Medical marijuana has been legal in the U.S. since 1996 — if you live in California that is. For other states, it’s been an uphill battle to legalize medical cannabis, and for some, the battle rages on. As of May 2017, medical marijuana is legal in 29 states, and several others allow the use of marijuana in its oil form, with limitations on THC content (i.e., the psychoactive component of the drug).
Even where medical cannabis is legalized, the medical marijuana laws regarding its use vary wildly from state to state. The legalization of marijuana for recreational use is also shifting rapidly across the U.S., muddying the waters on medical marijuana laws and marijuana usage as a whole.
Although California is leading the charge on both fronts, especially when it comes to medical marijuana, over on the East Coast, the traditionally liberal and progressive New York has put in place a surprisingly restrictive and limited medical cannabis program. The state became the 23rd in the U.S. to embrace medical marijuana when it was made legal in mid-2014 under an act known as the Compassionate Care Act, signed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
At the beginning of his tenure, Cuomo announced plans to introduce medical marijuana legally to the state but was also noted and criticized for his long-held anti-marijuana position. Although Cuomo stated he was receptive to change on the medical marijuana front and approached the subject with an open mind, many feared that his medical marijuana laws would be too strict.
Medical Marijuana Laws in New York
These fears turned out to be well-founded upon the introduction of the CCA, which contained a critical clause that allows the New York Department of health to pull the plug on the medical marijuana program any time it chooses.
The list of qualifying conditions is also fairly short compared to other states, with only severe illnesses entitling patients to medical cannabis. On top of this, doctors can be punished under federal law for suppling marijuana to a patient who doesn’t fit the required conditions.
The narrow qualifying conditions include cancer, ALS and other motor neuron diseases, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and AIDS. This means that only around 10 percent of patients who could benefit from marijuana can actually legally avail of it, which is seen by many as far too restrictive.
The number of dispensaries allowed statewide is also pretty narrow, with only up to 20 dispensaries being grated licenses and only five manufacturers being granted the permission to grow marijuana. For as state composed of just under 20 million people, this seems relatively minuscule to medical marijuana advocates.
No Smoking Medical Cannabis in New York
Another measure that is seen as overly harsh, particularly when compared to other states, is the decision to forbid the smoking of medical marijuana, the most traditional method of taking the medicine. This is regarded as another attempt to appear anti-marijuana by the overly conservative Cuomo.
But it considerably limits patients’ methods and ease with which to avail of their medicine. As it stands, patients are only allowed to consume medical marijuana through vaporization, oils, foods and pills, which is, unfortunately, not the cheapest ways to consume the drug — or the most effective.
Smoking marijuana has traditionally been held as the quickest way to avail of the drug’s effects. When it comes to chronic and severe pain relief, most patients will want their medicine to work as quick as possible, forcing them to illegally smoke it or purchase a vaporizer, costing them hundreds of dollars on top of the amount they’ve already paid for the medicine. Cuomo and his supporters argued that smoking is not in the interest of public health, but this particular decree is seen by many as yet another attempt by Cuomo to straddle the line.
Just before the bill’s introduction in 2014, the governor spoke about the upcoming legislation.
“We’re going to be sending up a bill shortly that we believes strikes the right balance,” he said.
It was the result of near-constant pressure from medical marijuana advocates, lead by Sen. Diane Savino, the Senate sponsor of the bill, and Assembly sponsor Richard Gottfried. Assemblyman Gottfried admitted the bill was a compromise and also expressed concerns about the projected 18-month implication, concerns which turned out to be largely unfounded as the program got up and running on schedule.
It was a thorny path to medical marijuana legalization in New York, but now that it’s here, hopefully, things can continue to improve. There are certainly signs of it, with advocates campaigning for new conditions to be added to the list of qualifiers. Just recently post-traumatic stress disorder was accepted on the list, expanding some horizons in that sense. At the end of last year, the state Department of Health announced that it will be lifting and revising growth limits due to increased pressure from advocates and patients alike. All in all, things look good for the future of medical marijuana in New York.