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Why Are New York's Pot Laws So Awful?

The progressive capital of the nation doesn't need a draconian marijuana policy.

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Historically, the roadblocks to medical cannabis in New York State have been Senate Republicans and their allies in law enforcement. But Governor Cuomo also doesn’t yet support medical cannabis. He claims that medical cannabis poses “tremendous risks” and that “the risks outweigh the benefits at this point,” without detailing those alleged risks. As Dr. Sunil Aggarwal pointed out in an open letter to Governor Cuomo on Huffington Post, Governor Cuomo’s opposition to medical cannabis is hypocritical in light of his support for decriminalizing public view cannabis possession. 

We expect Sen. Diane Savino (who is also an IDC member) and Assemb. Richard Gottfried to introduce a new bill imminently, but face a tough fight this session to win Senate passage and Governor Cuomo’s support. In the meantime, if I give my mother a joint to ease her chronic pain, that would be “ criminal sale of marihuana in the fifth degree,” which is also punishable by up to three months in jail and a fine of up to $500.

When the Subject Is Hemp

Finally, there is the issue of hemp (also known as “industrial hemp”), a variety of cannabis that is grown for seed, oil and fiber and contains very low levels of t etrahydrocannibinol (also known as THC, the principal psychoactive compound in cannabis). During the 1700s, subsidies and bounties were granted in New York, New Jersey and other states to encourage hemp cultivation and the manufacturing of hemp fiber and canvas. In 2009, the Chenango County Board of Supervisors in central New York passed a resolution calling on state and federal legislators to permit hemp production, which would be an ecological and economic stimulus and an alternative to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in recession battered upstate New York.

Eight states have distinguished hemp from cannabis and removed barriers to its production. Three states have passed bills creating commissions or authorizing research. Nine states have passed hemp resolutions. Six states have passed hemp study bills. And on the national level, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, the National Grange and the National Farmers Union have all passed resolutions in support of hemp cultivation and production.  

However, federal law doesn’t distinguish between hemp plants and psychoactive cannabis plants; both are Schedule I controlled substances. Almost every other industrialized country (including Canada, where hemp cultivation has been legal since 1998) does.  Fortunately, Congress is finally seriously considering distinguishing hemp and cannabis with the introduction of the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013, H.R. 525/S. 359, which is co-sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). 

New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was fiercely opposed to the federal 1937 Marijuana Tax Act that taxed and effectively prohibited the sale and cultivation of cannabis nationwide. In 1939, Mayor La Guardia appointed a committee to investigate the sociology and science of cannabis use, and in 1944, the La Guardia Committee issued a report (which was prepared by the New York Academy of Medicine) that thoroughly refuted the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ propaganda about cannabis use. THAT was progressive leadership on cannabis policy.

In the spirit of Fiorello La Guardia, New York State must: (1) repeal all criminal and civil penalties for adult possession of an ounce or less of cannabis–no arrests, no tickets and no fines; (2) enact a medical cannabis program that allows certified patients to possess a reasonable amount of medicine and allows those with physical, financial or transportation hardships to cultivate their own medicine; and (3) distinguish industrial hemp from psychoactive cannabis and remove barriers to its production.

 
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