NY’s Half-Step Forward: Restrictive, Pending Medical Cannabis Law

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On Friday, June 20th, the New York State Assembly and Senate passed “The Compassionate Care Act,” a medical marijuana law unlike any other in the nation. Now awaiting the signature of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the act is expected to be signed into law shortly. As the number of states with legal medical marijuana programs creeps ever closer to the halfway mark, activists worldwide are wondering how many states will have to act before the Unites States finally recognizes medical marijuana. Given that it has been a twenty-year process to get a medical marijuana program passed in New York, Friday’s vote was nothing short of a historical example of compromise and progress.

Before you start rolling up a doobie to celebrate, you might want to check the fine print of New York’s new medical marijuana law: smoking cannabis is not permitted under the medical marijuana law. Instead, medicated food items, pills, oils, and vaporized plant matter will all be legal methods of medicating (if the governor makes good on his promise to sign the act into law).

Additionally, New York has one of the most restrictive lists of qualifying medical conditions. When the state’s medical marijuana program rolls out, only HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, epilepsy, spinal cord injuries, and neuropathies will be qualifying conditions. In the first eighteen months of the program, the health commissioner will be deciding if PTSD, rheumatoid arthritis, muscular distrophy, and several other conditions will be added to the list. Theoretically, the law allows for new conditions to be added at any time and also for them to be removed at any time as well.

The New York medical marijuana law differs from those in other states because this law includes an “executive override” that allows the governor to cancel and shut down the program if it becomes a risk to public health or safety. Also, the representative branch will have to re-authorize the medical marijuana program in seven years.

It’s estimated that once signed into law, The Compassionate Care Act will take roughly 18 months to full roll out. Rules and regulations will have to be established. The state will only be handing out a very few licenses to grow and sell medical cannabis at first, though the law allows for expansion if there’s sufficient demand. The New York program will include the development of a new felony that can be used to charge doctors who falsely recommend medical marijuana to someone, so chances are slim that there will any kind of widespread abuse.

Although the law may seem overly restrictive, keep in mind that as recently as January, the governor was refusing to budge on his position that medical marijuana programs would have to be run out of hospitals. Most of the big policy people are happy with this advancement, even it if seems modest to the average cannabis activist.

To those untold thousands or millions with serious medical conditions being excluded by New York’s medical marijuana law, this victory may ring hollow for them. In order for them to find relief, they must still break the law. It is a pity to imagine people with conditions ranging from glaucoma to post-traumatic stress and fibromyalgia being forced to seek out their medication on the black market, risking arrest and possibly incarceration. Still, there’s hope that within a few years, rational policy will prevail in the Empire State.