Pubdate: Wed, 16 Apr 2014
Source: Village Voice (NY)
Copyright: 2014 Village Voice Media, Inc
Author: Tessa Stuart


Despite Andrew Cuomo's Promises, the End Might Not Be Near

A U.S. map that shows where pot is legal looks a lot like recent 
electoral college maps, except instead of blue, the liberal states 
are rendered in green: the entire West Coast (California, Oregon, 
Washington, Nevada), progressive mountain and Midwest states 
(Colorado, New Mexico; Michigan, Illinois), all of New England, plus 
New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii. Twenty states and the 
District of Columbia have enacted laws legalizing medical marijuana; 
in two of them, recreational weed is all good, too.

Conspicuously absent from that map: New York.

How is it that one of the most liberal states, with a Democratic 
governor and a Democratic majority in the state assembly, a state 
where popular support for legalization is overwhelming - a February 
poll from Quinnipiac University showed 88 percent of New Yorkers are 
in favor of legalizing medical marijuana - how can such a 
left-leaning state lag so far behind its ideological peers?

Albany, replies Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug 
Policy Alliance, is a place "fraught with drug war politics, and it 
lacks a coherent sort of framework to address these types of questions."

For one thing, Sayegh explains, "You have a history of some very 
draconian policies" like the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which set the 
mandatory sentence for selling two ounces or possessing four at a 
mandatory 15 years, minimum. (Those laws remained on the books until 
2009.) Four decades later, New York leads the nation in arrests for 
marijuana. And it's not even close: According to an ACLU re port, the 
Empire State made 29 percent more pot busts than its closest competitor, Texas

"On the other hand, you have some really smart innovations that have 
occurred," Sayegh adds. New York, for instance, passed legislation to 
research the therapeutic applications of marijuana back in 1980.

In January, Andrew Cuomo announced he would use that 1980 law - the 
Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research 
Program - as the legal basis for his own medical marijuana program. 
"We'll establish a program allowing up to 20 hospitals to prescribe 
medical marijuana, and we will monitor the program to evaluate the 
effectiveness and the feasibility of a medical marijuana system," 
Cuomo declared.

For a man who only a few years earlier declared his unequivocal 
opposition to legalizing medical marijuana, that was quite the 
turnaround. "The dangers of medical marijuana outweigh the benefits," 
Cuomo said on the campaign trail in 2010. It could raise revenues, 
though, a reporter noted. "A lot of things could raise revenues," 
Cuomo said. "Legalizing prostitution could raise revenues. I'm 
against that, too."

Antonio Olivieri was 37 years old, a handsome, Harvard-educated 
partner in a law firm, a father of two, a rising Democratic star with 
a seat on the New York City Council, and the picture of health - he'd 
just returned from a five-mile jog - when he collapsed at his office 
on a May morning in 1979. It would take until August of that year for 
surgery to reveal the cause: a malignant brain tumor.

He had only a little over a year left to live, but throughout that 
year Olivieri remained devoted (conducting staff meetings from his 
hospital bed at times) to the same issues he had spent his career 
advancing - health, the environment, tenants' rights - and a new one: 
medical marijuana.

Olivieri lobbied leaders in the state legislature (many of whom he 
knew from his own time in the assembly, where he represented 
Manhattan's 66th District) to legalize marijuana for use by cancer 
and glaucoma patients. He made a deeply personal appeal to the 
chairman of the Senate Health Committee, convincing that man, Tarky 
J. Lombardi, that cannabis eased the nausea that accompanied his 
chemotherapy treatments and helped him maintain an appetite.

With Lombardi's support, the Antonio G. Olivieri controlled substance 
therapeutic research program was approved by the New York State 
legislature; in July 1980, Governor Hugh Carey signed it into law. 
Olivieri died a few months later, before one of its key provisions - 
a panel that would review each patient's petition for medical 
marijuana - was implemented.

"He had no time for halfhearted political gestures," a staffer said 
at a memorial service for Olivieri. Ironically, the law he spent the 
last months of his life working on turned out to be exactly that. The 
review panel was never established; not a single patient has ever 
received marijuana through the program.

When a reporter for the New York Times called a few of the law's key 
supporters 21 years after it passed, most had no memory of it. The 
forgotten legislation lay dormant for another 13 years, until January 
2014, when Cuomo revived interest in it during his state of the state address.

It now appears Cuomo's declaration may be just another halfhearted 
political gesture.

Consider the New York s budget, finalized March 31. The assembly's 
version included funding for the program. That funding disappeared 
from the final version, the one approved by both the state senate and 
the governor. A member of the governor's policy team tells the Voice 
that the program doesn't need dedicated funding yet.

To introduce a research program like the one Cuomo proposes, the New 
York State Department of Health must jump through several hoops. 
First, it needs to secure approval for the study from the U.S. Food 
and Drug Administration. Next, it will need to win the support of the 
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Also required: a 
license from the Drug Enforcement Administration to distribute a 
Schedule I drug.

And they'll need to score the weed.

As originally envisioned, the Olivieri law would redistribute to 
cancer patients marijuana that had been seized by the New York State 
Police. Nirav R. Shah, the state's heath commissioner, recently said 
his department will tap "federal sources" for its marijuana.

There is only one federal source of marijuana: the National Institute 
on Drug Abuse, which has grown research-grade marijuana at its 
University of Mississippi farm since 1974.

But there's a hitch: NIDA has typically provided marijuana for 
studies about drug abuse, not research into marijuana's therapeutic 

The institute made an exception to that rule last month, when it 
approved an application from the California based Multidisciplinary 
Association for Psychedelic Studies to study the therapeutic effect 
of marijuana on veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We fought for 22 years to get permission to buy the marijuana from 
the federal government for this study," says Brad Burge, director of 
communications for MAPS.

The nonprofit first began pursuing research into medical marijuana in 
the '90s, but it started the approval process for its PTSD study in 
November 2010. The FDA accepted the proposal the following April. 
Additional vetting from an independent institutional review board, at 
the urging of the Public Health Service, added a full calendar year 
to the approval process.

The process still isn't over - researchers still need a DEA license - 
but in March, NIDA greenlit the MAPS study. Burge estimates that at 
least four employees have worked full-time for three years on the 
approval process alone. Meanwhile, there's no evidence York's 
Department of alth has even begun the engthy approval process for its 
own program.

A spokesman for the department would not comment for this story. An 
official in the governor's office was only lightly more forthcoming, 
informing theVoice that a agency team consisting of "dozens" of 
officials is drafting a research proposal for FDA approval.

Medicinal marijuana advocates skeptical of the governor's proposal 
remain committed to their efforts to pass the Compassionate Care Act, 
which would legalize medical marijuana on a broader basis.

"The governor's proposal is for a research program," says Sayegh. "A 
research program is not the same as a patient-access system, and 
that's what it is that we need in this state: We need a 
patient-access system. We need a way for people who have cancer, MS, 
severe epileptic-seizure disorders, and other conditions - we need a 
way for them to be able access marijuana medicine."

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried introduced the Compassionate Care Act 
for the first time in 1997, and it has been reintroduced every year 
since. The bill has passed the assembly four times, only to die in the senate.

Sayegh, for one, remains cautiously optimistic that this year will be 
the year it passes. For one thing, he says, there's overwhelming 
support for the issue from both sides of the aisle. "The second thing 
is that there is simply no dispute by any reasonable person that 
medical marijuana is needed here in New York. The governor has said 
that. Even Dean Skelos, the Republican leader, has said that. Even 
the opponents will concede that medical marijuana needs to be made 
accessible to people - the only question is how."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom