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  NY State Passed the Medical Marijuana Law, 
      But Never Used It


                   Return To OnlinePot’s Legal Section Main Page       

ALBANY, NY, April 19 — It seemed so revolutionary. In 1996, California and Arizona
 legalized the medical use of marijuana. Six states and the District of Columbia
 followed. A new movement, it appeared, was sweeping the country.


Not so new, actually. New York beat them all by a mile.

In 1980, the Legislature and Gov. Hugh L. Carey, to little fanfare, enacted a medical
 marijuana law in New York, the first of its kind. But the mechanism needed to make
 the law effective was never put in place, and it was largely forgotten.


In fact, many of the people involved two decades ago had to have their memories jogged. "I had forgotten all about this," said James R. Tallon, now the president of the United Hospital Fund, who was an assemblyman and chairman of the Health Committee when the panel approved the bill.

Richard A. Brown, the Queens district attorney, was Governor Carey’s counsel. "Offhand, I really don’t remember it," he said when first asked about the law. But a few days later, going through his files, he found a memo he wrote in support of the bill.

The author of the law was a Democratic assemblyman from Queens, Alan G. Hevesi, now the New York City comptroller and a candidate for mayor. Mr. Hevesi declined, through a spokesman, to discuss the law, saying he had little memory of it. The comptroller, now seen as a centrist, advocated drug legalization in his early years in public life.

Advocates contend that marijuana combats the nausea that afflicts people with diseases like cancer and AIDS, and that it can ease glaucoma. Legalizing it for medical use has proved enormously popularl. But the federal government, under President Bush and President Bill Clinton, has opposed the state actions, and has gone to court to block them. The Supreme Court last month heard arguments on a government challenge to the California law.

Legislators who were involved in the New York law said it did not seem so momentous at the time, and there was no lobbying campaign against it. When the bill was passed by the State Legislature and signed by the governor, newspapers reported it, but not on their front pages. And when the law was later allowed to wither, few noticed.

The driving force behind the 1980 law was Antonio G. Olivieri, who was a city councilman and a former assemblyman from Manhattan. Mr. Olivieri, a Democrat, had brain cancer, and he died later that year, at age 39.

"The way the legislation came about was he, personally, lobbied his former colleagues in Albany about it," said Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, a Democrat from Manhattan, who now chairs the health committee.

The 1980 law said that a doctor could petition a hospital board for permission for a patient to use marijuana. If the board approved, it would have to file a petition with a state review board, appointed by the state health commissioner.

The commissioner at the time, Dr. David Axelrod, an appointee of Mr. Carey, was a vocal supporter of the bill. But state officials said Dr. Axelrod, who died several years ago, never appointed the review board members, making it impossible for anyone to receive permission to use marijuana.

A medical marijuana initiative prevailed in 1996 in California, in 1998 in Alaska, Oregon, Nevada and Washington, and last year in Colorado and Nevada. Last June, the Hawaii Legislature and governor enacted a similar law.

"I think attitudes are changing with regard to pain relief for seriously ill people," said State Senator Kemp Hannon of New York, the Republican chairman of the health committee. He said he did not remember the 1980 New York law, though he was in the Assembly then, but that he would readily vote for a medical marijuana law, provided it did not violate federal law.

For several years, Assemblyman Gottfried has introduced a simplified medical marijuana bill, but it has never come to a vote.

"I think it’s a clear circumstance that most politicians are way behind where the public is on the issue," he said.