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Crain’s: Legal hurdles block this Connecticut firm from providing cannabis meds to terminally ill New Yorkers

By Caroline Lewis, 12/7

There’s one marijuana company that can deliver cannabis to critically ill patients in New York “by tomorrow,” if the state implements the emergency-access law and the federal government ensures that the Connecticut company is not prosecuted for shipping pot across state lines.

“I’ve spoken with several legislators in New York, but nobody from the executive side has gotten back to me,” said Robert Birnbaum, chief executive of Curaleaf, the Connecticut grower. Birnbaum said the products Curaleaf offer could comply with New York law. They include an oil especially suited to treat children with epilepsy. Some parents of those children have been vocal in advocating for medical marijuana in New York.

Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed bills that would give terminally ill patients emergency access to cannabis medicine, but it’s still unclear what, if anything, state health officials will do to comply with the new laws because medical marijuana is slated to become widely available in New York in mid-January.

One of the New York legislators Birnbaum spoke to is State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who sponsored the expedited-access bills. Last week, Gottfried said he was in talks with the governor’s office about working with Curaleaf. He said that could happen if “Connecticut and New York and the federal government can work out legal issues.”

Currently, federal guidance on marijuana for state officials and business owners comes largely from a memorandum released in 2013 and updated in 2014, known as the Cole Memo. It indicates eight priority areas for federal marijuana prosecution, which include “preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states.” The phrasing of that specific provision is unclear.

“I’ve always believed that the wording and the logic of that memo ought to be interpreted to allow movement from one legal state to another,” said Gottfried.

If that were the case, Curaleaf would be protected because Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act legalizing medical marijuana in New York in 2014. Given the legal hurdles and the fact that the broader medical-marijuana program set up by the Compassionate Care Act is due to be up and running by mid-January, some wonder if the state will actually implement the emergency-access program.

Last week, State Sen. Diane Savino, who sponsored the Compassionate Care Act but publicly opposed the expedited-access legislation, said at a marijuana panel that she didn’t think the Health Department would take any steps to put the law into effect. She said she interpreted the legislation as allowing, rather than mandating, the state to create an emergency-marijuana program.

Advocates for the bill said it could provide a safety net in case there were delays in launching the state’s regular marijuana program. But Gottfried said the state is confident dispensaries will be up and running in January, and a Health Department spokesman said the same in a statement to Crain’s.

“As far as I know, I don’t think the Department of Health is looking into anything but the question of this one company’s offer,” said Gottfried.