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ALBANY -- The State Legislature's 2014 session began with tax cuts and ended with a vote Friday to legalize marijuana for medical use.
The Senate gave final legislative approval for a system of dispensing medical marijuana under strict controls of the process "from seed to sale," with tougher criminal penalties for physicians, patients and manufacturers who abuse the law. Key among the restrictions of the "Compassionate Care Act" is a ban on dispensing medical marijuana that can be smoked, although intake by vaporizing marijuana is allowed.
The Senate approved the measure 49-10. The Democrat-led Assembly approved the measure 117-13 early Friday morning and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has agreed to sign it into law.
The measure received a powerful and unlikely ally in state Sen. William Larkin Jr. (R-C Cornwall-on-Hudson), 86, a combat veteran of World War II and the Korean War and career officer. His critical vote in the Health Committee weeks ago allowed the bill to reach the Senate floor Friday.
"I have 17 grandchildren," Larkin said on the Senate floor. "If something happened to them, I would be doing just what you are doing. You would find a way to help those children."
Prescribing marijuana for treatment of specific diseases, however, is still about 18 months away. The price will be set near the price of illegally sold marijuana.
"If you were to tell me at the beginning of this session that I would be voting yes on this legislation, I would say, 'No way,'" said Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), who helped ban smoking from the bill. "But life is a journey . . . and at times we all should be a little more flexible, a little more compassionate."
Opponents warned it will lead to more addiction, and create a gateway for more youths to more serious drugs, such as heroin. "The message we are sending," said Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse), "is really the wrong message."
He noted the legislature just a day before passed an extensive package to crack down on an explosion of heroin addiction statewide. The measures provide more treatment options and require insurance companies to be more accommodating to covering the cost of recovery. But the measure also includes tougher criminal penalties for sale of heroin, along with more public education about its dangers.
"This is a terrible problem that is facing the state," Cuomo said of the heroin crisis. "I think you put this together with the actions of the State Police who have already been doing great work on this issue and I think the state will have a very, very comprehensive approach."
Other major elements of the six-month legislative session include a delay in teacher evaluations for teachers rated "ineffective" or "developing" solely because their students fared poorly on tests aligned to the higher standards of the new Common Core curriculum.
Those teachers will get a second review without the Common Core tests to try to be rated "effective." Although only about 1,000 of the state's 206,000 teachers would be directly affected, the perceived unfairness to teachers caused an uproar statewide. Many students performed poorly under the Common Core and about 20 percent of teacher evaluations are based on classroom performance.
The state budget adopted March 31 takes care of much of Albany's major work this year. The budget included corporate tax cuts and a temporary freeze on local property taxes.
The session, however, was also notable for objectives that failed to make law.
Cuomo's 10-point agenda of bills to combat human trafficking, end workplace discrimination and protect domestic violence victims was scuttled for the second year. Senate Republicans refused to pass one item -- further protection of late-term abortions -- while the Assembly's Democratic majority refused to pass the other nine measures without the abortion bill.
A permanent, robust system of using public money to help fund campaigns as a way to limit the influence of big money donors also failed. A compromise resulted in a pilot program only for the comptroller's race.