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Crain’s: Let them smoke weed, New York pol says

By Caroline Lewis, 3/11

State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, took another step forward this week in his crusade to open up the constricted medical-marijuana industry, which the state launched in January, to new players and a broader patient base. And he even wants to let people smoke the plant. As the law currently stands, cannabis can be consumed only in vapors, pills or other nonsmokable forms, which drives some patients away.

Gottfried has been championing legal medical marijuana since he first introduced the Compassionate Care Act in 1997, but was less than pleased with the number of concessions that had to be made for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign it into law in July 2014. The assemblyman introduced four bills Thursday, the latest in his ongoing rollout of seven proposed reforms.

The bills would authorize nurse practitioners and physician assistants to recommend marijuana, in addition to doctors (A.9510); eliminate the rule that cannabis dispensaries have to be run by the same companies that grow and manufacture the products sold (A.9507); allow the use of cannabis for severe or chronic pain (A.9514); and allow patients to smoke cannabis, except in places where tobacco smoke is not allowed (A.9517).

State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker currently has the authority to implement many of these changes, but has yet to do so. Currently, 10 conditions are approved for cannabis treatment. When Zucker reviewed five additional conditions to add to the list earlier this year, chronic pain was not among those being considered. Zucker ended up rejecting all five conditions, including PTSD, on the grounds that there wasn’t sufficient scientific evidence that they could be treated with marijuana.

Some other states that have restrictive medical-marijuana laws, like Minnesota, have added chronic pain to their list of conditions in an effort to increase the patient base and reduce the cost of cannabis medicine.

One of Gottfried’s bills would begin to dismantle the vertically integrated structure of the industry by allowing a company only to register to open a dispensary, rather than requiring a firm to also produce cannabis. “General Motors doesn’t make its own parts and doesn’t own the dealerships,” he said. “There are good business reasons for that.”

In January, Gottfried suggested doubling the number of companies allowed to register in the state from five to 10, meaning the initial five license-holders would no longer reign supreme. Those companies may have invested millions in setting up their businesses to reflect state guidelines, but they knew more players would eventually enter the market, said Gottfried.

“In any event, they’ve been given an enormous boost in the marketplace,” he said.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Diane Savino plans to introduce some overlapping bills within the next two weeks, according to her office. These will include measures to approve the five additional conditions the health commissioner denied, create an advisory committee to help the commissioner decide which conditions to add to the list and allow each registered company to open an additional four dispensaries. She also will introduce a companion bill to Gottfried’s allowing nurse practitioners and physician assistants to recommend marijuana to patients.

But Savino is not yet ready to propose expanding the market to new companies, or to change the structure of the industry to get rid of vertical integration, said a spokesman for the senator.