It has been almost a year since New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put his signature on a bill legalizing medical marijuana across the state – a grueling legislative process that ended with many supporters concerned that the program would be too restrictive to benefit the majority of patients. A recent report in the New York Times indicates the distress over the obstructive nature of the state’s program lingers on, as crucial aspects of its regulatory system appear to cripple the plan before it’s even unleashed from the gate.
There are, of course, some issues with the fact that the state will only allow patients suffering from 10 qualified conditions to have access to cannabis, with permission to consume this medicine exclusively through edibles and oils — no smoking will be permitted. The state will also limit the number of dispensaries charged with servicing the state to 20, which will be operated by only five different companies. More importantly, concerns have grown over the probability that the state will place a cap on the number of strains allowed to be cultivated and distributed in the state. Reports show that only five specific brands will be sold — none of which will be permitted to have “fanciful” names.
Some of the lawmakers who stood in support of legislation to legalize medical marijuana claim the Health Department has gone off the deep end with the drafting of these regulations. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a primary sponsor for the Compassionate Care Act, claims the agency is imposing “a long list of senseless burdensome restrictions on patients and organizations” that go as far as to prevent maintenance professionals from servicing dispensaries without written approval, as well as banning sodas and other otherwise socially acceptable beverages on the premises.
As it stands, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, so it’s coming across as surprisingly odd to many supporters that the state has taken such a toe-in-the-water approach to something that has been largely successful all across the United States. In fact, California, which was the first state to legalize medicinal cannabis, has had one of the most liberal programs in place for nearly 20 years. And so far, the law has not brought on the death or destruction of any of its citizens.
“The administration continues to operate as though medical marijuana programs have never been operated before,” Gabriel Sayegh, managing director for policy and campaigns with the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Times. “If we were having this discussion in 1998, one would understand the extreme caution. But it’s not the late 1990s, it’s 2015.”
The concern is that this regulatory debacle will ultimately undermine the intended integrity of the program and it could ostracize a number of patients. Health Department officials, however, argue that the regulations have been developed through a “critical lens” in an attempt to prevent any major conflict of interest with federal law.
Although the state is required by law to have its medical marijuana program up and running by early 2016, officials have yet to begin the selection process to award licenses to the five companies who will cultivate and operate dispensaries. Some expect this will happen soon, while others believe politics stand in the way.
Earlier this year, a story published by Capital indicated that hundreds of companies had come forth with legal bribes and other clever methods to grease the wheels of the system in hopes of being awarded a license to be a part of the state’s medicinal cannabis industry.
To better their chances, applicants across the United States have sent pot lobbyists to New York to meet with leaders of the labor unions in hopes of persuading them to support their company when the time comes to make a final decision. New York’s medical marijuana law makes it mandatory for all cultivation operations and dispensaries to employ the use of labor unions for their workforce. So, as you can see, it’s imperative for any company looking to grow or sell weed in the state to secure support in this realm. The report claims that companies desperate to get involved with the state’s medical marijuana program have been paying between $2,000 and $25,000 per month for the chance to persuade decision makers to include them in their final selection.
Nevertheless, the fact that there will only be 20 dispensaries across the state has many people concerned that patients will have to jump through hoops in order to get their hands on medicine; perhaps even being forced to drive many miles out of their way to find a dispensary. A patient living in New York City will likely have no trouble finding access, while a person living in a small upstate community might not be so lucky.
Prior to seeing the current draft regulations, at over 100-pages, state lawmakers had doubts that the program would be sufficient enough to accomplish what they initially set out to do.
“They’ve laid out a program that creates the industry but hinders it at the same time,” said New York Senator Diane Savino during a conference last year hosted by the International Cannabis Association.
She then went on to explain that the program would suffer because Governor Cuomo never supported medical marijuana. “He was not interested in medical marijuana,” she said, “and, in fact, told me so on more than one occasion… in some colorful ways.”
However, Senator Savino’s opinion seems to have shifted, recently claiming that she is encouraged with the regulations, so far, and believes the inconvenience surrounding them is all for the best.
“We want to make sure we don’t do anything to jeopardize the program,” she told the Times. “Is it inconvenient? Yes. But what’s a bigger inconvenience is if we don’t have these tight controls and the federal government comes in and shuts down the whole program and disrupts the flow of product to patients.”
In the end, no one really knows just how the regulatory system surrounding New York’s medical marijuana program will affect the efficiency of its purpose, but it does seem to leave much to be desired. Unfortunately, the rules are more likely to endure additional restrictions before they are changed to benefit the patient.
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