Medical marijuana has cleared a key hurdle in the New York Senate, the first time it has advanced so far.
The Senate’s Health Committee voted 9-8 May 20 to approve the MMJ bill sponsored by Sen. Diane Savino, a Democrat from Staten Island. Similar legislation has won approval in the state Assembly only to die in Senate committees repeatedly in years past.
Andrew Cuomo announced in January that he would launch a medical weed program independent of state lawmakers. But a bill from the legislature would mean better access for more patients, faster.
“This bill is really about a simple concept, which is to alleviate suffering,” said Sen. Braid Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat who sits on the Health Committee. “I can’t think of a more important or noble pursuit on the part of . . . the legislature.”
The vote fell along party lines, though one Republican, Sen. William Larkin of Orange County, joined eight Democrats in voting for the legislation.
Democrats technically dominate the Senate, but in reality Republicans hold the levers of power. That’s because a small group of conservative Democrats caucuses with the GOP, giving Republicans majority control of committees.
That means the bill ultimately needs approval from the Republican leadership and the leader of the breakaway Democrats. First, though, it must pass the Finance Committee. If it succeeds there, it could come up for a full Senate vote before the session ends in June.
Savino said she has at least 39 “yes” votes on her side, enough to pass the bill. But she acknowledged the process has just begun.
“This is step one,” she said. “We are by no means at the end of the line yet.”
Savino amended her bill to limit the number of conditions covered by medical weed to 20. The list covers cancer, PTSD, AIDS, and multiple sclerosis, among other debilitating disorders. Savino shortened the list to appease opponents like the Senate’s Republican leader, Dean Skelos of Nassau County.
Skelos supports MMJ only in oil form. That extract, used to treat epileptic patients, is low in THC, the chemical that makes marijuana users high. Savino and other MMJ supporters said that approach could shut the door to many patients.
She touted her bill as “the tightest, most-regulated program in the nation,” a claim made of almost every recent program in the nation.
Twenty other states have adopted full medical marijuana – 21 when Minn. Gov. Mark Dayton signs a bill approved by that state’s legislature. Another six have approved the low-THC oil favored by Skelos – seven when Fla. Gov. Rick Scott signs a bill in his state.