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With recreational pot unlikely, state's medical marijuana program may grow

The push to legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana seems to have gone up in smoke.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo doused hopes Friday as he said in a radio interview that it didn't have the legislative support to pass.

But what about the state's existing medical marijuana program?

It may get bigger and more flexible.

Last week, State Sen. Diane Savino and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, both Democrats from New York City, each introduced bills that would expand New York's medical marijuana program.

“It’s less controversial and easier to advance,” Savino told The Buffalo News.

The medical marijuana program, which was approved in 2014, is highly regulated – many say over-regulated. And it's very limited. Currently, there are just shy of 100,000 patients registered in the program.

“We should be twice that,” Savino said.

It’s not an easy program to get into. Patients pay a minimum of $50 to register and then about another $200 for a doctor’s visit to be certified for the program. Then they’re issued a medical marijuana card that they must present at a dispensary to buy medical marijuana – none of which is covered by insurance.

Another factor that has limited the number of patients is that only 10 medical marijuana companies have been licensed in the state. Each can have up to four dispensaries. Western New York has three medical marijuana dispensaries – the Botanist in downtown Buffalo, PharmaCannis in Amherst and MedMen in Williamsville.

Savino’s and Gottfried’s bills would expand the number of medical marijuana companies, Savino said.

The bills also would:

  • Eliminate the restrictions on conditions that can be treated with medical marijuana. The decision would be made between the doctor and patient.
  • Allow medical facilities, including hospitals and residential care facilities, to administer medical marijuana to patients.
  • Allow patients the option of smoking marijuana. Right now, patients are only allowed to use vaporizers, capsules, drops, lotions and gels. Medical marijuana patients would not be allowed to smoke it in public and the same rules that apply regarding smoking tobacco would apply to smoking marijuana, Savino said.

Before Cuomo’s statements Friday about the fate of recreational marijuana, Savino talked about the challenges of passing sweeping legislation to allow it.

“No state has passed an adult use program bill legislatively,” she said. “It’s always been done by public referendum. ... Legislators are afraid. It has not been helped by the local county organizations coming out and saying they don’t want in.”

But she does believe Albany will support expanding medical marijuana.

“Nobody objects to medical,” she said.

However, some of those fighting to prevent substance abuse do raise concerns.

"They keep expanding the medical marijuana program as to who is eligible," said Sally Yageric of the Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse. "They're making it so much easier to be eligible to get medical marijuana."

Members of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which has been lobbying against legalization in multiple states, cautioned that expanding medical marijuana is a backdoor way to legalize recreational use.

"Now you're completely delegitimizing [medical marijuana] and making it the wild, wild west," said Luke Niforatos, chief of staff and senior policy adviser for SAM. "Basically, you can come in with any condition and get medical marijuana – and that shows you the blurry line between medical and recreational. That's the problem."

But India Walton, a community organizer with Open Buffalo, which has advocated for legalizing adult recreational use, said expanding the medical marijuana program "does nothing to address the harms that are still being done to poor and communities of color" regarding enforcement of cannabis-related laws.

Walton strongly supports Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes' bill that calls for 50% of all tax revenue collected from the sale of recreational cannabis products to be reinvested in communities of color. "Anything less," Walton said, "is unacceptable. My community can't wait any longer."

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