NY medical marijuana bill gets a win, more hurdles ahead

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 -- A bill to make New York the 22nd state to legalize marijuana for medical use cleared a critical, early hurdle when it was approved Tuesday by the Senate Health Committee.

The measure would allow prescriptions for marijuana in various forms to combat pain and nausea for a list of diseases and conditions, including many cancers. Physicians could prescribe marijuana for smoking for patients 21 years old and older.

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The bill passed to the cheers of patients who filled the committee conference room, some in wheelchairs. Democrats carried the narrow margin with help from Republican Sen. William Larkin (R-C Cornwall-on-Hudson), 86, a combat veteran of World War II and the Korean War and career officer.

The proposal, however, faces an uncertain next step.

The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee. That committee could vote the measure to the Senate floor, where Democrats feel they can rally enough votes to pass it.

The Democrat-led Assembly has a similar bill and would be expected to try to agree on the Senate bill if senators pass it.

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But the Senate Finance Committee is also dominated by Republicans, most of whom are concerned about legalizing marijuana for medical use.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), said she believes the Finance Committee would pass the measure, but she's unsure if the chairman will allow a vote.

A spokeswoman for Senate Finance Chairman John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) said that decision hadn't yet been made.

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Savino called the Health Committee's decision Tuesday a win for patients who are suffering in pain that could be relieved by marijuana.

"This is step one," she said after the vote. "It's a huge victory for all of us; now we go on to the next step. We are by no means at the end of the line yet."

Opponents of the bill want to wait for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to make its ruling on medical marijuana.

"I do believe at some point there will be legalization of medical marijuana in this state and across this nation," said Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn). "I don't believe it's now, nor should it be now . . . I do believe the FDA has to give us the final approval."

The Rev. Jason McGuire of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a conservative group, said his members fear a "slippery slope" that will expand the nation's "drug culture."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has a far more restrictive bill that would allow selected hospitals to dispense marijuana for specific illnesses and syndromes. Republican senators opposed to Savino's bill said they expect that to pass in the legislative session, which ends June 19.

Another bill would allow only liquefied versions of marijuana.

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