NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo made a political splash by introducing his medical marijuana plan in his State of the State speech, but his cautious approach has met muted cheers from pot advocates who question how meaningful it really is.
While nearly two dozen states have approved marijuana for medical purposes and Colorado and Washington have legalized its use for pleasure, Cuomo (D) is tapping a 1980 state law to allow as many as 20 hospitals to dispense the drug to people with certain severe illnesses as an experimental research project.
“I’m absolutely thrilled that he’s actually verbalized the words ‘medical marijuana,’ but he’s just got to go further,” said Susan Rusinko, a 52-year-old central New York resident who said a hit of pot is a “wonder drug” that relaxes immobilizing leg spasms from her multiple sclerosis. It’s unclear whether she would even qualify for Cuomo’s initiative or whether there would be a participating hospital near her.
While advocates are frustrated, Cuomo’s limited embrace of medical marijuana may be a politically astute and scientifically sensitive move on an issue on which popular enthusiasm has outpaced a weak body of medical research, experts say.
Some doctors avidly back using cannabis to treat problems ranging from chemotherapy-related nausea to chronic pain, but other medical experts say there are good reasons for caution. While the marijuana plant holds tantalizing possibilities, they say, it’s still a question mark as medicines go.
Cuomo’s initiative is styled as a test of whether pot can be effectively used as medicine without being abused.
“This does not start with a premise: ‘Oh, this is a slam dunk. . . . We can do it without any ancillary problems,’ ” he told reporters Monday. “It’s the exact opposite.”
Under his plan, people with cancer, glaucoma and possibly some other “life-threatening or sense-threatening” conditions could seek to get marijuana through studies based at hospitals yet to be named, with “stringent research protocols and eligibility requirements.”
Cuomo’s initiative bypasses a state legislature that has weighed but failed to pass more ambitious medical marijuana laws. He’s relying instead on his administrative powers to carry out a 1980 law allowing medical-marijuana research.
Critics think medical marijuana is an entree to more recreational use of a drug that was widely outlawed in the United States in the 1930s. “I think it sends the wrong signal to our young people,” said Michael Long, chairman of the New York Conservative Party.
Supporters say the marijuana plant is effective against various ailments, including backaches, anxiety and seizures.
If the medical science is unsettled, allowing pharmaceutical pot is popular with New Yorkers. A Quinnipiac University poll in June found 70 percent of state voters support it.
And for Cuomo, the issue represents an opportunity to plant a flag on the left — but not too far — as he faces reelection this year amid talk of his potential 2016 presidential prospects. Cuomo enjoys favorability ratings around 55 and 60 percent in recent polls, but some of the state’s Democratic limelight has been shining lately on newly installed, staunchly liberal New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.