NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew Cuomo took the first step Wednesday toward making New York the 21st state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, announcing plans to let some hospitals distribute the drug to patients with "serious illnesses."
The announcement in his state-of-the-state speech represents a shift for Cuomo, who had opposed legalizing the drug for any use. But most New Yorkers want their state to follow the lead of others that have relaxed marijuana laws, according to several polls — and Cuomo is up for reelection in November.
Cuomo briefly mentioned his medical marijuana plan deep into his address and indicated it would be a pilot program, not necessarily permanent. "Research suggests that medical marijuana can help manage the pain and treatment of cancer and other serious illnesses," he said, noting that 20 other states have allowed it to be prescribed for some illnesses.
He said New York would establish a program allowing "up to 20 hospitals" to distribute marijuana. "We will monitor the program to evaluate the effectiveness and feasibility of a medical marijuana system," Cuomo said. He provided no other details.
On Jan. 1, Colorado became the first state in the nation to allow the sale of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. Washington state is expected to open some pot stores this year. California has allowed medical marijuana since 1996.
Despite New York's liberal leanings, it has resisted pot legalization. Several attempts to pass state laws permitting some use of marijuana have failed, most recently in 2013, even though a Quinnipiac University survey in June found that 70% of New Yorkers favored medical marijuana and 26% opposed.
Proponents of changing the law said Cuomo's announcement was a positive step but did not go far enough.
"The governor's executive order serves as an important step towards the wholesale reform of the state's marijuana laws, which are painfully out of date, needlessly harsh and have a devastating impact on communities of color," said the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Donna Lieberman. The NYCLU supports "full decriminalization" of marijuana, she said.
The Marijuana Policy Project in Washington said Cuomo's plan was "unworkable" because it relied on a provision in a decades-old public health law, not new legislation.
"A cynic would say that it's a very popular political issue and this is a way to make it look like he's supportive of it, without actually proposing a workable solution," said Karen O'Keefe, the group's director of state policies.