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Crain’s – The fight to expand medical marijuana in New York (in 5 steps)

By Brendan O’Connor, 2/18/16


After nearly two decades of debate, New York is now one of 23 states where certain patients can legally use marijuana for medical purposes. But just a month after the first licensed dispensaries opened, marijuana advocates are calling for change, arguing that the state’s restrictive regulations block access for many needy patients. Sixteen of the 20 state-approved dispensaries have opened, but there is no public listing of the approximately 350 doctors who have completed the training required to recommend marijuana. “You can’t sign up as a patient unless you find one of those doctors,” said Manhattan Assemblyman Richard Gottfried. “I think it’s plainly illegal to keep that list secret.” 2) THE PLAYERS

Since he began introducing medical-marijuana bills in 1997, Gottfried has emerged as one of New York’s strongest advocates on the issue and is leading the charge for more availability. The five companies authorized by the state to dispense medical marijuana are estimated to have invested a combined $125 million so far. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a recent convert who still backs bans on smoking marijuana and a limit on the number of strains that can be cultivated. The state allows just 10 diseases and conditions to be treated with marijuana—including cancer, AIDS, ALS, Parkinson’s and epilepsy; last month, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker refused to add post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s, muscular dystrophy and rheumatoid arthritis to the list. “The law [doesn’t] tell doctors what diseases are appropriate for any other drug,” Gottfried said. “We really should not have an official list for medical marijuana.”

3) YEAH, BUT …

New York is one of only two states that don’t allow pot in a smokable form, a restriction that limits accessibility, as oils and capsules are more expensive and pot is not covered by insurance. The cap on dispensaries means there is about one for every million New Yorkers. The law also limits possession to a 30-day supply and doesn’t allow patients to grow their own. By comparison, Oregon allows them up to 24 ounces of usable pot and to grow as many as 24 plants. Medical-marijuana sales in New York are projected to surpass $830 million in 2020, but that figure would be $3 billion if recreational use were legalized, according to a recent report from Greenwave Advisors.


Through Cuomo’s first three years in office, the governor and state Senate Republicans blocked medical-marijuana bills. In early 2014, citizen advocates led by Wendy Conte, an upstate mother whose daughter Anna’s epilepsy had been effectively treated with marijuana in other states, lobbied lawmakers to change sides. That June, the Compassionate Care Act became law, but the 18-month implementation window proved too long for Anna, who died later that summer after slipping into a coma. “Patients in New York are suffering,” said Julie Netherland of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group. “And they are suffering much longer than they need to be.”


Gottfried has introduced a bill to double the number of state-approved producers and will unveil more marijuana legislation in the coming weeks. “We can now make a clearer case that changes are needed,” Gottfried told The Village Voice. “I’m sure some pieces will be more controversial than others.”