Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a political splash by introducing his medical marijuana plan in the State of the State speech, but his cautious approach has met muted cheers from pot advocates who question how meaningful it really is.
While nearly two dozen states have OK'd marijuana for medical purposes and Colorado and Washington have legalized its use for pleasure, Cuomo is tapping a 1980 state law to allow as many as 20 hospitals to dispense the drug to people with certain severe illnesses as an experimental research project.
"I'm absolutely thrilled that he's actually verbalized the words 'medical marijuana,' but he's just got to go further," said Susan Rusinko, a 52-year-old central New York resident who said a hit of pot is a "wonder drug" that relaxes immobilizing leg spasms from her multiple sclerosis. It's unclear whether she would even qualify for Cuomo's initiative or whether there would be a participating hospital near her.
While advocates are frustrated, Cuomo's limited embrace of medical marijuana may be a politically astute and scientifically sensitive move on an issue on which popular enthusiasm has outpaced a weak body of medical research, experts say.
Some doctors avidly back using cannabis to treat problems ranging from chemotherapy-related nausea to chronic pain, but other medical experts say there are good reasons for caution. While the marijuana plant holds tantalizing possibilities, they say, it's still a question mark as medicines go.
Cuomo's initiative is styled as a test of whether pot can be effectively used as medicine without being abused.
"This does not start with a premise: 'Oh, this is a slam dunk. ... We can do it without any ancillary problems,'" he told reporters Monday. "It's the exact opposite."
Under his plan, people with cancer, glaucoma and possibly some other "life-threatening or sense-threatening" conditions could seek to get marijuana through studies based at hospitals yet to be named, with "stringent research protocols and eligibility requirements."
Cuomo's initiative bypasses a state Legislature that has weighed but failed to pass more ambitious medical marijuana laws. He's relying instead on his administrative powers to carry out a 1980 law allowing medical-marijuana research. A number of states passed such measures in that era.
Then California took a broader step, voting in 1996 to let doctors recommend cannabis for various conditions. Nineteen other states have since enacted medical marijuana laws. While the federal government hasn't OK'd the plant for pharmaceutical use, federal prosecutors were told in 2009 not to focus on people using the drug medically under state laws.
Critics feel medical marijuana is an entree to more recreational use of a drug that was widely outlawed in the U.S. in the 1930s. "I think it sends the wrong signal to our young people," said Michael Long, chairman of the New York Conservative Party.
Supporters say the marijuana plant is effective against various ailments, including backaches, anxiety and seizures.
Federal regulators have approved a few prescription drugs containing a synthetic version of the marijuana ingredient THC. But few clinical trials have been done to test whether the plant in its raw form is better than conventional therapies, partly because of federal restrictions on such research, notes Aron Lichtman, a pharmacology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and the president of the International Cannabinoid Research Society.
"There are all sorts of claims being made, without any proper testing. So it's sort of a conundrum," he said.
Dr. J. Michael Bostwick, a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist who studies medical marijuana issues, sees therapeutic potential in cannabis. But he also has concerns that it's been too liberally prescribed in some states.
He said Cuomo's proposal seems to address some of those concerns by putting dispensaries within hospitals, but he said some New York hospitals might be wary of participating for fear of running afoul of federal authorities.
If the medical science is unsettled, allowing pharmaceutical pot is popular with New Yorkers. A Quinnipiac University poll in June found 70 percent of state voters support it.
And for Cuomo, the issue represents an opportunity to plant a flag on the left — but not too far — as he faces re-election this year amid talk of his potential 2016 presidential prospects. Cuomo enjoys favorability ratings around 55 and 60 percent in recent polls, but some of the state's Democratic limelight has been shining lately on newly installed, staunchly liberal New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Cuomo had said as recently as April that he opposed medical marijuana but that his thinking was evolving. With his new plan, "he can, at least, say, 'I'm pushing forward this conversation,'" said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University.
Advocates, who want state lawmakers to pass a broader medical marijuana law, question how workable Cuomo's program would be and how many people it would help. The Cuomo administration hasn't immediately provided details.
"It moves New York forward, all the way to 1980," said Gabriel Sayegh, the New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group critical of war-on-drugs governing.
Carly Tangney-Decker isn't waiting for answers. She and her husband believe a particular strain of marijuana available through a Colorado dispensary could help their 8-month-old daughter, Mabel, who suffers from a genetic seizure disorder.
While doctors didn't recommend the marijuana treatment, the mother said, Mabel's neurologist supported the family's quest for alternatives to medications that aren't approved for regular use in infants and could cause permanent vision damage.
"People say that marijuana is a gateway drug," said Tangney-Decker, of Kingston. "Well, people in my situation consider it an exit drug to take us away from all the other drugs."
So she and baby Mabel are moving to Colorado next week.
Associated Press writers Michael Hill and Michael Virtanen in Albany contributed to this report.
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