By T.G. Branfalt Jr
ALBANY N.Y. (Reuters) - New York state lawmakers gave final approval on Friday to a bill that would allow limited access to medical marijuana in New York, joining 22 other states where cannabis has been legalized for therapeutic purposes.
The bill, passed on a 49-10 state Senate vote, embodies a deal reached on Thursday between Governor Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers that would allow patients to inhale vaporized extracts of pot's active ingredients or to eat them in food, but prohibit smoking of marijuana itself.
Exactly how medical marijuana products will be formulated in New York will be left up to the state's Health Department under the program, which the governor would have discretion to halt at any time, and which will expire after seven years, unless lawmaker reauthorize it.
Cuomo, a Democrat who had long resisted proposals to legalize medical pot, in part because of law enforcement issues, said the compromise bill balances public safety with the health needs of individuals seeking relief from serious ailments.
The state Assembly passed the measure early Friday by a vote of 117 to 13, hours before final action in the Senate. Cuomo is expected to sign the measure into law.
Of the 22 other states that already provide some form of legalized access to marijuana for medical purposes, only one other, Minnesota, bars smoking of the plant as a way of administering it to patients, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that lobbied heavily for the New York bill.
Under New York's measure, the Health Department would license five private companies in the state to produce and distribute medical marijuana products through dispensaries.
Patients aged at least 21, who suffer from any one of a list of specified ailments - epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, neuropathies, spinal chord injuries, cancer and HIV/AIDS - would be eligible to use cannabis as treatment.
The Health Department would have discretion to approve other "serious conditions" for use of the drug as needed.
Patients will get a registration card allowing purchase of the drug from a licensed dispensary; only doctors involved in their direct care will be allowed to certify need for the drug.
The state Assembly, where liberal Democrats hold sway, has been passing various versions of medical marijuana bills since the 1990s. But those measures always faced stiff opposition in the Senate, where Republicans share control with a breakaway group of Democrats.
Medical marijuana advocates have objected to provisions in the latest bill requiring participating doctors to take a special training course, and excluding physician assistants and nurse practitioners, as well as the ban on smoking, which they say can provide faster relief.
The Drug Policy Alliance hailed the bill's passage as a major step in the right direction.
"This bill is far from perfect," said the group's state director, Gabriel Sayegh. "But if implemented quickly and effectively, this program will help thousands of sick and suffering New Yorkers, who need help now."
(Reporting by T.G. Branfalt Jr.; Writing by Edith Honan; Editing by Steve Gorman, Ken Wills and Jim Loney)