The state of New York seems on the cusp of legalizing recreational adult-use cannabis. Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) last week released a budget outline that includes the proposed legalizing and taxing marijuana—a move that echoes his annual State of the State address, in which he pledged to legalize marijuana in 2020. But even in the midst of what seems like cause for celebration, the state’s medical marijuana leaders remain cautious and even a bit concerned—and with good reason, according to Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.
“New York initially got medical marijuana very wrong,” O’Keefe says. “At Cuomo’s insistence, the program initially excluded pain patients, prohibited whole plant cannabis, and allowed only five vertically integrated licenses—with four locations each—in a state with nearly 20 million people. Large amounts of capital were needed to [get] a license, and licensees lacked diversity. New York over-regulated and drove up costs. The result was that about half of patients who bought cannabis from dispensaries never went back a second time—even after having jumped through hoops to get the state ID card. Unregulated cannabis was cheaper and more accessible.”
While many of those issues have been addressed (under Cuomo’s administration), O’Keefe says the state’s regulations remain “on the restrictive side,” and “it will be worth keeping a close eye to ensure the unnecessarily restrictive, unsuccessful model for medical marijuana isn’t repeated.”
Hillary Peckham, chief operations officer of Etain—a women-owned medical marijuana business with locations throughout New York—believes input from the state’s medical operators will be crucial in “creating a program with products and business practices that keep both consumers and public safety at the forefront.” And she wants medical operators, such as Etain, to “have the opportunity to produce these products for the adult-use program as well as the medical program.”
Adam Goers, vice president of corporate affairs at Columbia Care—a medical cannabis provider in New York as well as 10 other states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C.—says his team has spoken with the state’s social justice groups, law enforcement, community leaders, faith leaders, and policy makers—some in the governor’s office—in an effort to weigh in on the regulations.
“We have a lot of hard work to do until the end to push this [legislation] through,” Goers says, adding that, “ultimately, I think everyone is in a position at the end of this to declare victory.”
Peckham says that New York’s medical regulations require that cannabis products are “almost-pharmaceutical level,” with stringent tolerances for what microbials, metals, and contaminants are allowed—and she’d like to see those same stringent standards applied to recreational pot.
Goers agrees. “A medical patient is getting their high-quality, consistent products in the current medical program and we can't believe—and we know that broad stakeholders agree, too—that someone in the adult-use marketplace should expect any product that is of lesser quality.”
But both Goers and Peckham say some changes should be made, too, that would benefit medical and recreational users alike. Perhaps most importantly, however, they want patients and users to have easier access to marijuana. “Patients want better access,” Goers says. “We heard this loud and clear. Right now, there's one medical dispensary for every half a million people in the state of New York. That's not access.” In addition to adding dispensaries, Peckham wants the state to “ensure that the disbursement of licenses is reflective of the population and create geographic diversity,” she says. “This way, there are sufficient dispensaries to serve upstate populations.”
Another move that would make accessing medical marijuana easier, Peckham says, is allowing all New York physicians to certify patients—without having to pay for a course. Peckham also thinks patients should be able to qualify for the program for any reason, “so long as their doctor deems they will benefit,” she says. “This would be extremely helpful in providing access to patients because now, only patients with a qualifying condition can get access to the program.”
Goers would like to see the number of testing laboratories increase throughout the state. He says that with limited laboratories, drivers must travel for hours to reach or deliver products. What’s more, the state requires two drivers to carry products, a regulation medical companies would like to see removed, Goers says, to benefit themselves and patients. “You're talking about costs that we're having to pass on to the patients that aren’t making the program any more secure,” he says.
Last year, legalization died in the state Senate. Peckham and Goers see obstacles to legalization this year, too. Peckham admits it may take a few more tries to pass the legislation, but Goers remains optimistic that despite any obstacles, legalization will prevail this year. “Everyone is moving forward in this because, ultimately, for numerous reasons, New York state can't wait any longer.” Why? He says that patients deserve better access, adult users deserve legal access, and the industry could create an economic boom for the state with jobs and business opportunitites.
“I could find the obstacles, sure,” he says. “But I think those three tenets are the most important ones and I think that's why everyone is working so darn hard to make sure that this happens.”