New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has abruptly shifted his position on pot. A once vocal opponent of patients’ access to medical cannabis -- in 2012 he stated that its “risks outweigh the benefits” – Cuomo now pledges to use his executive powers this year to allow New Yorkers the opportunity to use the herb therapeutically. But whether the Governor’s plans will actually get medicinal cannabis into the hands of those that so desperately need remains dubious at best.
 
Speaking Wednesday during his annual ‘State of the State’ address, the Democrat Governor declared: “We have to make New York healthier. Research suggests that marijuana can help manage the pain of cancer and other serious illnesses. We’ll establish a program allowing [physicians at] up to 20 hospitals [statewide] to prescribe medical marijuana and we will monitor the program and evaluate the effectiveness and the feasibility of a medical marijuana system.”
 
The governor provided no additional details during his speech as to how he plans to implement the proposed program, but previous media reports published in The New York Times and elsewhere indicate that Cuomo intends to revive a long-dormant state law allowing for the prescription use of medical cannabis in limited circumstances. That law, enacted by lawmakers in 1980 and known as the Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substance Therapeutic Research Program, permits physicians the ability to prescribe cannabis to patients as an investigational new drug. The catch? The prescribed marijuana in question must either come from the federal government’s University of Mississippi pot farm (unlikely) or from the New York state police (even less likely).
 
But as unlikely as the feasibility of such a proposed state/federal pot partnership seems today, there once was a time when various states, including New York, actively dispensed federal marijuana to qualified patients in this very manner. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, dozens of states enacted laws similar to New York’s Antonio G. Olivieri act. Seven states -- California, Georgia, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Tennessee, and Vermont -- even got their programs up and running, providing government sanctioned weed to needy patients. In 1985 for example, federal officials via the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, shipped over 6,000 marijuana cigarettes to New York state patients. But following the FDA approval of the synthetic oral THC pill dronabinol (aka Marinol) that same year, health officials in New York and in other states officially disbanded their programs and the feds abruptly lost interest in providing state health departments with government herb.
 
More recent efforts by lawmakers in other states to resurrect similar programs have been unsuccessful. During the mid-1990s, lawmakers and health officials in Massachusetts and Washington sought to enact state-sponsored cannabis research programs. But these efforts were stymied when NIDA officials made it clear that they would not collaborate with any state protocols. Without access to the feds’ marijuana, neither program ever got off the ground.
 
Last year, Maryland lawmakers enacted legislation to allow medical pot to be dispensed at teaching hospitals. To date, however, no hospitals have volunteered to participate in the program and two of the state’s largest institutions, Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical System, have said they will not have any involvement in the proposed system.
 
Those experiences don’t bode well for the likelihood of medical cannabis coming to The Empire State any time soon, despite the fact that more than 80% of voters approve of legalizing medical pot.
 
Nonetheless, the Governor’s recent statements on pot policy will certainly not be the final word on the subject. With legislation now pending in both the state Senate and Assembly to legalize marijuana for all adults, it is apparent that elected officials will be under mounting pressure to enact substantive reform in the coming months. For seriously ill New Yorkers, those reforms can’t come soon enough.