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Cuomo, Legislative Leaders Agree on Anti-Heroin Bills, Still Discussing Medical Marijuana

Karen DeWitt

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders have agreed to a package of bills to combat heroin addiction, and say they are still discussing other issues, including medical marijuana, as the legislative session draws to a close. 

Governor Cuomo calls the measures to curb the heroin abuse epidemic his “top priority” for the end of the 2014 session. He says the legislation will require that health insurance companies pay for more treatments.

“Insurance companies, frankly, can’t play games and decide who gets treatment and who doesn’t get treatment,” said Cuomo.

The lobby group for health care plans, the Health Plan Association, is expressing concerns that insurers may now have to pay for addiction related treatments that are not deemed medically necessary.

The package also includes stiffer penalties for distributing heroin and other opioids, and comes after Cuomo has already added 100 state troopers to the narcotics enforcement unit.

While the state’s policy on one illegal drug was decided, policy on using another illegal drug for medicinal purposes, medical marijuana, remains up in the air.

Advocates for allowing the drug to be used for treating side effects from cancer, AIDS, and childhood seizure disorders demonstrated outside the press conference.

“Let the bill on the floor!” they shouted.  

The demonstrators accuse Governor Cuomo of putting up roadblocks by raising objections to some of the bill’s provisions in the final days of the session.

Missy Miller lives with her ten-year-old son Oliver in Atlantic Beach, Long Island. Oliver suffers from a rare and severe seizure disorder, and Miller says multiple conventional drug treatments and even surgery are not working, and his health is failing. She says Oliver’s doctors have recommended medical marijuana, but New York's laws forbid it.

“They are holding us hostage. We have medicine that can help so many people,” Miller said. “It’s unfathomable to me.”

Miller says she does not believe her son can last another year if advocates have to wait for another legislative session to pass the law.

Holly Anderson, with the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester, says she’s angry about what she says is foot dragging by Cuomo.

“To have the governor not come to the table until 11:59 PM on the metaphorical clock,” said Anderson, who said Cuomo “never articulated” his concerns.  

Cuomo says he’s not stalling, but has some legitimate worries.

“If the system doesn’t work, you can have a public safety debacle,” Cuomo said. “Marijuana is a gate way drug. Marijuana leads to other drugs.”  

The governor has sought to limit the types of diseases that would be eligible for medical marijuana, and reduce the number of dispensaries. He’s also raised objections to smokable forms of the drug.

There are other outstanding issues as the session draws to a close. Teachers and their allies have been seeking a moratorium on the effects of new Common Core testing on their annual evaluations. And the governor and lawmakers say they need to make some modifications to the state budget, but aren’t revealing details other than to say the bill involves some technical changes.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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