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State cannabis board – in its first meeting – relaxes medical marijuana rules
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State cannabis board – in its first meeting – relaxes medical marijuana rules

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A worker tends a marijuana crop in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. 

ALBANY – Its initial start delayed partly by scandals that engulfed Andrew Cuomo in his final months as governor, a new state regulatory panel met for the first time Tuesday as New York State took another step ahead to the commencement of legalized retail sales of marijuana.

The Cannabis Control Board, its work permitted following the recent appointment of its five members by Gov. Kathy Hochul and legislative leaders, announced it was immediately loosening rules governing the state’s medical marijuana program, including greatly expanding who can prescribe medical marijuana – to include everyone from dentists to midwives. It also approved  the sale of marijuana flowers, which will make the drug available in a smokable format and, advocates say, reduce the high price of medical marijuana products in New York.

“Our patient access to medical cannabis and improving patient care is a mandate that this board takes very seriously,’’ Tremaine Wright, chair of the state’s Cannabis Control Board, said in the panel’s first meeting Tuesday.

The Legislature earlier this year approved  the changes to the medical marijuana program, which has had 150,000 New Yorkers certified to obtain the drug for a variety of health reasons. It is unknown how many of those people are still actively using the drug, have since died of terminal illnesses that were among the conditions that made them eligible for medical marijuana or have abandoned the drug because of the costs or inconvenience of obtaining it in New York.

Lawmakers, including Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat and the Assembly marijuana law sponsor, have urged the new regulatory panel not to wait to make the medical marijuana program changes while the more complicated process to permit recreational marijuana sales is undertaken. Lawmakers say it will still be 18 months before recreational marijuana is legally available for sale in the state.

The law that was changed this year creating the regulatory oversight agency called the Office of Cannabis Management already  has decriminalized the possession of up to 3 ounces of marijuana for people 21 and older. Sale of the drug is still technically illegal in the state.

Besides recreational and medical marijuana industries, the new agency also now regulates the hemp industry.

The expansion of who can authorize a patient to obtain medical marijuana products is a major change. So far, nearly 3,400 health care practitioners, who are mostly physicians, nurse practitioners and some physician assistants, have been approved to certify patients as eligible for the drug.

The new practice approved Tuesday will sharply broaden the list of health care participants to include anyone licensed to dispense a controlled substance, which besides dentists can include podiatrists and other fields of medical care.

“We’ll be working diligently to ensure the medical community at large is informed of this change and prepared to begin certifying patients,’’ said Chris Alexander, the executive director of the new cannabis office.

The board also doubled to 60 days the supply of marijuana that can be dispensed, abolishing the patient and caregiver $50 registration fee, and making it easier for facilities, including hospitals, to dispense medical marijuana to patients. Officials said permitting the sale of the whole marijuana flower – instead of processed cannabis in such forms as pills, oils and vape products – will drive down production costs and lower the price for patients. Whole flower sales at the existing 38 medical marijuana dispensaries will not happen until certain quality control measures are conducted by the state.

At-home cultivation of marijuana by people approved for medical reasons was not approved Tuesday because of a six-month delay in appointing the new board, according to Wright, the panel’s chairperson.

Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat, and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat, who both sponsored the state’s medical marijuana law that passed in 2014, praised the changes by the cannabis board that was only fully formed in the past several weeks.

The board also tapped a number of senior staff members for the new agency, including a chief equity officer  charged with creating various social and economic equity aspects of the recreational marijuana cultivation, distribution and sales program .

The new board did not announce plans to deal with concerns raised by opponents to legalizing marijuana, including medical groups and some law enforcement groups, who say that there will be rising numbers of impaired drivers on New York’s roads.

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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