ALBANY, N.Y. â?? As Gov. Andrew Cuomo sat down to ceremonially sign New York's medical-marijuana bill into law, a 10-year-old girl stood by his side.
Amanda Houser, of Suffern, New York, suffers from Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that begins in infancy and causes her to experience multiple seizures a day and adhere to a severely restricted diet.
With Cuomo's signature Saturday, New York became the 23rd state to legalize marijuana for seriously ill or injured patients. And when he needed someone to introduce him for the ceremonial signing Monday in Manhattan, Cuomo turned to Amanda and her mother, Maryanne Houser.
"Hi, my name is Amanda," she said, reading from a piece of purple construction paper that matched her sparkly dress. "I want to be a normal girl and I want my seizures to stop. P.S. I want to be off this diet. Right everyone?"
Cuomo and top state lawmakers gathered at the New York Academy of Medicine on Monday for the bill-signing ceremony, which came two days after he officially signed the medical-marijuana legislation and about two weeks since the Legislature passed it.
The governor's signature started an 18-month clock for the state Department of Health to have the program up and running, which will allow state-certified doctors to prescribe the drug to patients with cancer, epilepsy and other serious diseases and conditions.
The state will award five contracts to private marijuana growers, who will each be permitted to open up to four dispensaries to distribute the drug to certified patients. Cuomo said it will take about nine months just to grow the marijuana.
The new law will only allow the drug in non-smokeable forms, including pills, oils and vapors. It was the subject of lengthy, closed-door negotiations between Cuomo and top lawmakers at the end of the state's annual legislative session last month.
"There is no doubt that medical marijuana can help people," Cuomo said Monday. "It's been proven in other states. There's a whole history of information and data and research just on that topic, and we are there to help people."
In wrangling support for the bill -- which has been debated in Albany for more than a decade -- advocates had highlighted the plight of children with rare and severe forms of epilepsy, such as Amanda Houser.
Maryanne Houser said she had been considering moving to another state if New York didn't act to legalize medical marijuana. An oil derived from cannabis, known as "Charlotte's Web," has shown promise in treating children with epilepsy.
"Her condition dictates where we can go and what we can do. It makes us feel powerless because we never know when the next seizure might strike or how bad it might be," Houser said. "Medical marijuana offers us the chance to beat that, and we were prepared to move out of New York state if we needed to in order to get Amanda this treatment."
Both the state Assembly and Senate passed the medical-marijuana bill in June in one of their last acts before leaving the state Capitol for the year.
The Senate approved the bill 49-10 after a lengthy, emotional debate, in which several Republicans raised concerns about whether the state can handle regulation of the program, questioning whether it was more prudent to wait for the federal Food and Drug Administration to act.
Cuomo himself had also raised numerous concerns throughout the negotiating process, which in part led to the state not allowing patients to smoke marijuana. The bill also includes a clause that would allow Cuomo to end the medical-marijuana program at any time if he deems it's being abused.
When Cuomo sat down to sign several ceremonial copies of the bill, Amanda stood nervously over his right shoulder. A few bills in, he turned to the Rockland girl, who grabbed onto the end of the pen and helped him sign a copy.
When he was done, Amanda sheepishly held her hands to her cheeks. Cuomo handed her the pen he used for her to keep.
"And to Amanda, who is clearly a superstar," Cuomo said in his remarks. "We were chatting before in the back room and she had it all coordinated. She had that beautiful dress on and the paper that coordinates with the dress. I'm going to pick that up and learn that from you."
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