Ever since New York’s medical marijuana program was launched at the beginning of 2016, a legion of advocates and lawmakers have been discussing ways to infiltrate the General Assembly in an effort to establish a more effective set of rules for what is considered one of the most restrictive programs in the nation. But even though there is a lot of thunder ricocheting across the state over this issue, right now, the likelihood of seeing any vast improvement within the next year is slim to none.
Advocates banded together with Assemblyman Richard Gottfried in Albany earlier this week to twist the arms of legislative gatekeepers in hopes that they will give some serious consideration for a few bills aimed at expanding the state’s embarrassing medical marijuana program. The problem is that the proposed upgrades these cannatroopers are fighting for are simply a collection of baby steps that have very little chance at strengthening the program to the point where patients or the dispensaries that serve them will be able to tell much of a difference.
Although a group of bills introduced in February seeks to inflate the list of qualified conditions to include ailments ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to post-traumatic stress disorder — as well as give nurse practitioners and physicians assistants the authority to provide potential patients with a certification to participate in the program — Gottfried is approaching the current round in the legislative octagon with the attitude that faint progress is better than none. Instead of submitting a single proposal aimed at comprehensive reform, the lawmaker has separated all of his intentions into a few different bills in an effort to prevent a single “controversial” issue from knocking out others that might be more palatable to the majority.
Unfortunately, unless the New York General Assembly is willing to embrace a measure introduced by Senator Diane Savino aimed at giving patients suffering from severe pain conditions the right to participate in the program, none of the other proposed reforms currently on the table are going to be worthwhile – they may not even be enough to keep the program alive.
As it stands, there are only 2,675 patients in the entire state that have been approved to purchase medical marijuana products from 20 dispensaries. To put this in perspective – in Illinois, which has almost double the number of registered patients, dispensaries are complaining that they are at risk of going bankrupt because there are not enough customers coming in on a daily basis for these shops to pay their bills. Some business owners have suggested that a medical marijuana program needs to have at least 30,000 active patients in order for the average dispensary to survive, but without the willingness of the state to expand the reach beyond “serious or life-threatening conditions,” there is no hope of these proportions.
It is for that reason that the most crucial upgrade needed this year in terms of improving New York’s Compassionate Care Act is the one that allows participation from patients with chronic pain conditions. According to a report by the Illinois Department of Public Health, 72 percent of the patients in Arizona use medical marijuana for chronic pain, while these numbers are even higher in Colorado.
But sadly, while there may be some hope for some of the other proposed medical marijuana legislation this year in the General Assembly, the chances of seeing chronic pain added to New York’s program in the immediate future seems vague. In January, Dr. Howard Zucker, leading health official for the Cuomo Administration, rejected five additional qualified conditions (post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, muscular dystrophy, dystonia, and rheumatoid arthritis), citing a lack of scientific evidence that cannabis is effective in treating these conditions.
Incidentally, it is not necessary for the General Assembly to approve an expansion to qualified conditions. Health Commission Zucker has the authority to add any qualified condition to the program at any time.
Therefore, even if legislation to add chronic pain to the list of qualified conditions does by some bizarre miracle make it to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk this year for a signature, it will, in all likelihood, end up getting vetoed. And, unfortunately, any success with the other proposals, including one hoping to expand the number of dispensaries, will do very little to reinforce the stability of the program.
Is there any hope for an effective medical marijuana program in New York? Tell us below what you think.