Critics Assail Governor Cuomo's 'Expensive' Medical Marijuana Plan as Unfair to the Poor

A medical marijuana supporter at the 2014 NYC Cannabis Parade.
A medical marijuana supporter at the 2014 NYC Cannabis Parade.
Photo by Emily Tan

Wanda Hernandez Parks smokes weed every day. But she's far from a recreational user.

The 52-year-old says marijuana helps keep up her appetite, and numbs the nerve pain that she experiences daily. Hernandez Parks has HIV.

"[Smoking marijuana] helps me cope," she says. "It pretty much allows me to get out of bed every day and do what I do."

See also:New York State Will Legalize Marijuana. Just Not the Kind You Can Smoke.

Along with using cannabis herself for medical reasons, Hernandez Parks is active with an organization called VOCAL-NY, which advocates for, among other things, the legalization of medical marijuana. When Governor Andrew Cuomo last year agreed to take steps toward legalizing the drug for medicinal purposes, VOCAL-NY called it a positive development. But now, others like Hernandez Parks say they're concerned about a byzantine maze of proposed regulations that will make it difficult for poor people to get their hands on the legal pot.

"We don't want people feeling criminalized because they've found something helpful," she says.

In July 2014, Cuomo enacted the Compassionate Care Act, which legalized medical marijuana and instructed the New York State Department of Health to come up with a plan for how to regulate the the drug. On December 17, the department released a 120-page document outlining its proposed rules. The department is accepting public comment on the proposal until February 13.

The proposal is extensive and complex, and legalization advocates express worries on a couple of fronts. The department plans to allow twenty cannabis dispensaries to serve the 20 million people in New York State, which many argue won't be enough. Others fear the state has no plan to subsidize medical marijuana, which is not covered by insurers, and will thus be imposing a barrier affecting low-income patients disproportionately. And the dispensaries themselves will only be allowed to sell cannabis as an oil concentrate. Edibles, like marijuana candy or baked goods, and actual smokable weed will not be available.

According to the state health department website, smoking cannabis will remain illegal because smoke is harmful to the lungs.

"The negative health consequences of smoking of marijuana are well established," the website says. "As the National Institute of Drug Abuse notes, 'The smoke of marijuana, like that of tobacco, consists of a toxic mixture of gases and particulates.' "

Legalization proponents maintain that smoking is the cheapest way to take the drug.

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"Oils and concentrates are very expensive," says John Hellman, a spokesman for an AIDS and drug reform nonprofit in the Bronx called BOOM!Health. "We know [low-income patients] are not going to be able to afford it. And if people can't afford medical marijuana, then they'll still participate in the illicit market."

On February 2, Hellman joined about 100 other advocates at a forum held at Hostos Community College to criticize the proposed regulations. The forum featured speakers including City Councilmember Mark Levine and Veterans for Peace advocate Bill Gilson, both of whom spoke out against the limited number of conditions that will make patients eligible for medical marijuana. Common conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and migraine headaches are not on the list.

The forum's attendees also took aim at the state's restrictions on growers and dispensary owners. Only five companies will be hired to grow cannabis — at four dispensaries each — throughout the state. And each company will only be allowed to produce five government-approved strains of cannabis — another proposal that Cuomo's critics say is too limiting, as different strains of the plant can have unique effects like battling nausea or reducing seizures.

But while many are frustrated with the governor's plan as it exists now, some are holding out hope. Janet Weinberg, a volunteer for the Drug Policy Alliance, uses the example of Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income Americans enacted by Congress in 1965 that, over time, has evolved and expanded to cover more people. "Many times, we start with a compromised bill," she says. "And the activists keep working on it, until it keeps getting better."

Legal marijuana isn't expected to become a reality in New York State until about 2016, which will give those activists some time to push for more pot-friendly regulations.

The health department declined to respond to most questions for this article, but did say those who wish to comment on the proposed rules may send their response "through the website." On that site, the email to which members of the public can send comments is listed as regsqna@health.ny.gov.

Send news tips to ktoth@villagevoice.com Follow @kat_toth on Twitter


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