Medical marijuana may waft into New York through the back door.
With a few sentences in his recent State of the State speech, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo unveiled a plan to allow 20 hospitals across the state to provide marijuana to patients with serious illnesses. They would be enrolled in a state-run research program created under cover of an obscure 1980 law.
New York is still a year or more away from giving joints to patients. State health officials will have to turn Cuomo's concept into a workable program. Research protocols must be developed to study which patients with which conditions benefit from using marijuana.
A supply of research-caliber marijuana has to be secured. And the state must ensure that participating hospitals won't lose federal funding for distributing an illegal drug. New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav R. Shah said federal officials he contacted are enthusiastic about the prospect of the state-run research. Still, Washington has not been particularly enamored of medical marijuana programs in other states that sometimes conflict with its law enforcement priorities.
Once implemented, the plan would still make it harder for patients to get marijuana than highly addictive opiates, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, which are available from pharmacies by prescription. To score marijuana, patients would have to be approved as research subjects and likely travel repeatedly to a designated hospital for their supply.
But the research is a small step in the right direction. Some seriously ill people whose debilitating symptoms are eased by marijuana would not be denied access to the drug.
Cuomo's initiative is limited because it is a research program, and a clunky one at that, not a comprehensive system designed to get medical marijuana to all the patients who might benefit. But it has pushed the issue toward the top of the state's agenda while a bill for a broader program -- one the Assembly passed four times, most recently in June -- has been stalled in the State Senate.
Republican Senate leaders should get real. Medical marijuana is legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Eight in 10 New Yorkers supported it in a Siena College poll last May. And Colorado and Washington have gone even further, legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
New York is light years behind the curve on this issue. The public deserves a vote in the State Senate. Perhaps Cuomo's gambit is to break the logjam.
To bypass the legislature, he dusted off a little-known state law named for Antonio Olivieri, an assemblyman with a brain tumor who pushed marijuana use to alleviate the nausea, lack of appetite and other side effects of chemotherapy. The law permits the use of controlled substances for patients with cancer, glaucoma and other diseases approved by the health commissioner.
It requires the state to rely on the federal government or police seizures for its supply. But to get research-grade marijuana grown by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the state needs approvals from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institutes of Health. That's quite a bureaucratic gauntlet.
The alternative of seized marijuana poses other problems. Marijuana used in research is required to have a consistent and predictable potency and must be free of contamination. State officials would have to develop a system to certify each batch. Instead, if New York were to join the 20 states with legal medical marijuana, the supply would come from licensed growers. Patients would be certified by a doctor, registered with the state and issued identification cards. Pharmacies, nonprofits, businesses, hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and community health centers could all apply to dispense the drug.
That sort of broad program is where the state should go. But until that happens, Cuomo's approach could provide answers about the efficacy of medical marijuana while providing relief for a few sick people. It's a start.