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Medical pot bill wins final passage in New York state legislature

By T.G. Branfalt Jr

ALBANY N.Y. (Reuters) - New York state lawmakers gave final approval on Friday to allow limited access to medical marijuana and make New York the 23rd U.S. state to make the drug available for therapeutic purposes.

The 49 to 10 vote in the State Senate came one day after Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, announced a deal with lawmakers that Cuomo said balanced public health and public safety concerns.

The State Assembly passed the measure in the early morning hours of Friday by a vote of 117 to 13.

The program, which would bar smoking of marijuana but allow it to be eaten or vaporized, would be regulated by the state's Department of Health. It includes a "fail-safe" provision that would allow the governor to stop the program at any time.

Medical marijuana has long enjoyed strong support from the liberal state assembly, which has been passing versions of it since the 1990s. But the bill faced heavy opposition in the state senate, where Republicans have a power sharing agreement with a breakaway group of Democrats.

Advocates have objected to a provision that requires that recommendations for medical marijuana be made by physicians who have undertaken a training course, and excludes physician assistants and nurse practitioners, and the fact that it prohibits smoking - which can provide faster relief.

The Drug Policy Alliance, a group that has lobbied aggressively for the bill, said it would provide relief for thousands of New York patients suffering from serious and debilitating conditions, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.

"This is a huge step for patients in New York who will benefit from this legislation," said the group's New York State director, Gabriel Sayegh.

"This bill is far from perfect," he added. "But if implemented quickly and effectively, this program will help thousands of sick and suffering New Yorkers, who need help now."

An earlier draft would have allowed smoking of the drug, but that was taken out in order to win Republican support, including that of Republican leader Dean Skelos, who voted in favor of the measure on Friday after a long opposition.

"If you were to tell me at the beginning of this session that I would be voting ‘yes’ on this legislation, I would say to you, ‘no way,’" Skelos said during a lengthy floor debate.

"We should be a little bit more compassionate and a little bit more understanding of the journey others are having," he said.

(Reporting by TG Branfalt Jr.; Writing by Edith Honan; Editing by Ken Wills)

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