New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shocked political observers with an about-face on medical marijuana for 2014. The governor, who has until now opposed efforts in Albany to legalize medical use of cannabis, announced on January 4 that he would utilize a 1980 provision in New York law to allow for medical marijuana use.

The law, known as the Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substance Therapeutic Research Program, allows for the use of controlled substances for “cancer patients, glaucoma patients, and patients afflicted with other diseases as such diseases are approved by the commissioner.” Olivieri was a New York Assemblyman who died of cancer at age 39 and used cannabis to help cope with his chemotherapy.

But some patients worry that the law’s focus on “patients who are involved in a life-threatening or sense-threatening situation” means those with chronic conditions like Crohn’s disease, Hepatitis C, or cachexia wouldn’t qualify. Patients with mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress, Alzheimer’s agitation, or anxiety definitely won’t qualify.

The governor’s plans haven’t been fully announced yet, but Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who spoke with the governor’s staff on the matter Sunday, explained how the program may function. It would be, by far, the most restrictive medical marijuana program in the country, with cannabis available to select patients at only at 20 hospitals statewide. The state department of health would set up the guidelines and pick hospitals that would take part. These hospitals would then have a panel to decide, on a patient-by-patient basis, who qualifies for medical marijuana.

Details are still yet to be determined -- would patients have to use medical marijuana only at the hospital? How often would patients have to be evaluated by this hospital panel? How much could patients possess? This Olivieri law doesn’t allow for dispensaries or home growing, so where is the cannabis coming from? We’re not very reassured by officials mentioning seizures of illegal marijuana by “the federal government or law enforcement agencies” as the potential source.

Despite it being just a half-baby step, it is wonderful that tens of thousands of New Yorkers could be helped by this law.  As Gabriel Sayegh, New York State Director of Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), told the media, “This is a good development as an interim step,” but that DPA, Assemblyman Gottfried, and others would continue to work on a more flexible law in Albany.  “It's going to help us build momentum to build a permanent program,” said Sayegh.

"Radical" Russ Belville is the host of "The Russ Belville Show."