Gov Cuomo signs two bills to give critically ill faster access to medical marijuana
New York — In a surprising move, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed two bills on Wednesday to establish an “emergency medical marijuana” program for qualified patients, two months before the planned debut of a statewide program providing for the medical use of the drug.
The governor’s action is an effort to accelerate the timetable for the legal distribution of medical marijuana in the state after passage of a 2014 law that added New York to a list of nearly two dozen other states where the drug is available for patients.
Under the bills, approved by the State Legislature this year, the State Health Department is to set up a separate program to “create an expedited pathway” for sick New Yorkers whose lack of access to the drug “would pose a serious risk” to their lives.
Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said in a statement accompanying his signatures that he “deeply sympathized with New Yorkers suffering from serious illness, and I appreciate that medical marijuana may alleviate their chronic pain and debilitating symptoms.”
The governor did not initially embrace the bills, saying around the time of their passage that they would simply be reviewed. Advocates doubted his interest in expediting the program, even while they continued to press their case, protesting outside his New York City office as recently as Tuesday.
Exact details of the emergency program’s workings were still unclear. A request for comment was not returned by the Health Department’s press office.
Mr. Cuomo agreed to the 2014 law — the Compassionate Care Act — only after insisting on a series of safeguards that would allow the State Police and the Health Department extensive oversight of the drug’s distribution. The 2014 law called for five organizations to produce the drug and distribute it through 20 dispensaries statewide, and set an 18-month timetable for the program to begin. Under the 2014 law, the marijuana must be grown in New York.
The governor’s statement on the bills signed Wednesday outlined what appeared to be a more flexible emergency program. The program would require the Health Department to register more organizations for producing the drug “as soon as practicable,” and to waive the “tight controls” of the Compassionate Care Act, though it was not clear exactly what controls he meant.
Part of the program’s goal, the governor wrote, would be “giving preference” to organizations or groups producing marijuana in other states that are potentially capable of providing the drug “in a more expeditious manner.”
While seeming to open the door for more dispensaries and producers, the governor said he recognized restrictions on marijuana at the federal level, where the drug is still considered illegal, and asked that the new emergency program abide by 2013 guidelines set down by the United States Justice Department.
Those guidelines detail the federal government’s priorities — including keeping drugs away from minors and fighting drug cartels and drug-related violence — but allow states with medical marijuana laws some discretion, particularly if they have strong regulatory systems.
The governor also directed the Health Department to assess whether the geographic mix of the five groups and 20 dispensaries provided sufficient access.
Questions of access and supply have long been worrisome to medical marijuana advocates, who also had argued this year that the state’s regulations for the program were too strict.
Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat, had pressed for a quicker timetable for the drug program. On Wednesday, he praised the governor, saying that a matter of days can be a matter of life or death for seriously ill patients.
“Governor Cuomo,” the assemblyman said in a statement, “has done a very good deed.”