last year.

Opponents largely said the measure had too many loopholes, which would allow some to abuse medical marijuana. Assemb. Al Graf (R-Holbrook) said the proposal should prohibit the marketing of medical marijuana to children -- he said manufacturers in Colorado, which has legalized recreational marijuana, are creating edible pot in the form of gummy bears and chocolate bars.

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Significantly, Gottfried's bill doesn't exactly match a marijuana bill moving through the Senate. Among the key differences, the Senate measure, sponsored by Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), lists 20 specific diseases or conditions that would be eligible for medical marijuana and prohibits anyone under age 21 from smoking marijuana, though it could be prescribed in other forms.

Both Savino and Gottfried said there is room for compromise. "Today's vote in the Assembly is an enormous step forward towards legalizing the safe and regulated use of medical marijuana," Savino said in a statement. She has said that nearly 40 of the 61 members of the state Senate have said they'll support her bill.

Cuomo remains resistant to a broad medical marijuana program. The governor, a Democrat who is up for re-election and is said to be considering a 2016 presidential run, once opposed the concept altogether but recently shifted his position subtly by proposing a limited medical marijuana research program. He has said only that he'd review any legislation the two houses pass, though he didn't immediately comment Tuesday.

The Legislature is slated to adjourn for the year on June 19.

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