NEW YORK (AFP) - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Wednesday, Jan 8, 2014, that he will authorise the medical use of marijuana, making his the 21st US state to do so and one of the biggest.
Mr Cuomo, a Democrat who has in the past opposed such a measure, announced a limited pilot programme to serve the state of 19.5 million people.
"We will establish a programme allowing up to 20 hospitals to prescribe medical marijuana," he said, during his annual state of the state speech in Albany.
Mr Cuomo argued that research has suggested marijuana, which is widely but illegally used recreationally, can help patients "manage the pain and treatment of cancer and other serious illnesses.
"We will monitor the programme to evaluate effectiveness in the feasibility of the medical marijuana system," he added.
Mr Cuomo, 56, who last year voiced his support for decriminalising the possession of up to 15g of the drug, is likely to proceed by decree, after four previous attempts to legalise medical marijuana failed to get traction among the state's lawmakers.
The announcement comes as part of a growing movement to relax US laws around marijuana.
Including New York, the drug will soon be allowed, to various degrees, for medical reasons in 21 of 50 states and in the capital, Washington.
The first state to legalise medical marijuana was California, in 1996.
Colorado has gone even further. Since Jan 1, recreational users older than 21 can legally buy up to 28g of cannabis for their own enjoyment regardless of their medical status.
The state of Washington adopted a similar measure, to take effect in the coming months.
According to an October 2013 Gallup poll, 58 per cent of Americans are now in favour of legalising marijuana, and 14 states have in recent years decriminalised the possession of small quantities of the drug.
Mr Cuomo's announcement comes at an interesting moment in New York politics, with the arrival of Mr Bill de Blasio - further to the left than the Governor - as the mayor of the state and America's biggest city.
Mr Cuomo, meanwhile, has been tapped as a possible presidential candidate in 2016, along with his moderate Republican counterpart in neighbouring New Jersey, Mr Chris Christie.
New Jersey already authorises marijuana for medical use within a strict framework.