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Medical marijuana advocates: Cuomo plan may stall momentum

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his 2014 State of

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his 2014 State of the State address. Marijuana plants grow in an indoor grow room in Denver. (Jan. 8, 2014, Dec. 27, 2013) Credit: Getty Images, AP

ALBANY -- Advocates of medical marijuana said Monday that they fear Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's support of a very limited program might stall what appeared to be growing momentum on the issue.

Last year, the Democratic-led state Assembly passed a bill to enact a broad medical marijuana program similar to other states that have legalized it. Sponsors said at least 40 of the 63 senators also favored the measure, although it never came up for a vote. Advocates said they don't want to lose that drive.

"I want to make sure my original supporters are still there," said Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), sponsor of the bill in the Senate.

Cuomo, who had been opposed, surprised many earlier this month by calling for a limited medical marijuana program. Under his proposal, 20 hospitals would participate and use would be restricted to patients' eligible conditions, as determined by the state Health Department.

While applauding Cuomo's reversal, advocates said his proposal would be cumbersome and would help only a small percentage of patients in chronic pain. They also don't want their colleagues believing the legislature doesn't have to address the issue.

"I don't want supporters saying: 'Well, the governor did this, so we don't have to anymore,' " Savino said. "It's about constantly working your legislators."

Assemb. Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) said Cuomo's proposal was a "good first step," but said it has potential shortcomings. For instance, marijuana supply would depend largely on drug seizures. In contrast, states with broader programs use a network of highly regulated growers who supply "medical grade" marijuana, Gottfried said.

He added it's unclear that hospitals could handle a medical marijuana program and uncertain how it might impact their eligibility for federal funding.

"The governor should be working with us to pass workable legislation," Gottfried said.

Cuomo officials didn't immediately comment.

One Long Island expert said he preferred the governor's limited legalization plan.

"At the very least, the governor's plan places marijuana in a tightly controlled medical context, which is precisely where it should be, given the seriousness of the conditions for which it may be used and the potential for misuse or diversion," said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

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