While it will be at least two months before the majority of New York medical marijuana patients have access to medicine, those who qualify as critically ill will now be able to receive it sooner. Governor Andrew Cuomo approved two bills establishing an “emergency medical marijuana” program in the Empire State. This program permits the Department of Health to accelerate the accessibility of medical cannabis products to the states’ critically ill patients.
Now, in cases where delaying the use of cannabis may pose serious health risks and patients suffering from progressive or degenerative conditions will be able to obtain to a state license granting them immediate access to medical marijuana before the state’s medical cannabis program officially launches in 2016. Governor Cuomo, included a statement with his signature approving the emergency program,
“I deeply sympathized with New Yorkers suffering from serious illness, and I appreciate that medical marijuana may alleviate their chronic pain and debilitating symptoms.”
The Health Department will now be permitted to register additional medical cannabis producers who may be able to provide products more quickly or “as soon as practicable.” The programs’ partial goal will be to give preference to those already operating in other legal states that may be able to provide medical cannabis products “in a more expeditious manner.”
While the approval of the emergency program is a great news for many, it is bittersweet for at least one New York family. Sarah Newton and her husband lost their daughter Olivia, while waiting for the program to be implemented so that they could treat her with legal medical marijuana.
“We’re elated that this has passed and at the same time we’re heartbroken, we’re absolutely heartbroken,”
Newton said, explaining that she wishes action could have been taken sooner.
The state of New York recently passed its first medical marijuana law, and is currently defining the specific rules that will govern participants in this legal system. Feedback, so far, has been largely comprised of those who claim the law and rules are too restrictive.
The regulations are being scrutinized because the list of qualifying conditions is only 10 deep, and smoking the plant is not a legal method of consumption. Also, only 20 dispensaries will be licensed to serve the entire state, all of which will be controlled by just five organizations.
Progress is Progress
On the upside, any relief for those with serious disease or illness in the state is welcome. But can providing legal cannabis treatment for only 10 conditions and through only 20 dispensaries be truly effective?
After all, New York isn’t the first state to legalize regulated medical marijuana. California’s law, the first in the nation, was passed nearly 19 years ago. Critics cite that New York’s regulations impliy that it is one of the first states to do so and the clock has been turned back 15 or 20 years.
Gabriel Sayegh, managing director for policy and campaigns at the Drug Policy Alliance pointed out,
“The administration continues to operate as though medical marijuana programs have never been operated before. If we were having this discussion in 1998, one would understand the extreme caution. But it’s not the late 1990s, it’s 2015.”
Can New York’s highly pragmatic and unusually restrictive rules, in a nation where nearly two dozen states have passed considerably more lenient and open medical cannabis laws in the past two decades, deliver more help for patients than frustration?
Patients and dispensary operators may reasonably be confused by or protest some stipulations, like the fact that an electrician or carpenter servicing a dispensary would require prior written approval from the Health Department and a full-time escort when inside a dispensary — a requirement that will inevitably increase prices for patients. Also, the regulations contain strange limitations, such as the fact that consumption of any sort of food or beverage on the premises of a dispensary could be viewed as being in violation of the law.
121 Pages of Restrictions
The state has defended these tight restrictions, the draft regulations for which span 121 pages, by claiming that it wants to protect itself — and, by extension, patients — against “legal challenges and enforcement action,” referring to the federal ban on marijuana. Monica Mahaffey, the director of public affairs at New York’s Health Department, said the law ensures “appropriate access through comprehensive regulations and safeguards.” But again, this applies only to patients with one of 10 qualifying ailments (a considerably more restrictive list than those implemented by many other states).
Are the new regulations overly narrow and too comprehensive? Will “safeguards” ensure that millions of sick patients are denied access to medical cannabis, rather than granting them safe, legal access? Will the program be so restrictive as to fail, allowing politicians and prohibitionists to claim that there’s little demand or that such a system simply doesn’t work?
Closed-market Prices Too High?
Another major concern for potential patients is price which, unlike in an open market like Colorado, will be determined by a single individual, Dr. Howard Zucker, the state’s health commissioner. Because medical cannabis will not be covered by insurance, Zucker’s pricing may be prohibitive for extremely sick patients who are unable to work and may live on government assistance.
Ironically, this is the group that needs medical cannabis the most. If they can get better prices or more ready access on the black market, patients may find themselves in the exact same situation they’ve always faced: Breaking the law and having to purchase from street dealers.
Democratic Senator Diane Savino has admitted that the new regulations will be burdensome for many. “Is it inconvenient? Yes,” she said. Savino later elaborated,
“But what’s a bigger inconvenience is if we don’t have these tight controls and the federal government comes in and shuts down the whole program and disrupts the flow of product to patients.”
This is a logical stance, especially given the recent federal law enforcement activity of the Department of Justice and the DEA in progressive states like California and Washington. However, one must ask oneself if such strict regulations defy the spirit of the law, which is simply to provide safe access to affordable, legal medical cannabis for millions of sick New Yorkers.
The following are the only conditions which qualify a patient for a medical marijuana recommendation in The Empire State:
- Lou Gehrig’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Spinal cord damage
- Inflammatory bowel disorder
- Huntington’s disease