New York's medical pot policy: An example of political compromise?

Eight medical marijuana dispensaries open in New York Thursday ... but with some key stipulations. 

Jennifer Peltz/AP
Dr. Stephen Dahmer (c.), medical director of Vireo Health of New York, is flanked by his Vireo Health colleagues CEO Ari Hoffnumg (l.) and Dr. Laura Bultman, chief medical officer at the Vireo Health's medical marijuana dispensary in White Plains, N.Y., Tuesday. On the table is a display of packaging for the product scheduled to be made available in New York beginning Thursday.

New York joins 22 other states and Washington, D.C., Thursday in offering medical marijuana, as eight dispensaries are set to open statewide. 

The dispensary openings Thursday have been a long time coming for the state of New York, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act in July of 2014 legalizing the use of medical marijuana in the state.

But New York says their medical marijuana system is stricter compared to other states, so there will be less systematic abuse of the medical marijuana system.

“We want to help people,” Governor Cuomo said at the 2014 signing of the bill. “However, you want to make sure you do it right ... The complexity and nuance are often more than government can deal with. In this situation, government legislated with nuance and balance.” 

Only a limited number of serious conditions qualify New Yorkers for use of the drug, such as AIDS, HIV, cancer, and epilepsy. All dispensary locations will have thorough security systems and all medical marijuana certificates must be issued by a physician registered with the New York State Department of Health, after undergoing a four-hour training course. There is also a sunset provision: the law will expire in seven years if lawmakers don’t act to renew it. 

“Our goal is to ensure that New Yorkers have access to the treatment they need through a controlled, regulated process,” State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said in a press release in 2014. 

And in his 2014 law, Cuomo stipulated that the drug may not be smoked anywhere in the state. Unlike any other US state that has legalized medical marijuana, except Minnesota, New York dispensaries only sell marijuana through syrups, concentrates, and other forms that avoid the direct act of smoking.

Some are unhappy with New York’s policy, saying it is too strict and deters qualified candidates from the helpful benefits of medical marijuana.

“At best, it could be seen as a half-step, but not a full step, to embracing the actual medical utility of cannabis,” said Paul Armenatano, deputy director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“Unfortunately, it seemed like the priority was to make it as limited as possible, instead of focusing on what is best for patients,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the New York-based Marijuana Policy Project, told Al Jazeera. 

Others support the law, saying it is a groundbreaking move for New York after more than 20 years of legislation. 

“If we didn’t think the bill could be workable for patients we’d say so,” Gabriel Sayegh, New York State director for the Drug Policy Alliance told Politico. “Given what we were up against and given the challenges ... it is a big deal that this bill was signed, if it is implemented effectively.” 

Regardless of the divisive commentary, New York’s legalization of medical marijuana represents a political compromise on a polarizing issue. This meant the bill’s champions “had to give up a lot of what they had been fighting for to ensure there would be a bill signing ceremony where Cuomo could boast that this is one of the most tightly regulated medical marijuana laws in the country,” explains Politico. 

“I think the glass is three-fourths full, maybe two-thirds full,” Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat who has pushed to legalize medical marijuana since the mid-1990s told The New York Times. “But I think we can do better.”

This report includes material from Reuters.

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