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NY: Medical Vs. Recreational Marijuana

WAMC composite image by Dave Lucas

When it comes to legalizing marijuana, things are moving quickly, especially in New York.

Last Friday, the federal government released guidelines for banks to conduct business with the $1.5-billion-a-year legal marijuana industry. Medical marijuana is now legal in 20 states, and legislation is pending in 13 others. The green signal may have been sent in January when President Barack Obama told The New Yorker that marijuana was less dangerous than alcohol, opening the door for debate.

Manhattan Democrat Richard Gottfried agrees: he chairs the New York State Assembly Health Committee:  "We really should move from our dysfunctional prohibition model to the tax and regulate approach. Marijuana is nowhere near as potentially harmful as alcohol, and our law is dishonest and that undermines our message to young people."

Ryan Karben, a former Democratic Assemblyman from Rockland County, says the president is sending out a clear policy and political message. "Democrats in New York support recreational marijuana being legal by a margin of two to one. That's not a position which has been embraced by Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio or by any other big name Democrat."

Nevertheless, New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah told lawmakers at a recent budget hearing that the governor’s plan for limited medical marijuana could be rolled out quickly.   "I’m focusing all my energy on making sure that we have the medical marijuana program up and running within a year." 

Shah believes limited medical marijuana treatments could pave the way for research on the feasibility of expanding the program. Some would like to see the initiative morph into a regulation allowing marijuana to be sold on a par with alcohol.

Karben cites a Quinnipiac poll released Monday that found New Yorkers favor legalizing small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.  "Over 80 per cent of voters between 18 and 29 favor a legal weed. Voters over 65 oppose. And what's interesting is New York has really been very reluctant to embrace wither medical marijuana or recreational marijuana as a mater of law, and the politicians are really out of sync of the public on this one."   Then, Ryan goes on to make a bold prediction:   "I think a medical marijuana bill is going to pass the state legislature this session, and I think weed is gonna be legal in New York by 2016."

Governor Cuomo has already rolled out a program allowing limited marijuana use at certain New York hospitals.   State Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, has introduced a full legalization bill, which the Cuomo administration opposes.  Krueger believes marijuana could evolve into a $3 billion industry in New York.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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