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Albany Times-Union – Changes in marijuana policy could impact New York

By Matthew Hamilton, 11/12

A divided electorate found agreement in one area Tuesday: marijuana policy.

Voters in eight of nine states where marijuana-related initiatives were on the ballot approved either recreational or medicinal use of the drug. Among the eight states was Massachusetts, where voters approved recreational use beginning Dec. 15 and put the first retail marijuana shops in the Bay State on track to open in January 2018.

 With the Massachusetts vote and, more broadly, a Donald Trump White House beginning in January, the drug policy outlook is mixed for New York, where a strict medical marijuana program exists but recreational use of the drug is a nonstarter at the Capitol.
There are those who view Massachusetts as potentially catalytic for favorable recreational marijuana policy in neighboring New England states. More recreational availability possibly could eat into the New York medical program’s patient base, not to mention offer an outlet for Capital Region residents 21 and older to hop across state lines to purchase pot. The same people are cautious about a Republican White House and cabinet that may not look favorably on progressive drug policies.

The Massachusetts vote opens the possibility that New Yorkers may flout federal law and purchase marijuana across state lines and transport it back for consumption here. That’s a reality that law enforcement officials already are preparing for

“I don’t think you’ll see a huge surge” in marijuana use on either side of the 50-mile border, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple told the Times Union last month prior to the ballot question’s passage. “People just won’t be as sneaky as they are now.”

While lawmakers in New York remain jittery about going near legislative proposals that would legalize recreational marijuana, it’s possible that Massachusetts will spur action in other New England states. Vermont and Rhode Island already have considered approving adult recreational use of marijuana legislatively, though actions have failed thus far.

“Now they have an absolute motivation to (pass legislation),” said Rob Hunt, president of Teewinot Life Sciences, a biopharmaceutical company focused on developing cannabinoid-based drugs and pharmaceutical therapies. “There’s no chance that governors in other states are going to want to see the tax revenue only derived by Massachusetts. So if there’s anything that’s going to motivate them to kick this into high gear, it’s knowing that their citizens are going to start driving across the border to give money to the other state.”

“If you have two states (Massachusetts and Maine) right now and potentially four states within a year that have adult use, New York and (Gov. Andrew) Cuomo’s office are going to have to take a good hard look at what that means for their bottom line,” he added.

The short-term question is how a nearby recreational market affects New York’s tightly regulated medical market, which has seen a small patient base and high prices.

Dr. Kyle Kinglsey, CEO of Vireo Health, parent company of New York medical marijuana company Vireo Health of New York, said the high price of medical marijuana products may drive patients to seek out the drug elsewhere, but he doesn’t see a major impact of nearby recreational availability on the Empire State’s medical marijuana program. Both he and Hunt agreed that if people already are keen on accessing marijuana illicitly, a black market already exists in New York.

More important to New York than another state’s new policy is a new president. In the past, President-elect Trump has said he supports medical marijuana for the severely ill and the ability of states to create medical programs. Trump’s pro-business tax proposals may also be a boon for the cannabis industry.

That leaves Kingsley optimistic.

“Trump arguably understands public opinion better than anybody in the country right now, and I think he’s a pragmatist,” he said. “I think that he’s not going to oppose something (medical marijuana) that’s so overwhelmingly supported by a majority of Americans.”

Hunt pointed to the significance of Florida voters approving a medical marijuana program. He said Florida’s position as a political bellwether makes the vote a clear mandate that voters want medical marijuana to be available.

But he cautioned that Trump’s picks to head the Justice and Treasury departments and for the Supreme Court could have chilling effects, specifically on the recreational side.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, who championed the legislation that established New York’s medical program, said he doesn’t know what to expect from a Trump administration. Either of two extremes is possible.

If Trump is on board with medical marijuana, the President-elect might ask the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to reschedule medical marijuana and overnight allow doctors to write prescriptions for the drug.

“Or he could change federal Justice Department policy that has quietly tolerated state medical marijuana laws,” said Gottfried, who chairs the Health Committee. “If it turns out he hates medical marijuana, all he has to do is announce that they’re going to arrest anybody who runs a medical marijuana dispensary.”