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New York poised to become 23rd U.S. state to allow medical marijuana

By TG Branfalt Jr

ALBANY N.Y. (Reuters) - Governor Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers announced a deal on Thursday that would allow limited access to medical marijuana in New York, making it the 23rd U.S. state to legalize some kind of availability of cannabis for therapeutic purposes.

The proposed medical cannabis program, one of the nation's most restrictive, would permit the active ingredients of pot to be inhaled as a vapor or ingested, but prohibit the 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.

The state Senate had been expected to give final legislative approval to the deal in a vote originally set for late Thursday night. But Senate leaders agreed to Republican demands to delay it until Friday morning to give lawmakers more time for review.

Democrats control the state Assembly, but Republicans share control of the Senate with a breakaway group of Democrats.

"I always supported the concept of 'If you can get the medical benefits of medical marijuana to a suffering patient, clearly you would want to do that,'" Cuomo, a Democrat, told a news conference in Albany, the state capital.

"My trepidation has always been the risk. This bill virtually eliminates the risk."

Under the plan, 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 measure further allows the Health Department 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 bill makes it a felony for any doctor to falsely certify a patient's eligibility, or for a patient to defraud the program with false certification. It makes it a misdemeanor for patients to traffic in the prescribed drug.

The legislation has been the subject of heated last-minute negotiations as New York's current lawmaking session drew to a close. Versions of the bill have been approved by the liberal state Assembly several times since the 1990s.

In May, Minnesota became the 22nd of the 50 states, in addition to the District of Columbia, to allow some sort of access to medical marijuana, advocacy group the Marijuana Policy Project says.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Edith Honan in New York; Editing by Will Dunham, Steve Gorman and Clarence Fernandez)

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