• Andrew Cuomo in surprise reverse of hardline position

• Small but significant change to highly restrictive laws

Governor Andrew Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo at the inauguration of New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio on January 1, who has set a liberal agenda. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York is poised to become the latest US state to relax its laws covering marijuana. Governor Andrew Cuomo will make a surprise turnaround in policy later this week, to allow limited use of the drug for medical purposes.

As Colorado residents continue to flock to their local pot shops, after their state became from 1 January the first to allow the sale and possession of cannabis for recreational purposes, signs have emerged that New York will now make a small but important amendment to some of the strictest laws on the drug in the US. Cuomo is expected to announce an executive action in his annual state of the state address on 8 January, to permit a small number of hospitals to prescribe marijuana for medical use in the treatment of serious illnesses including cancer and glaucoma, the New York Times reported on Sunday.

Cuomo, a Democrat, has always been staunchly against legalising cannabis, including for medical use. Even though the likely announcement would only loosen restrictions on the drug very slightly, it will be seen as a significant move at a time when a number of states are liberalising their laws in ways ranging from the use of medical marijuana to decriminalising basic possession of the drug, up to full recreational use. Voters in Washington state have also voted to allow recreational marijuana and it is expected to follow Colorado later this year and become the second state to implement such laws.

More than 20 states currently have laws allowing a variety of medical uses of marijuana.

Cuomo is expected to emphasise that medical marijuana will only be allowed for a tightly circumscribed list of illnesses, to be drawn up by the state Department of Health.

By announcing a unilateral executive action, the governor will sidestep the legislative process in the state capital, Albany, where the senate has repeatedly struck down bills passed in the lower assembly to permit medical marijuana.

Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told the New York Times Cuomo’s move was “bold and innovative”.

Even limited medical marijuana use is banned under federal law but the Obama administration has signalled that it is not interested in actively pursuing prosecution in states that have relaxed their laws around the drug. Whether there will be any clash between federal law enforcement and state authorities in Colorado and Washington state remains to be seen.

 

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