Medical Marijuana Right for New York, Say ASOs

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Tuesday February 4, 2014

New York AIDS Service Organizations applauded Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposals to provide support for people living with HIV/AIDS, including access to medical marijuana. During his January State of the State Address, Cuomo included several proposals to help reduce HIV infections and support PLWHAs, including $100 million in new funding for affordable housing, tax credits for lower and middle-income renters, and advocating for the Women's Equality Act.

"We applaud Governor Cuomo's leadership on initiatives that address disparities in access to safe and affordable housing and employment, and that fight discrimination against women. All are among the most devastating drivers of the HIV epidemic," said GMHC's Interim CEO Janet Weinberg. "We also appreciate that Governor Cuomo now supports access to medical marijuana. [His] medical marijuana research program is an important first step in alleviating the pain and suffering of so many New Yorkers. However, we still need comprehensive legislative reform to ensure broad access to safe and effective medical marijuana."

GMHC Board Member Frank Spinelli, MD, a physician specializing in HIV, advised caution in moving in this direction.

"I applaud Governor Cuomo's initiative to bypass the blockade in the State Senate against the Compassionate Care Act," said Spinelli. "As a physician, however, I have a few questions about the details released about his research program, including how and where my patients will be able to access medical marijuana and how we can ensure that it is safe and effective."

The president of the New York State Psychological Association also applauded the Assembly Health Committee for passing the Compassionate Care Act (A.6357-A, Gottfried/S.4406-A, Savino), saying that he and his colleagues alike supported the bill.

And on Feb. 3, the state's top health official Nirav Shah testified as part of a legislative budget hearing that he would like to begin using Cuomo's plan to use the little-known 1980 Olivieri Law to allow a limited number of hospitals (20) to prescribe marijuana to chronically ill patients, within the year.

Pointing to the 21 states that have already legalized medical marijuana, Shah questioned whether New York needed further research, saying that the Federal Drug Administration had already approved 15 Investigational New Drug applications for medical marijuana. The main issue at hand, said Shah, was the Department of Health's goal to provide evidence of the drug's effectiveness. But Tatarsky maintained that comprehensive legislative reform was called for.

"Governor Cuomo's recent acknowledgement that cannabis has medical value for some seriously ill people is a wonderful development, but the 1980 Olivieri Law that he proposes using has significant restrictions that will prevent many patients who need the medicine from receiving it," said NYSPA President, Division of Addictions, Dr. Andrew Tatarsky. "I urge Cuomo to work with the State Legislature to enact comprehensive medical marijuana legislation this session."

Tatarsky and his colleagues recommend that certifying practitioners and patients should receive comprehensive education about the potential benefits and risks associated with marijuana use, strategies for assessing risk and protocols for minimizing risk. Concerns about misuse, like with any medication, should lead to referrals to appropriate mental health and substance use treatment professionals for assessment and treatment.

"There is overwhelming evidence that medical cannabis can be used safely and is effective for many serious medical conditions. It is also clear that the benefits of medical marijuana outweigh the risks for the majority of appropriate patients," said Tatarsky.

GMHC's Director of Public Policy Jason Cianciotto said that their organization would continue to work with Governor Cuomo, the State Legislature, Mayor Bill de Blasio, newly-elected City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the New York City Council, to create and implement a comprehensive plan that will end AIDS in New York State. Local ASOs will be pleased when the legislation is able to cut through the red tape to passage.

"With over 131,000 New Yorkers diagnosed with HIV in this State, we still have a long way to go toward ending the epidemic," said Cianciotto. "We have the knowledge and technology. All we need is the political will."

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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