City and State: The other argument for recreational pot

By Rebecca Lewis, June 3

The push to legalize marijuana for recreational use is gaining momentum in New York. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon is pushing for it, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signaled that he is open to it and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has concluded that it is inevitable.

Much of this drive appears to come from a social justice campaign to end racial disparities in arrests for marijuana offenses. Nixon made that clear in her campaign video. De Blasio’s new position, which included a demand that the NYPD stop making arrests for smoking marijuana in public, came after reports of enforcement disproportionately affecting black and Latino residents.

But changes could remove or ease restrictions on medical marijuana in New York and might even help to curb the state’s opioid epidemic.

New York has a medical marijuana program, but it is more restrictive than in other states. For instance, a person must be diagnosed with a qualifying condition. While that list was recently expanded to include post-traumatic stress disorder, a patient must still have a “severe, debilitating or life-threatening” condition, which leaves out many others who may benefit from medical marijuana.

However, legalizing recreational marijuana would not automatically mean major changes to medical marijuana. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who chairs the Health Committee, has been pushing to expand the program for the past two years, including legislation that would broaden the list of qualifying conditions. He said that the full legalization of recreational marijuana would not necessarily change the medical marijuana program, and wants to make sure that everyone understands the difference between cannabis for recreational purposes and cannabis for medical purposes.

Though the details of full legalization are still unclear, one thing is certain: It would come with new regulations. The state would likely set quality standards and issue new guidelines for how it could be used in the medical community, according to state Sen. Liz Krueger, who is sponsoring legislation to legalize recreational marijuana.

“I like that if you go to buy something, you will know what it is you’re buying, and somebody won’t be stuffing some stuff in the bag that you really shouldn’t be using,” Krueger said.

Proponents also argue that marijuana would help combat the opioid epidemic. Although federal law still restricts most marijuana research, multiple studies have found that areas with legal marijuana had fewer opioid-related deaths than in areas without it.

Like Nixon and de Blasio, Krueger was inspired to introduce the bill to end a law enforcement policy that she saw as unfairly affecting minorities. But she also recognized the potential to curb opioid addiction if patients don’t have to rely on highly addictive drugs for pain relief. Krueger said she has followed overseas studies about new and different ways that cannabis can used by the medical community.

“I’m not saying I’m going around saying it’s the miracle cure for everything, but it seems to be treating the symptoms incredibly effectively without putting these patients into physical risk and danger and almost guaranteed addiction,” Krueger said.

She added that even if someone does not receive a prescription for cannabis, it offers a far safer option than other illicit drugs, alcohol or cigarettes for anyone choosing to self-medicate, as it is poses far fewer risks, cannot lead to overdose and is largely not addictive, with the possible exception of those predisposed to addictive behavior.