The days leading up to the end of the legislative session in Albany, New York could have been described as disquieting and tense. New Yorkers have been trying for years to persuade Governor Cuomo to sign a medical marijuana bill in New York. In the past two years, a delegation of patients, caregivers, healthcare providers, SSDP chapters, and endorsing organizations have held meetings with Cuomo’s staff to discuss the details and logistics of this the Compassionate Care Act. In spite of this, the governor’s staff did not suggest amendments to the bill until the final days of the session and Cuomo failed to meet with patients or family members of advocacy groups.
On Monday, June 16th, Cuomo announced that he would support the Compassionate Care Act on the condition that significant changes were made to the legislation.
The accepted changes are as follows:
- The bill bans smoking marijuana. Patients can consume their medicine through a vaporizer or edibles.
- There can be no medicinal marijuana patients under 21
- Patients cannot consume medicinal marijuana in public. Landlords and employers have the freedom to restrict use of marijuana by patients.
- The number of registered organizations (entities that the state licensees to produce and dispense marijuana) are limited to five, and the number of licensed dispensaries are limited to 20 for the entire state.
Cuomo’s office also proposed that the bill require physicians recommending medical marijuana be pre-approved by the Department of Health (DOH). The DOH will have the power to override the recommendations of physicians partaking in the program, particularly in regard to dosages. Cuomo’s demands eliminated post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries, Alzheimer’s, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and muscular dystrophy as conditions that can qualify for medicinal marijuana use. Cuomo also added a sunset clause to the bill, which states that after seven years the law will cease to have effect unless further legislative action is taken to extend the law.
On June 20th the Assembly passed the revised bill in an overnight session. Due to regulations and implementation it will take 18 months for the bill to go into full effect. The DOH is allowed 18 months to establish regulations such as identifying dispensaries, though it is possible that doctors can be trained to recommend medicinal marijuana before then. Five organizations will be licenced to cultivate and process marijuana, with each having up to four retail locations in the state. Marijuana must be grown in New York and will be taxed at 7 percent.
Adam Scavone, co founder and director of the New York Cannabis Alliance and SSDP alumnus from Columbia University, started efforts on a medical marijuana bill for New York in 2010 with his colleague Evan Nison. They began holding meetings with legislators and created relationships with allied organizations in order to become a credible unit. “It’s been a wild ride, we learned a lot, but we saw the ugly side of politics” said Adam. He notices flaws with the bill put in place: “It’s insufficient of medical marijuana stature, it leaves a lot of patients out in the cold, the small monopoly on licenses is not nearly enough to cover the state, it’s just asking for price gouging of patients, it’s not a great bill, but at the same time there is only so much of an attention span for legislators to talk about marijuana policy.” Recognizing how critically important access to medical marijuana is for patients, Scavone hopes to fully legalize marijuana in New York, noting that there are still many arrests for marijuana every day. He describes it as a civil rights issue: “I want to see New York legalize marijuana and do so in a fashion that respects adults’ choices… (and) collects a reasonable amount of tax revenue without punishing cannabis consumers. New York should treat the product and the people as citizens with equal rights.”
Another organization that was active in the efforts to pass the Compassionate Care Act is Empire State NORML. Troy Smit, the Executive Director, helped draft all action alerts, e-mail blasts, literature, and most official statements. He coordinated NORML’s social media campaigns and organized legislative visits with representatives from the Long Island area. Troy states that “Empire State NORML has major concerns over how limited this medical program is, The Compassionate Care Act will work in practice. At best, patients with a few of the most serious conditions will be able to purchase expensive and proprietary cannabis products by Christmas of 2015…. that said, Empire State NORML looks forward to moving beyond these last minute compromises that typify Albany politics and working with our allies to expand the benefits of cannabis to more New Yorkers as soon as possible.” Eddie Einbinder, founder of Responsible Education About Drugs (R.E.A.D), also embraces the positives: “Now that medical marijuana is legal in New York, some loved ones of mine and countless others will get to live and die with far less pain.”
New York is now the 23rd state to pass a medical marijuana bill.