Governor Cuomo Signs Bill That Offers Patients Emergency Access to Legal Medical Marijuana

Update, November 11, 2015: As a pleasant surprise to many patient advocates, Governor Cuomo has signed a bill that promises critical patients emergency access to marijuana without legal repercussions while the state implements its medical cannabis program. 

The program, created via the passage of the Compassionate Care Act last year, is scheduled to go online in January but is expected to be a lengthy process. The Medical Marijuana Expedited Access bill will allow the most seriously ill patients to receive cards permitting them to legally obtain the cannabis products they need, even before the rollout is complete.

"Governor Cuomo has done a very good deed for seriously ill patients and their families by signing the Medical Marijuana Expedited Access Bill," said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried. Thanks to their work and sharing their personal stories, this legislation and the Compassionate Care Act became law.

"Patients in New York have waited long enough for legal access to medical cannabis," said Roger Volodarsky, CEO of Brooklyn-based vaporizer company Puffco. "It's outrageous that they have been forced to go years without relief while politicians procrastinate, but this new law means that the day when those who need marijuana-based medicine will be able to safely obtain it from legal businesses will be here sooner rather than later."

Below is the story the Voice ran earlier this week while Cuomo was still considering the bill:

In June, both the New York State Assembly and senate passed a bill to provide emergency access to medical marijuana for patients in dire need of treatment. Now, nearly five months later, it's finally time for Governor Andrew Cuomo to consider it. This week, the legislation was delivered to Cuomo’s desk. He has until November 11 to either sign the bill or veto it.

The state’s medical marijuana program is due to be up and running by January, but advocates worry that it won't be fully operational even after it goes into effect. If Cuomo signs the Emergency Access bill, which passed both houses of the legislature with broad bipartisan support, it would allow the state to make it possible for qualified patients in the most critical condition to legally obtain medical marijuana as soon as possible. The New York Department of Health would issue cards providing those patients with protection from law enforcement and child services while the program is still being established — especially in the case of children with epilepsy who would benefit from high-cannabidiol (CBD) cannabis products.

“The fact that the state has not moved quickly to get CBD oil available to [patients] is really inexcusable,” Manhattan assemblyman Richard Gottfried told the Voice in July. Gottfried sponsored the bill in the assembly and has been working on legalizing medical marijuana in New York for nearly twenty years. “I just cannot understand why anyone in the government would not do everything possible to save the lives of those children.”

Cuomo's office is directing all inquiries related to medical marijuana to the New York State Department of Health.

The bill was intended to approve at least one medical marijuana producer while the state considered the forty-three total applications for the five growing licenses allowed statewide under New York's medical marijuana law, known as the Compassionate Care Act. However, since the five companies were selected in July, the process of setting up both growing facilities and dispensaries has been slow going. 

“The expedited access bill [as it was originally meant to function] is for all intents and purposes dead,” says Troy Smit, director of Empire State NORML. “[The five companies] have to have started growing by now; there’s no way to speed up that process,” he says. “Anything the legislature does at this point isn’t going to speed things up.” Advocates now will settle for expedited access to treatment, as offered in the emergency access bill, so the patients in critical need will not have to wait any longer once the medicine does become available.

“There remains a real danger that many seriously ill patients will not be able to access medical marijuana and their conditions will deteriorate, potentially jeopardizing their lives,” Gottfried says. The Cuomo administration and Gottfried have been in conversation about the bill; the assemblyman says he is not aware of any arguments against it.

Cuomo signed New York’s Compassionate Care Act to legalize medical marijuana in July 2014, with plans for it to take effect within eighteen months. However, several doubts now exist as to whether the program will even be fully operational come January. Some of the twenty state-sanctioned dispensaries, owned by the five growers selected by the health department, have not finalized their locations, and it remains unclear which “brands” of cannabis will be available in each dispensary. (Each dispensary will carry five “brands,” or manufactured products defined by a specific combination of cannabinoids.)

“We’re not confident that the program will be fully operational by January, and critically ill patients cannot afford additional delays,” says Julie Netherland, New York deputy director at the Drug Policy Alliance. “Governor Cuomo should stick by his promise to do everything in his power to get medical marijuana to children suffering from life-threatening forms of epilepsy.”

In the process of passing the Compassionate Care Act to begin with, already four children had died before treatment could become legally available. “Passing this [Emergency Access] bill and making sure no more children die is one way to honor the memories of Anna, Olivia, Tony, and Donnie,” Netherland said in June, when the bill passed the legislature. 

So will Cuomo sign the bill? Those who have followed the legislation the closest say the governor isn't tipping his hand.

"Our hope is that he will step up and do the right thing to help those who have been suffering for far too long," says Netherland. "But we’ve been asking for [Cuomo's] administration to create some kind of emergency access for the critically ill since July of 2014. To date, they have failed to help even one patient get the medicine they need.

"This is the governor’s chance to show that he cares and finally take some action to help those patients most at risk. Frankly, further delays are unconscionable."

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