Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to create a medical-marijuana program by executive order would be vastly more restrictive than any of the 20 other states that allow therapeutic cannabis, and it almost certainly won't be able to obtain a reliable supply of quality medicine for patients.

Instead of advocating for the comprehensive medical marijuana bill proposed by Assemblymember Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) and State Sen. Diane Savino that passed the Assembly last year, the governor opted to revive a 1980 state law, the Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Program, and plans to set up a study in which up to 20 hospitals would distribute the plant to approved patients.

Cuomo gave few further details when he officially announced the plan yesterday, other than to say it would evaluate "whether medical marijuana can be dispensed in an effective and controlled way without being abused."

The 1980 law limits participation to people with cancer, glaucoma, and other conditions added by the state Department of Health. The supply would come from the federal Compassionate Investigative New Drug (IND) program (which still provides medical marijuana to four people) or from pot seized by police.

Relying on that source makes the idea "unworkable," says Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "This program is well-intentioned, but it's going to be difficult, if not impossible, to implement." New York was one of six states with similar programs in the early 1980s, but the federal government has made it clear that it is not going to supply them for "almost three decades." In Maryland, where a three-month-old law lets academic hospitals dispense medical marijuana, none of the five that are eligible have chosen to do so.

"They're not going to get it from the Feds unless all they're doing is running a research program," says Gabriel Sayegh, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance. California recently terminated such a study, he notes, because it had spent $9 million to obtain marijuana "for 200 people and a handful of mice." The federal government also prefers to supply only research on the detrimental effects of marijuana, he added.

There would be issues of "quality and reliability" with the federally grown marijuana, a Cuomo spokesperson acknowledged, but he said he did not believe that the Obama administration would deny it to New York.

The federal weed, grown on a farm in Mississippi and distributed as machine-rolled cigarettes, is so harsh and impotent that the pejorative "schwag" is inadequate to describe it.

The idea is also far behind current science. Medical growers and dispensaries in places like Colorado and California have developed low-THC, high-cannabidiol strains that may relieve pain without being very intoxicating, a host of "edibles" so people don't have to inhale smoke, and even a strain that could relieve Dravet syndrome, a vicious pediatric seizure disorder.

The Olivieri program was modeled on the Compassionate IND program, which was created in 1978 in response to a lawsuit by glaucoma patient Robert Randall, and gave him and others federally grown pot under the guise of researching marijuana's medical value. In 1982, New York was providing medical marijuana to 45 patients, says Assemblyman Gottfried's spokeswoman, Wendi Paster. But the Reagan administration cut off the supply after the development of Marinol, synthetic THC in capsules, and the states ended their programs. President George H.W. Bush closed the Compassionate IND program to new patients in 1991-92, after a spate of applications from people with AIDS.

In a joint statement today, Gottfried and Savino said that the governor's new position "gives dramatic new strength to the issue" but that the Olivieri law "has serious limitations. Patients tell us that a great many of them will be left out."

The best hope, activists and pro-legalization legislators say, is that the Cuomo proposal will stimulate the Senate to pass the Compassionate Care Act, the Gottfried-Savino bill. It died there last year, its demise attributed to Republican intransigence and the governor's low-key opposition. Sayegh called the proposal "a transformative development" in a DPA statement, but says that "the important thing is we've got to get the Senate to pass legislation."

Steven Wishnia is a New York-based journalist and musician, and the editor of Tenant/Inquilino. He is also the author of "When the Drumming Stops," "Exit 25 Utopia," and "The Cannabis Companion."