Florida, New York latest states pulled into medical marijuana debate

Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a medical marijuana bill into law Monday. New York continues to debate its own bill's provisions.
(Joe Hermitt / Associated Press)

Since California passed the nation’s first medical marijuana bill in 1996, many states have been following suit, but some -- most recently Florida and New York -- still grapple with what medical marijuana legislation should look like.

New York Assemblyman Richard Gottfried introduced his first version of a medical marijuana bill the year after California passed its bill, and this week the legislation, the Compassionate Care Act, is the closest it’s come to passing the state Assembly and Senate in 18 years.

The last hurdle for the bill is Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who came out in opposition to several of the bill’s provisions. Gottfried and the New York senator sponsoring the Senate bill, Diane Savino, turned in an amended version of the bil Monday night in hopes it will be voted on before the legislative session ends Thursday.


“We’re definitely optimistic,” Jason Elan, a Savino spokesman, told the Los Angeles Times. “This is certainly the closest we’ve ever been.”

But on Central New York public radio Tuesday morning, Cuomo said that even with the amendments, he still wouldn’t sign the bill because legislators wouldn’t budge on a few issues.

“If we can address the concerns, there will be a bill,” Cuomo said. “But I’m not going to be part of a system that is just going to wreak havoc.”

One of the biggest issues is whether to prohibit the smoking of medical marijuana. Cuomo has said smoking should not be allowed.

“We reject that,” said Savino on public radio Monday. “We think we’ve done everything possible to mitigate the issue of smoking. For some patients, smoking is the only method that will provide the relief they need.”

The Compassionate Care Act would be one of the most highly regulated state medical marijuana laws if it passes.

The act would ban smoking for anyone under the age of 21, although the drug could still be administered through a vaporizer, edible form or oil. The bill would also allow patients to be administered marijuana only under the supervision of a healthcare professional -- specifically, a doctor or a nurse practitioner supervised by a physician.

“The senator has always said she wanted the tightest bill and we wanted to avoid problems that other states have had,” Elan, Savino’s spokesman, said. “We think that bill, in and of itself, uses the best methods from other states.”

(The bill is separate from the medical marijuana research program launched by the governor this year, which granted permission to 20 hospitals to provide such treatment to their patients with serious illnesses.)

In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott on Monday signed two bills, collectively called Charlotte’s Web, to legalize the use of a non-euphoric strain of marijuana to treat conditions such as epilepsy, Lou Gehrig’s disease and cancer. The new laws are not related to a more expansive medical marijuana referendum up for vote in the state in November.

“As a father and grandfather, you never want to see kids suffer,” Scott said in a statement. “I am proud to stand today with families who deserve the ability to provide their children with the best treatment available.”

If Florida approves the referendum, it will be the first state in the Southeast to do so and may become the biggest market outside California, according to the National Cannabis Industry Assn. The association estimates medical marijuana will be a $785-million industry in the state.

Cerise Naylor, executive director of Florida Medical Cannabis Assn., said in an interview that if someone had told her a year ago that this legislation would have become law, she wouldn’t have believed it.

“It is an excellent first step,” Naylor said. “Florida is a very conservative state and I would’ve never believed it would’ve happened.”

However, Naylor and other medical marijuana advocates think the new laws aren’t as comprehensive as they should be and that only a small percentage of patients in need will be able to be treated.

Naylor said she hopes that people who don’t think the bill goes far enough will voice their concerns at the polls in the fall. The ballot initiative, Amendment 2, would allow doctors to prescribe other forms of marijuana, including the kind that is smoked, to treat an even wider range of conditions.

Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have laws that permit the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, though they vary widely. Pennsylvania also has pending legislation on the issue.

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