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State lawmakers to consider medical marijuana bill

Debate over a state bill to legalize marijuana use for some illnesses is heating up this week, with proponents saying they are optimistic legislation, for the first time, has a chance to pass in both chambers.

State Sen. Diane Savino of Staten Island and Assemb. Richard Gottfried of Manhattan, both Democrats, are holding a news conference Tuesday in Albany to promote a bill they introduced last month that would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana to people suffering from certain "serious" conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS or multiple sclerosis.

Gottfried, who championed three medical marijuana bills that passed the Assembly in 2007, 2008 and 2012 but died in the Senate, said he believed this bill might be different.

"I'm optimistic this year partly because polling data continues to show a rising level of public support," he said.

Polls by Quinnipiac University and Cornell University in 2010 showed that about two-thirds of New Yorkers favor allowing medical marijuana use. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia now have legalized medical marijuana -- this although the federal government still lists it as a drug with the same abuse potential as heroin and LSD.

Gottfried, who chairs the Assembly health committee where the bill will be voted on Tuesday, said he expected it to pass in that house "in the next month or so."

The state Senate bill is also in the health committee, chaired by Republican Sen. Kemp Hannon of Garden City, who hasn't signaled how he views it.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has in the past stated his opposition to legalizing medical marijuana. But Gottfried was hopeful the governor could be persuaded. "From informal discussions I've had with executive staff, I am hopeful that if a tightly drafted bill like this begins to move in the Senate, we can work with the executive to address any concerns they might have," he said.

Savino said she believes the bill, patterned on ones passed in Connecticut, New Jersey and Colorado, answers concerns that pot could be prescribed to those who don't need it or diverted for recreational use.

But opponents, including a group of addiction experts from Long Island, are preparing to meet with legislators Wednesday in Albany to argue the bill is still too lax.

"I think they have floated what they're calling a tighter medical marijuana bill . . . when in fact, it's the same old warmed-over stuff," said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

Reynolds said he was troubled the bill lists individual conditions "that are very hard to diagnose" such as fibromyalgia and includes conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. He also worries that the state will be unable to properly monitor marijuana use.

The bill legalizes possession and use of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for patients with "severe debilitating" or "life-threatening" conditions who the doctor believes are "likely to receive therapeutic or palliative benefit" from its use.The bill says patients would have to register with the state, and businesses or organizations that wish to sell marijuana would also have to register and pay a tax of $250 for each pound. Manufacture could only take place in an indoor "secure" facilityunder the bill.

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