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NY's New Medical Marijuana Law Carries A "Wait"

WAMC composite image by Dave Lucas

Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York’s U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand would like to see medical marijuana on a slightly faster track in the Empire State, but there are several bumps in the road…

Cuomo signed New York's medical marijuana bill into law in July, make it the 23rd state to authorize marijuana for patients with certain conditions including AIDS, cancer and epilepsy.    "Legislation I feel gets us the best that medical marijuana has to offer in the most protective, controlled way possible.  We studied the other states before moving forward. I really believe that this is the smartest approach that any state has taken thus far," said the Governor.

But the measure specifies it will take a year and a half to fully implement the program.  Cuomo's administration has asked the Justice Department twic  for permission to import marijuana from other states on a limited basis so certain critically ill patients, including young children with various forms of epilepsy, aren't forced to wait until New York's medical cannabis law takes effect in January 2016.  Gabriel Sayegh, managing director for Policy and Campaign with the Drug Policy Alliance, says time is running out for many of these patients:   "It is a moral imperative for us to move as quickly as we can, to make sure that those patients, who cannot wait until the full system is deployed, that those patients have access to the medicine that might bring them some relief, or even keep them alive. And that's what we're focused on now. It's called 'emergency access' and we're trying to establish a means by which to achieve it, and have access to the medicine that might bring them some relief or even keep them alive.”

In September, the state health department asked the federal government to grant an exemption that would allow it to buy from states where such programs already exist.  Cuomo has also written to Attorney General Eric Holder.  Marijuana Policy Project legislative analyst Rachelle Yeung:    "It's great that the governor recognizes the immediate necessity of patients to obtain medical cannabis, however, there's a lot more he could do within the state of New York as its chief executive, than to ask permission from the federal government. He could expedite the process of establishing a medical marijuana program in the state by giving immediate approval to dispensaries. He could also begin issuing patient identification cards to qualifying patients immediately, so that they are protected from prosecution, should they obtain marijuana themselves."

Staten Island Democratic Senator Diane Savino says medical marijuana is a new emerging industry, holding the potential to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue into the state.

In neighboring Massachusetts, more than two years after the state's voters passed a law allowing medical marijuana, residents of Western Massachusetts still have little hope of seeing a medical marijuana dispensary open in the near future. Matthew Allen, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, says Governor Deval Patrick has put politics before patients.   "... as demonstrated by the fact that the dispensary licensing process has been put on hold and off hold of then on hold again over the last six months, and also by the small number of the dispensaries currently going through the approval process. The state started out by approving 20 in January. But has since knocked out nine out of the process with an additional two more on hold."

Allen says some patients must travel hours to access their medicine.     "At the same time, the state has eliminated the caregiver system which could provide patients do not live near dispensaries an avenue for safe access. And the online patient registration system is not up and running, exposing patients to arrest, even though they're compliant with the law."   Allen adds "it's not too late for Patrick to fix these issues before he leaves office."

Back in New York, Senators Schumer and Gillibrand have called for the federal government to allow the state to use  a specific strain of marijuana to treat children with seizure disorders.

The Syracuse Post-Standard explained that the strain, called Charlotte’s Web, has drawn attention for its purported benefits treating children with such issues while not imparting the high that most people associate with marijuana.

There are a variety of rules and regulations on state and federal levels that need to be adjusted before New York can deploy an effective medical marijuana program.

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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