NY Governor Cuomo Signs Emergency MMJ Bill, But Will It Actually Help?

Critically ill patients in New York do not technically have to wait until the full-scale medical marijuana program launches in January 2016 to get their hands on effective medicine. On Tuesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo put his signature on a couple pieces of legislation that will give patients suffering from treacherous, life-threatening ailments access to cannabis ahead of the program’s release date.

The governor’s decision to sign the “Emergency Access” legislation comes after months of pressure applied by the medical marijuana community for the state to provide terminal patients with immediate distribution of medicine.

Earlier this year, the New York State legislature approved the two proposals so fast that the ink barely had enough time to dry before they were being prepped for the governor’s office for a final assessment. When the legislation landed on Cuomo’s desk in late October, he was given 10 days to either sign or reject the measures under his veto authority.

His decision would come in the 11th hour.

“I deeply sympathize with New Yorkers suffering from serious illness and I appreciate that medical marijuana may alleviate their chronic pain and debilitating symptoms,” Cuomo said in a statement attached to the newly signed law. “I am also mindful, however, of the overarching authority, jurisdiction and oversight of the federal government.”

The governor’s arm was seemingly twisted to put this emergency legislation to work. Cuomo has not exactly been a supporter of this bill or the full program approved by the state legislature in 2014. In addition to being pinpointed as the primary, sandbagging culprit behind the uninspired outcome of the Compassionate Care Act, which only allows patients with severe conditions to participate, Cuomo did not indicate early on that he would definitely sign the emergency access proposal — only give it some consideration.

“Our top priority has always been to deliver relief to those in pain,” Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for the Cuomo Administration, said back in July. “We will review the legislation in the context of implementing the Compassionate Care Act and complying with existing federal statutes.”

While some lawmakers, like Senator Joseph Griffo, were optimistic that the governor would do the right thing and sign the bill into law, others, like Senator Savino, suggested the measure was a waste of time due to the red tape already wrapped tightly around the full-scale program. Savino, who was a big part in passing the Compassionate Care Act, argued that it was in the best interest of all the state’s medical marijuana patients “to stay on the course we have set” and not cater to the immediate needs of a select few.

Patients rejoiced yesterday upon hearing the news of the governor’s decision to sign the bills. But there are some potential problems that could end up making his efforts a fairly meaningless course of action.

For starters, in order for a dying patient to gain access to emergency medical marijuana, their primary physician must first write them a certification. The problem is the State Health Department just recently began allowing doctors interested in making medical marijuana recommendations to take the state required online course that gives them legal authority to take part.

There is speculation that not many doctors will choose to involve themselves in New York’s medical marijuana program. Over the summer, only 1 out of 500 physicians surveyed said they planned to provide certifications for their patients. Interestingly, when High Times reached out to the Health Department to find out just how many doctors had enrolled in the required training course since it was made available in October, they dodged the question entirely.

“Practitioner education is an ongoing process with doctors continually signing up for and receiving training, which is available via an online, four-hour, DOH-approved course,” the Health Department told High Times in an emailed statement.

The sad but true fact of the matter is no critically ill patient residing in New York will be able to obtain access to emergency marijuana unless their physician is registered to provide them with a recommendation. Then comes the issue of distributing the herb to the patients – a challenging task, especially considering that the five licensed growers just received permission in July to begin establishing their operations.

Therefore, with only two months left before New York’s official program is set to get underway, it seems unlikely that any patient will actually benefit from Cuomo’s latest stroke of the pen.

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