Philip Kamrass, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a political splash by introducing a medical marijuana plan in the State of the State speech, but his cautious approach has been met with skepticism from pot advocates who question whether the proposal is mostly for show.
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.
The governor's office has yet to detail how the program would overcome key hurdles, including the lack of a legal, unadulterated supply of marijuana in the state and a federal law that still makes it illegal for doctors to write a prescription.
While advocates are frustrated, Cuomo's limited embrace of medical marijuana may be both politically astute and scientifically sensitive.
Some medical experts say that while the marijuana plant holds tantalizing possibilities for treating problems ranging from chemotherapy-related nausea to chronic pain, popular enthusiasm for the drug has outpaced a weak body of medical research.
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 declined 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 drug remains illegal under federal law, U.S. prosecutors were told in 2009 not to focus on people using it 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.
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.
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