In 1977, New York became one of the first states to decriminalize marijuana possession.
Unfortunately, reform in New York has barely moved forward in the 40 years since.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been cool to the idea of marijuana legalization. While campaigning for the governorship in 2010, Cuomo spoke out against medical marijuana. “The dangers of medical marijuana outweigh the benefits,” Cuomo said just before the 2010 election.
Progress throughout the rest of the country on marijuana reform would eventually make the governor’s position difficult to maintain. In early 2014, polls showed that 88 percent of New York state residents supported medical marijuana. It is likely no coincidence that Governor Cuomo signed AB 6357 later that year.
AB 6357 legalized the use of medical marijuana in New York. However, it is considered one of the most restrictive programs in the country. Marijuana flower and edibles are not permitted. Patients can only vaporize marijuana oils or use drops that are administered under the tongue.
New York is not the only state with tight restrictions on how medical marijuana can be administered. However, the state does have some other unique problems that seem self-inflicted. The Empire State has only approved marijuana recommendations for approximately 14,000 residents. Compared to other state populations, analysts estimate that New York could have approved 200,000 patients for medical marijuana use. Critics also charge that there are too few physicians that have been cleared to administer marijuana recommendations.
The physicians who can actually recommend marijuana are predominately located in southern New York, close to the densely populated regions of New York City, Westchester County, and Long Island. Many patients that live in New York’s vast upstate region are out of luck when trying to find a physician or a dispensary to serve them. With only 20 shops statewide, many patients are often unable to make consistent dispensary trips that can span hundreds of miles. State law only permits patients to hold a 30-day supply, making frequent trips necessary.
State Senator Siane Savino, author of New York’s medical marijuana bill, summed up the problems more bluntly. “There are two things the program is lacking: physicians and patients,’’ she said according to Buffalo News.
With only a handful of companies operating in one of the most populous states in the country, the marijuana industry was expected to be lucrative for those involved. But that optimistic prediction has not panned out. “Our company is not close to break-even yet,’’ said Ari Hoffnung, president of Vireo Health of New York.
The problem may soon be compounded as Governor Cuomo is considering approving five more grow and distribution licenses. Unfortunately, production does not seem to be the main issue of concern for members of New York’s marijuana industry.
“Any of the five organizations could alone supply the entire market as it exists today,” said Hoffnung.
One manufacturer in New York, PharmaCannis, stores $40 million worth of marijuana in a vault. They currently only produce about 10 percent of what they can because demand is simply not there.
Cuomo’s plan to produce more marijuana does not sit well Hoffnung. “What they’re doing is instead of creating more patient access, they’re creating more supply, and that supply is not needed in any way, shape or form,” she said.
Marijuana advocates would like to see the list of qualifying conditions expanded. Additional dispensaries could also help increase safe access. But doubling the size of the industry without increasing the consumer base could force current producers out of business.