Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-125) acknowledges that not all of her constituents are thrilled with recent state legislation that seeks to legalize medical marijuana.

Some worry the new legislation will make marijuana more readily available to the public, especially teenagers, she said.

Others think the bill doesn’t go far enough. Before the bill was passed, Lifton received an email from a constituent who was unhappy that glaucoma had been taken off the list of eligible conditions. 

But Lifton said she feels the recently-passed medical marijuana bill was “carefully crafted” to prevent abuse of the new program, which the state Health Department will develop over the next 18 months.

Even with the varied criticism, lawmakers and advocates are still celebrating. With approval expected from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York is set to become the 23rd state to legalize medical marijuana.

Lifton was one of more than 30 co-sponsors of the bill, which has been dubbed the Compassionate Care Act.

While she wasn’t deeply involved in the bill’s creation — chairman of the Assembly Health Committee Dick Gottfried (D-Manhattan) was the bill’s sponsor — Lifton said in an interview that she was “happy to support it.”

Lifton brought up the glaucoma concerns during an Assembly debate, but ultimately it stayed off the state’s eligible diseases list.

After a series of late-night sessions, the Assembly passed the Compassionate Care Act by a large margin, 113-13, in its last meeting, which ended sometime past 3 a.m. Friday.

The bill has passed the Assembly multiple times, only to die in the Senate — but this time the Senate added its stamp of approval and sent it on to the governor’s office.

State Sen. Thomas O’Mara (R-58), who announced his support in March, voted in favor of the bill following a more than two hours of debate in the Senate Friday.

“This legislation creates a tightly regulated, highly restrictive and safeguarded system of dispensing and prescribing medical marijuana,” O’Mara said in a statement to The Ithaca Voice.

“It allows for safe, limited access to medical marijuana for patients who suffer from certain serious, debilitating diseases.”

Lifton felt compelled to support the bill in part because of the testimonies shared by her colleagues during Assembly sessions, as well as recommendations made to the lawmakers by state medical experts, she said.

The anecdotes shared by supporters in the Assembly focused “mostly [on] people with cancer, especially degenerative diseases,” she said.

“It’s very difficult to be in chronic pain,” Lifton said. “Other pain meds don’t solve the problem. The doctors are saying that they see evidence” of medical marijuana providing relief to patients with certain conditions and illnesses.

O’Mara expressed similar reasons for his support of the bill. (State Senator James Seward, whose district includes the Tompkins County towns of Caroline, Dryden and Groton, voted against the bill.)

“Comprehensive medical research and the ever-growing testimony from medical professionals, health care experts, patients and families show that the use of medical marijuana can help ease the pain and suffering of the seriously ill,” he said.

“It’s a medical treatment that can be effective.”

Gov. Cuomo said Thursday that the final version of the bill “strikes the right balance.” Demonstrating the bipartisan support the soon-to-be law has received, O’Mara’s comments about the law mirrored those of Cuomo.

About the new law

The compromise bill comes after much debate over which medical conditions should qualify and which forms of the drug should be made available to patients.

The approved legislation will establish one of the strictest medical marijuana programs in the country.

The law will go into effect no sooner than 18 months after it is signed and includes a seven-year sunset clause, meaning it will expire unless further legislative action is taken. It also includes a measure that allows the governor to shut down the program at any time.

The law aims to create “a comprehensive regulatory structure governing every aspect of the medical use of marihuana.” The program will be overseen by the state Department of Health, which will spend the next year and half developing regulations and establishing the state program.

The new program legalizes certain edible and vaporized forms of the drug for medical uses, but smoking marijuana is still banned. The form and dosage will be determined by state-certified medical practitioners.

Patients diagnosed with HIV and AIDS, ALS, cancer, epilepsy, Huntington’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, neuropathies, Parkinson’s disease and some spinal cord injuries are potentially eligible.

Medical marijuana will be produced, manufactured and distributed within state borders. For now, five state-sanctioned private companies will handle the entire production process.

Doctors will receive training from the Health Department and must be certified to prescribe the drug. Those found writing prescriptions for patients who do not meet state qualifications will be subject to felony charges. Patients found selling or distributing the drug can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Approved patients and caregivers will receive one-year registration cards from the state. Health insurers are not required to provide coverage for medical marijuana.

The legislation does not set a price for the marijuana, but does establish a 7 percent state tax. The law also establishes a trust fund to provide financial support to counties that manufacture medical marijuana.

Statewide support

The bill passed the Assembly 113-13 and the Senate 49-10 Friday.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said in a statement he was “pleased and relieved” that a compromise was finally reached. He commended the bill’s sponsor, assemblyman Dick Gottfried (D-Manhattan), who has spent the last 18 years studying and advocating for medical marijuana legislation in Albany. Gottfried has been chairman of the Assembly Health Committee since 1987.

In a public address Thursday, Cuomo said, “Medical Marijuana has the possibility to do a lot of good for a lot of people who are in pain and who are suffering and are in desperate need of a treatment that can provide relief … It’s taken a lot of time, it’s taken a lot of work, it’s taken a lot of compromise, but we believe it strikes the right balance.”