The Moral High Ground: Why NYS Senate Should Pass the Emergency Medical Marijuana Bill

Albany, mired in a slew of corruption scandals, now has the opportunity to end this legislative session on the moral high ground.
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Albany, mired in a slew of corruption scandals, now has the opportunity to end this legislative session on the moral high ground. They can pass a bill that will help save the lives of children suffering with epilepsy and other critically ill patients by establishing a medical marijuana emergency access program. The bill, which has broad bipartisan support, passed the Assembly this week by a vote of 130-18. Now it's time for the Senate to act.

Last June, after months and months of lobbying by parents and patients, the New York State legislature passed a medical marijuana law. During the final days of negotiations, Governor Andrew Cuomo had several provisions removed that made the bill one of the narrowest and most restrictive in the country. Perhaps even worse, he had a provision removed that would have created a program to expedite emergency access to medical marijuana for critically ill patients.

Lawmakers and advocates knew back then that some patients would not be able to wait for the months and months it would take the state to implement the full medical marijuana program. Particularly at risk are young children with epilepsy for which medical marijuana has shown tremendous promise in reducing the number and severity of their life-threatening seizures. Sadly, predictions that children and others might die before they were able to access medicine have come true -- several people have died waiting for New York to implement its medical marijuana program, which is not expected to be operational before January 2016 at the earliest.

At the ceremony to sign the legislation into law, Governor Cuomo stood next nine-year-old Amanda Houser, who suffers from epilepsy. Days later, two children with severe forms of epilepsy died. They might have benefited from medical marijuana. In the months that have followed, additional children have passed away. They too, might have benefited from having emergency access to medical marijuana. How many more must die needlessly?

Motivated by these deaths and committed to preventing more senseless tragedy, patient and parent advocates contacted Governor Cuomo and recommended a number of avenues to create emergency access for patients at risk, including an executive order providing legal protections to families who may otherwise risk criminal sanction by illegally obtaining medical marijuana for their dying children. Every idea after idea was rejected by the Cuomo Administration. While the Cuomo Administration has offered a number of bureaucratic and legalistic excuses for their inaction, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed an executive order to provide legal protections to some families in that state. Perhaps New York patients and families should move to Georgia to find some compassion.

As it became clear that the Cuomo Administration was not going to take action to provide emergency access, parents and patients turned back to the legislature. Medical marijuana champion and Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried, a Democrat, along with Assembly Minority Leader Brain Kolb, the top Republican in the Assembly, introduced a bill that would direct the Cuomo administration and the Department of Health to begin issuing patient certifications to critically ill families immediately and fast track a producer to get medicine into the hands of those who need it most as soon as possible. The same bill was introduced by Republican Senator Griffo after he heard the pleas of his 12 year old constituent, Mackenzie Kulaway, who suffers from epilepsy.

The Assembly passed the bill with a strong bipartisan vote. The bill is now in the hands of Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who only has a few days left to decide whether or not he will bring the bill to the floor for a vote. Passing this bill and making sure no more children die is one way to honor the memories of Anna, Olivia, Tony and Donnie - the four children who have died since the original medical marijuana law was signed. For those children who are at risk every day -- Mackenzie, Morgan, Oliver, Amanda, Tommy, Julia, Vincent and hundreds of others - the Senate will must act swiftly. And then Governor Cuomo will need to sign the bill - with New York children at risk, it's the least he can do.

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