Blog Post

What's Wrong with New York's Medical Marijuana Program and How Can we Fix it?

Julie Netherland

For almost three years, I’ve worked alongside many others to create safe and legal access to medical marijuana for New York’s sickest residents. The bill that passed last June was a compromise bill. Key provisions were removed, and the legislation was significantly narrowed to gain the support of Governor Cuomo and important legislators. Make no mistake: the bill, even compromised as it was, was a huge victory and could potentially help thousands of the sickest New Yorkers.

But as I have watched the program continue to unfold, most recently with the release of draft regulations, I’m concerned that it is becoming ever more restrictive. Reviewing the regulations, it becomes clear that the Cuomo Administration has approached the issue from a criminal justice, rather than a medical, perspective. What has been lost is the spirit behind the legislation --  to alleviate the needless suffering of seriously ill New Yorkers. The result are draft regulations that, if unchanged, will leave many patients behind.

There are numerous examples of how the Administration’s narrow approach will impede patients from getting the help they need:

  1. During the bill negotiations, the Governor’s office removed provisions aimed at insuring emergency access to medical marijuana (while the program is being set up) to those at immediate risk of dying.  Although they have acknowledged medicine won’t be available until 2016, the Administration has yet to include any emergency access provisions in the draft regulations. And, thus far, medicine has not been provided to critically ill New Yorkers. Since the bill was signed, at least four children, who might have benefited from medical marijuana, have died.
  2. Under the law, medical cannabis can only be used for ten medical conditions, even though no other medication faces such restrictions. There is good scientific evidence that medical cannabis can potentially help dozens of illnesses.  The Commissioner has  statutory authority to expand the number of conditions, but at this time the draft regulations do not provide an explanation for if or how additional conditions will be added.
  3. Under the draft regulations, the Department of Health will license only five producers and twenty dispensaries to cover a state with more than 54,000 square miles and 19 million people. One can only imagine that our sickest and most disabled residents will be forced to drive hours to get the medicine they need, assuming that there is sufficient supply to meet the demand in the first place.
  4. The draft regulations only allow patients to access oils and extracts – not the whole cannabis plant– and limit the number of strains each dispensary can sell to five, even though other states allow literally dozens of strains to help a wide variety of illnesses. The kinds of medical marijuana products allowed to be sold in New York are also extremely limited, excluding edibles, salves, and other topicals.
  5. Beyond waiving the $50 patient registration fee in cases of financial hardship, the draft regulations make no provisions for low-income patients. People dealing with catastrophic illness often also have to deal with financial hardship due to the great expenses associated with illness and may need assistance paying for their medication. Other medical marijuana states have created programs so that patients can access medication on a sliding fee scale basis to avoid creating a system that serves only the affluent.

These are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Based on the draft regulations, New York is on its way to having one of the most restrictive medical marijuana programs in the country and excluding patients who could really benefit. And, ironically, all of the state’s efforts to prevent diversion will likely have the opposite of the intended effect. Because they will not have access to the medicine that will alleviate their suffering, patients may be forced to purchase marijuana on the illicit market.

Fortunately, we still have a few days before the February 14th deadline for public comments on the regulations to help refocus the program on its original intent -- insuring that that all who are needlessly suffering have safe and legal access to the medicine they need. Members of the public can submit public comments about their concerns with the draft regulations here: I hope you’ll join the effort.

Medical marijuana