Why NY Approach to Medical Marijuana Is Looking Like It's Going to Be One of the Worst in the Country

With the passage of the Compassionate Care Act in 2014, the State of New York joined the twenty-three states that have passed medical marijuana laws. Finally, New Yorkers will have legal access to pot. Or will they?

Passing medical marijuana legislation in the Empire State was a Herculean fight against ignorant, cold-hearted politicians steeped in "Reefer Madness." The assembly passed medical marijuana bills five times only to have each one die in the Senate. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried battled the drug warriors in Albany for twenty years to get legal pot to people suffering from a host of maladies. For decades, New Yorkers who use marijuana to ease symptoms of severe nausea, to treat chronic pain or neuropathies have been deemed criminals and are forced to buy their medicine from the black market and risk arrest and incarceration.

The drug warriors disproportionately target marijuana users because it’s easy (the pungent smell is a dead giveaway.) From 1997 through 2010, the NYPD made 536,000 arrests for marijuana possession at a cost to taxpayers of $500 million to over $1 billion. Caught in the cross hairs of the drug war, daily life for thousands of medical marijuana users is full of fear and insecurity.

It is no exaggeration to say that the New York State Department of Health’s draft regulations for the medical marijuana program released in December of last year, are ludicrous, restrictive in the extreme, and are intended to make it difficult and costly to access medical marijuana.  The proposed rules would create a framework that treats marijuana as if it were an illicit and dangerous drug rather than a well-studied and safe medicine that is used in palliative care and successfully treats a range of disease symptoms.

Politicians vs. Science

Governor Andrew Cuomo, a confessed marijuana smoker, insisted that smoking marijuana to get its therapeutic effects would not be allowed. Cuomo is concerned that a medical marijuana program could make marijuana more easily and widely available. Could it be true that the governor of a state that arrests more people for marijuana than any other illegal substance doesn’t realize that it’s already easily and widely available everywhere?

Cuomo also believes that pot is a "gateway" drug. Apparently he’s never heard of The La Guardia Committee Report: The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York. Released in 1944, the research, conducted by the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) was the first to systematically refute the myths and lies about marijuana. Among the many findings: Marijuana is not a gateway to heroin or cocaine use and smoking marijuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word. "The sociological, psychological, and medical ills commonly attributed to marihuana have been found to be exaggerated," the report concluded.

There’s even a finding in the report for bloviating NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton who said recently: "This seemingly innocent drug that’s been legalized around the country…In this city, people are killing each other over marijuana more so than anything that we had to deal with an '80s and '90s with heroin and cocaine. We just see marijuana everywhere when we make these arrests, when we get these guns off the streets."

In fact, the researchers at NYAM found that, "Marijuana is not a determining factor in the commission of major crimes." Thousands of subsequent studies corroborate the results of the La Guardia Committee Report and confirm the therapeutic value of marijuana to treat myriad diseases. It is no longer up for debate.

If the draft regulations are not scrapped, New York’s medical marijuana program will be as dysfunctional as New Jersey's. Governor Chris Christie views medical marijuana as "a front for legalization" and program requirements that he insisted on are so constricting that six years after medical marijuana was passed, only 2,342 patients are receiving medical marijuana. Physicians who prescribe marijuana must take courses in addiction and pain management–something that isn’t required to prescribe narcotics–and their name is published in a public registry. Currently, only 352 doctors out of 21,000 have registered to write marijuana prescriptions.

There are only three dispensaries, long waiting lists and the costs are prohibitive. The registration fee is $200 ($20 for people on permanent disability, food stamps and Medicaid), and an ounce of pot is from $440 to $560. Not surprisingly, many New Jerseyans with health conditions still rely on the illicit marijuana market for relief.

The Problems with the Draft Regulations

The proposed regulations for the medical marijuana program in New York can only be seen as a set up for massive frustration and an ethical failure to meet the medical needs of the sick. How else to explain the following nonsense:

·         Only 20 dispensaries will open to serve a population of 19 million New Yorkers.

·         No home delivery allowed.

·         Zoning restrictions prohibit dispensaries from opening within 1000 feet of a house of worship or school.

·         A pharmacist is required to be on-site; only doctors can write prescriptions for the marijuana (no nurse practioners or physicians assistants can prescribe the drug  even though they can prescribe all other medications).

·         Just 10 medical conditions qualify.

·         Students prescribed medical marijuana are prohibited from using it on campus or in a dormitory or residence hall.

·         Children cannot consume the drug in childcare settings, day-care centers, or foster homes.

·         Smoking is banned, as are edibles, topicals and patches.

If these restrictions are codified into law, the medical marijuana program in New York State will be nothing but a cruel hoax perpetrated on adults and children who are suffering needlessly or dying from conditions like Dravet Syndrome.

Yet another inexplicable restriction is on the number of strains of medical marijuana that will be available. The regulation recommends just five, which is problematic as there are dozens of therapeutic strains, each having benefits for particular diseases. This will leave some patients without relief.

Doctor Lester Grinspoon, one of the world’s leading experts on marijuana and the author of the books Marihuana Reconsidered and Marihuana The Forbidden Medicine said of this restriction, "That’s absurd. One of the interesting things that has developed over the last few years, you know in the '60s we used just a few strains and many more have been developed. A couple years ago we didn’t know anything about cannabidiol (CBD). We attributed all of the effects to Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Now we know that CBD is quite important. CBD is "anti-high" so people who want the medicine but don’t like the high, now there are many strains available to them. As I see it now, the most therapeutically useful strains of cannabis have both CBD and THC. You’ve got to have both. And the third thing you need to have is terpenes from the bud. It’s an ensemble effect."

Effects on the Poor and Communities of Color

Another major concern is the impact of the regulations on low-income patients and communities of color. The $50 registration fee will deter poor New Yorkers from enrolling. There is a waiver for "financial hardship" but there is no indication of how it will be determined.

But there should be no registration fee to get medical marijuana. No other medicine carries this type of fee. Smoking pot is the most inexpensive way to ingest the drug but because of Cuomo’s ban, only extracts and oils can be consumed which will drive the price up. These forms of marijuana are expensive to manufacture and a vaporizer is needed, another out-of-pocket expense. Medicaid will not cover medicinal marijuana or equipment nor will private insurance.

"It seems really ridiculous to make a distinction between smoked marijuana and edibles, tinctures or vapors in a state where marijuana possession in the home has been effectively decriminalized since 1977," said Deborah Small, executive director of Break the Chains, a group concerned with the impact of the drug war on communities of color.

"Under current New York State law, it is a simple infraction to possess up to 7/8 of an ounce of marijuana in the home," Small elaborated. "As long as you don't live in public housing and are not on parole or potentially deportable, the worst that can happen (theoretically) is you receive a $100 fine. So what's the point of telling medically qualified patients that they don't have the right to possess at least that amount of whole, smokable marijuana for personal, medicinal use?"

"Smoking allows people to titrate the exact dose," added Dr. Grinspoon. "One can take a puff and just wait a minute to see if the nausea goes away, if it doesn’t take as many as you need until it does." 

Compassionate Care New York (CCNY), one of the leading organizations that fought to pass medical marijuana legislation, has identified another problem with the proposed regulations: felony convictions.

 According to CCNY, there is a statute that prohibits anyone with a felony conviction from working in the industry in a position where they would be handling marijuana directly. But the statute also allows anyone with a conviction more then ten years prior for which the person has been given a certificate of good conduct to be eligible for employment. The regulations omit this critical exception.

African Americans would be negatively impacted by this regulation because they receive a disproportionate amount of felony drug convictions. The way to confront this institutional racism and to make reparations for the harms done to communities of colors by the drug war is to require that the companies awarded the licenses to grow and sell marijuana hire people of color regardless of their criminal background.

"If Governor Cuomo were willing to follow the science, research, data and evidence from California, Washington, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and other states with experience implementing medical marijuana programs he would not impose the unwarranted, unnecessary and unhealthy restrictions he has placed on New York's medical marijuana program," Small concluded. "This is the opposite of what he did in coming to the recent decision to ban fracking in New York State. Strange how following science works in one policy area, but not one that facilitates the continued criminalization of low-income people and communities of color." 


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