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New York state seeks to speed up medical marijuana program to help children with epilepsy

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ALBANY, New York — New York has requested federal permission to import out-of-state marijuana so children and young adults with epilepsy can get medication soon instead of waiting for the state to develop its own program.

Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, in letters to the Justice Department, said there's evidence that cannabidiol, the active ingredient in marijuana, may help those patients who are suffering and not responding to conventional treatments.

He says New York's medical marijuana program, with tightly regulated cultivation and manufacture within the state, isn't scheduled to start before 2016. In July, New York became the 23rd state to authorize marijuana use for patients with diseases, including AIDS, cancer and epilepsy.

"Since the passage of this law, however, at least three children in New York State have died from complications related to epilepsy resistant to standard therapies," Zucker wrote. "Although it is not a cure, there is objective evidence that indicates this serious condition may be helped by the use of cannabidiol."

The Justice Department is studying the request, spokeswoman Emily Pierce said Monday. She was unaware of any similar waiver requests or approvals previously.

U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both New York Democrats, urged Attorney General Eric Holder in a letter to approve the waiver. They said more than 186,000 New Yorkers suffer from epilepsy, with 60,000 of those from a form that can't be controlled by over-the-counter medications, and Colorado has developed a strain of medical marijuana that has successfully treated children with Dravet's syndrome, a rare form.

Parents of children with epilepsy were among the staunchest supporters for the new law.

A spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state hopes to make it available to those patients as soon as possible. He didn't know how many people might be affected.

"We have to get it from out of state," spokesman Richard Azzopardi said. "We need to go this route because it's illegal to transport marijuana over state lines."

Under the law, New York will approve and regulate up to five businesses authorized to grow and distribute the drug. The operators could each have up to four dispensaries statewide.

Patients will get prescriptions from physicians approved by the state to participate in the program. The approved conditions include Lou Gehrig's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, certain spinal cord injuries, seizure disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathies and Huntington's disease.

When Cuomo signed the law, Maryanne Houser of Suffern spoke, accompanied by her 10-year-old daughter, who suffers from multiple seizures daily. They never know when the next one will strike and how severe it will be, and medical marijuana offers them a chance to beat that, she said.

"I want to be a normal girl, and I want my seizures to stop," Amanda Houser said.

Her mother said Monday that the seizures are continuing, calling the waiver application "awesome." They are also trying to enroll in a clinical trial of a pharmaceutical version of the drug. "We're just waiting it out right now," Maryanne Houser said.

The Drug Policy Alliance welcomed the waiver request, which it said could help thousands of New York children. State Director Gabriel Sayegh said if the waiver request fails, New York should consider selecting a state provider on an emergency basis.

Azzopardi said choosing one provider could slow down the entire process with lawsuits filed by other potential providers.

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