As Gov. Kathy Hochul sets her agenda for the next year, among her first her priorities should be the expansion of New York’s medical marijuana program and the addition of new minority-owned registrants willing to serve underprivileged communities.
When the Marijuana Regulation Taxation Act became law earlier this year, it legalized adult-use marijuana in New York; adopted a multitiered licensing scheme; and implemented a visionary social equity program to redress the racial injustices of America’s drug war. But just as significant, the MRTA prescribed an expansion of the state’s existing medical marijuana program. Although less publicized than the legislation’s adult-use scheme, its provisions are no less momentous to New Yorker’s welfare and to the cause of racial and social equity.
It is no coincidence either that providing medical marijuana to “unserved and underserved areas of the state” explicitly underwrites the MRTA’s purpose. During the Covid-19 pandemic, minorities suffered higher rates of both infection and mortality. (In New York City, for example, the fatality rate per 100,000 was 122 for white people but 238 for Latinos and 244 for African Americans.) And the higher incidence of death and disease relate directly to insufficient access to medical resources.
New York’s Department of Health has had the authority to expand the medical marijuana program since the Compassionate Care Act passed in 2015. But the department, to date, only has registered 10 companies to grow, distribute and sell medical marijuana. Each one can open four dispensaries in turn. Compare this to Florida, a state with a comparable population. There, 22 medical marijuana companies have opened more than 300 dispensaries.
Not only are the 40 dispensaries the Department of Health has authorized insufficient in number, they also are situated in affluent, largely white communities. In my home in Western New York, there are two dispensaries in Amherst and Williamsville, one in downtown Buffalo, but none in the heart of the city’s East Side. Medical marijuana should not be an option for just the rich and privileged.
As such, the Health Department should issue new medical licenses immediately. Awarding new medical licenses to minority-owned entities who prioritize building cultivation facilities, processing plants and distribution locations in underserved communities, like Buffalo’s East Side, would spur job growth, boost economic revenue and show New York’s commitment to providing medical access to all New Yorkers, irrespective of race or class.
Andrew Cuomo’s resignation hands Gov. Kathy Hochul a historic opportunity. Through a simple executive order, she could accelerate and broaden New Yorkers’ access to medical marijuana and could inscribe her legacy as a champion of equal access to medical services.
Dr. Gregory F. Daniel is the CEO of Alternative Medicine Associates and has practiced medicine for over 20 years in the Buffalo area.