Gov. Cuomo’s medical marijuana program indicates some progress but won’t allow New Yorkers to access or use medical marijuana anytime soon.
As expected, New York’s Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Wednesday during his State of the State address that he would use executive action to allow for the use of medical marijuana in the state via an atypical medical marijuana program. Though severely limited in scope, Cuomo’s announcement makes New York the 21st state, in addition to the District of Columbia, to legalize medical marijuana.
Under Cuomo’s new plan, 20 of the state’s hospitals would be able to recommend marijuana to patients with illnesses such as cancer and glaucoma. A full list of qualifying diseases will be released at a later date, once the state’s health department comes to agreement regarding which qualifying standards they want to enact.
Another aspect of the mini-medical marijuana program yet to be determined is which of the state’s hospitals Cuomo will allow to prescribe marijuana to patients, since there are no plans to allow for or license dispensaries. State officials said they would choose hospitals based on “regional diversity,” how extensively a hospital treats patients, and whether the medical facility researches illnesses such as cancer and glaucoma.
Legal use of medical marijuana may be new to the state, but it’s a program that 82 percent of New Yorkers said they wanted their state to have, according to a survey last May. In addition to public support for medical marijuana legalization, many medical professionals in the state have encouraged state lawmakers to pass a law legalizing it.
This past June, more than 600 doctors from across the state sent a letter to Cuomo, encouraging him to legalize medical marijuana, since “Denying patients access to a safe, effective medication that can relieve their suffering is cruel and forcing them to break the law is simply wrong.”
But that still wasn’t enough to convince Cuomo or the state senate to pass any proposed legalization bills.
Cuomo’s decision to use executive action to legalize medical marijuana in the state is somewhat a surprise, given that last March he proposed decriminalizing marijuana after it was discovered the New York Police Department spent about 1 million hours making 440,000 arrests for low-level marijuana possession charges between 2002 and 2012. Cuomo stressed that while he saw a need for decriminalization, he was not endorsing any kind of legalization.
Despite all of the unknowns with the program, Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, praised Cuomo’s decision to not wait for the legislature to pass a medical marijuana bill, calling Cuomo’s executive order “a bold and innovative way of breaking the logjam” in Albany.
“It’s almost embarrassing to be a New Yorker, to look around, and Connecticut and New Jersey and Vermont and Rhode Island, and Massachusetts and Maine all have legal medical marijuana, and we don’t,” Nadelmann said.
However, he added that if Cuomo “remains committed to developing the best medical marijuana law in the country,” he eventually will have to get the state legislature involved.
Similarly, Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, agreed and said that while the group is “pleased Gov. Cuomo is among the 77 percent of Americans who recognize the legitimate medical benefits of marijuana,” unfortunately Cuomo’s “plan will not allow New Yorkers to access or use medical marijuana anytime soon.”
Although Cuomo’s executive order has been called a good first step by legalization advocates, O’Keefe says that the program is likely going to be unworkable and problematic for several reasons, telling the National Review Online that the proposal “creates good headlines” but not much else. She said that in short, the program “pays lip service to a popular idea but would do precious little to actually help New Yorkers who could benefit from access to medical marijuana.”
One issue the Marijuana Policy Project sees with Cuomo’s medical marijuana program is that the state is not allowing for the creation of a traditional medical marijuana program seen in other states, where dispensaries are tasked with growing a bulk of the medical marijuana they sell. So while Cuomo is allowing for the sale of marijuana to patients, he seems to have completely disregarded the part of the program involving the production of the herbal medicine, which is why the state may have to obtain its supply from the federal government.
But the problem with that is that the federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, meaning it views marijuana as a highly dangerous and addictive drug that has no medicinal use, even though the federal authorities currently supply medical marijuana to four patients every month. Because of these strict rules, any study regarding marijuana must be approved by The National Institute on Drug Abuse, which has such strict guidelines that the agency has even previously refused to provide marijuana to short-term FDA-approved research on the medical benefits of marijuana.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project, “If the program used federal marijuana, the Food and Drug Administration would need to approve of the state’s research protocol,” which could be problematic since “FDA-approved research projects are exceptionally expensive and require large sums of money for every additional human subject added to the program.”
Another issue that the state’s medical marijuana program could face is that the Drug Enforcement Administration, which has not been shy to vocalize its opposition to any sort of marijuana legalization legislation, would also need to approve Schedule I licenses for the physicians who would be administering the program in the 20 participating hospitals.
The DEA would also be tasked with overseeing the handling of marijuana during every step of the process, which the Marijuana Policy Project says would likely include — but not be limited to — the storage of marijuana in locked facilities in 20 hospitals.
Since hospitals are federally regulated and therefore usually unwilling to engage in activities that are illegal under federal law, such as distributing marijuana, finding a hospital that is willing to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program may be more difficult than Cuomo imagined. And unlike other medical marijuana programs in the U.S., the program would rely on the state to fund the program almost in its entirety, making it the first state government to lose funds instead of raking in additional tax revenue.
Currently, New York has a version of a medical marijuana program already, called the “Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substance Therapeutic Research Program,” which when passed some 30 years ago, allowed for hospitals to administer marijuana to cancer and glaucoma patients if they were approved by medical review boards.
But because of the strict legal restrictions, many patients who could benefit from medical marijuana in New York have been unable to join the program, and therefore have to turn to the black market to get their medicine.
New York’s medical marijuana program may have its issues, but State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who has pushed for the drugs legalization in the state for years, says it’s a key first step.
Though Gottfried says the state is establishing a “limited and cumbersome program,” he said he is “thrilled that the governor has taken this action.”
Cuomo may have legally enacted this policy change in the state without the state legislature’s approval, but Gottfried says that if the state is going to have a “truly comprehensive and well-working system,” the state legislature will have to take legislative action.
Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, agreed with Gottfried that this is a good first step, but said his organization would push for broader medical marijuana laws in the state.
New York’s state legislature has not been able to pass any medical marijuana legislation yet, but it isn’t because lawmakers haven’t tried. State Sen. Diane Savino, who co-sponsored a medical marijuana bill that was defeated earlier this year, said that she supported legalization because she believes people in pain should have an alternative to deadly and addictive drugs.
“People want relief, they don’t want to get high,” she said. “If they wanted to get high, they could get a prescription from their doctor, they could take two Vicodin, wash it down with a glass of wine. They don’t want to get high … They want relief.
“If people are interested in getting high, they would not want to enroll in this program. They can go out in the street and buy it; it’s not that hard to get in New York state. But patients shouldn’t have to break the law to get relief.”