For the American marijuana industry, no prize visible on the horizon yet to have been conquered is as alluring as New York.
New York has the country’s biggest city, a tourist mecca that is also a hub for culture, media, and finance. It has a governor, Andrew Cuomo, who needs money for that same city’s decrepit subway and wants to be president — and who in the last year thus decided that he likes marijuana now, and is willing to legalize through the legislative process.
New York has significant rural areas where cannabis cultivation is possible — and rural and upstate New York both have plenty of areas suffering economic deprivation that may be less inclined to reject a marijuana-related business.
New York seems like a great place to open up to recreational marijuana. And it is — if for no other reason than the most obvious, which is that everywhere cannabis remains illegal is a good place for legal, regulated, adult-use cannabis.
This highlights a longstanding issue: New York state’s medical-cannabis patients continue to suffer through one of the country’s most restrictive and unworkable frameworks. The state’s barely workable medical program is both unfinished business that seems likely to be abandoned in the rush to legalize in New York as well as a warning sign for anyone looking forward to a legalized New York.
New York has had legal medical marijuana since 2015. Four years later, there are scant view signs it ever happened — and very few workable avenues for marijuana access outside of the black market (which has become more comfortable open than ever before, thanks in part to New York City prosecutors’ unwillingness to punish low-level possession offenders).
To qualify for medical marijuana, a patient must suffer from one of 12 very serious diseases, a shorter list of qualifying conditions than nearly any other state. Businesses wishing to enter the industry are subject to arbitrary limits and patients are prohibited from accessing cannabis in flower (that is, smokable) form.
As a result, according to Cuomo’s most recent budget documents, New York state has only seven dispensaries (four of which are run by MedMen). This, in a state with almost 20 million people. Normally, having one of the state’s few licenses would be a gold mine for the industry, but with so few patients, three dispensary operators with permission to open have yet to do so.
There are a few proposals in the state Legislature to improve things. One would allow medical patients to smoke — and smoking marijuana has so little in common health-wise with smoking cigarettes, the act most normally associated with the verb “to smoke,” that a different term is appropriate — but most of the root causes remain.
Will recreational marijuana be different? Certainly, that is the hope, but there is zero guarantee that that will be the case. There are also some signs that adult-use will have to slog through some of the same obstacles.
Home cultivation of cannabis does not appear to be included in the legalization plan. Cuomo’s proposal also calls for a hard cap on the number of dispensaries and producers allowed and also calls for a restriction on how THC products are marketed. This would “address some concerns about highly potent marijuana candies and edibles targeting young people,” according to the Rockland/Westchester Daily News.
This is a telling line — it suggests that baseless fears around THC levels and highly regulated marijuana products appealing to children, based on the fact that they look like food, have entered the mainstream discourse. These are non-issues in legal states —there is no data that suggests otherwise — but they play on fears drilled into Americans’ heads.
And now they could influence policy in New York State, which still has a medical-marijuana program badly in need of fixing, but is already moving on to the next very shiny thing.
The earliest legalization could begin in New York, according to Cuomo’s proposal, is April 2020. And Cuomo’s vaguely defined plan needs approval in the state Legislature. Which is to say it might not suck — there is hope that it won’t. But there are also already too many signs that it might.
TELL US, are you hopeful about cannabis legalization in New York State?