This Group Wants New York City to Set Up Its Own Medical Marijuana Program

Cannabis activist Dana Beal is working to make medical marijuana more accessible to New York City patients.
Cannabis activist Dana Beal is working to make medical marijuana more accessible to New York City patients.
Kathleen Caulderwood for the Village Voice

A group of patients disappointed with New York State's much criticized and heavily regulated medical marijuana program has drafted a bill that aims to make medicinal weed more accessible in New York City.

In response to the state's Compassionate Care Act, the group's proposed legislation establishes a “medical marihuana users’ bill of rights” and asks the City Council to support the creation of a “users cooperative.” (The bill uses the state's preferred spelling of "marijuana," which replaces the J with an H.)

“We’re trying to set up a five-borough patients co-op for people with serious maladies, including ones that aren’t on the state list,” says Dana Beal, a longtime cannabis activist and one of about ten contributors to the bill. “The law and the regulations don’t cover people who are [also] legitimate patients. We believe that under home rule, we can extend better availability and better prices to more people."

The law, signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in July 2014, is due to take effect in January. Many have criticized it for being among the most restrictive in the country. It allows only five companies to grow cannabis and to operate twenty dispensaries throughout the state’s 55,000 square miles. The companies can each grow only five particular strains of cannabis (which the state calls “brands”), and prices will be set by the health department. The program covers only ten “severe, debilitating, or life-threatening” conditions, such as AIDS, epilepsy, and cancer, but excludes conditions like glaucoma and post-traumatic stress disorder, which are known to be treated by medical marijuana in other states. It also bans smoking the plant or ingesting it in the form of edibles. Under the law, medical marijuana products would also not be covered by most insurance plans.

In its preamble, the draft proposal criticizes the Compassionate Care Act for failing to ensure that dispensaries offering a variety of reasonably priced medical marijuana products are accessible throughout New York City. It also repeats the common criticisms that the law fails to cover all medical conditions that could benefit from medical marijuana and leaves out-of-state patients who already participate in medical marijuana programs subject to arrest while visiting New York. Beal says the state's program benefits little more than the companies that were selected to receive licenses to grow marijuana. "[Legalizing medical marijuana] was advertised as a chance for five companies to get really rich," says Beal. "That's not the spirit we were doing it in before." 

To make cannabis more accessible and the prices more affordable, the proposal asks the New York City Department of Health to support an “accredited users cooperative” whose purpose will be to “lower prices, achieve free prices for low-income users, and/or buy products from the growth cooperative.” It plans for the users cooperative to operate grow facilities on property granted by the city. "City sponsorship in the form of vacant buildings or lots to grow is one of the major ways to cut costs," says Beal. The preface of the bill states that the target price is one dollar per gram. "But no one will complain if it's a little bit more," Beal adds. 

The group is also asking the city health department to request that the state approve new methods of administration, such as smoking cannabis. Per the current law, the only legal methods of administration are capsules, vaporizable oils, dissolvable strips, patches, and tinctures. 

Beal's New York City group isn't the only one of its kind in the state. Citizens upstate are trying to get the Buffalo city council to support the Buffalo Medical Cannabis Act, which would likewise expand on the number of ailments covered by the Compassionate Care Act and allow for growing medical marijuana in western New York. "If there's two cities, we have a much better chance of getting it through," says Beal. "That another city is contemplating doing the same thing strengthens our position as far as getting state authorization for a city to do that."

But just as in Buffalo, the first hurdle is getting the council to act.

Having drafted the bill, its authors are now trying to mobilize for political support. Eric Sawyer, co-founder of Act Up, a coalition to end AIDS, has stated his support for the proposal. “I’m supportive of the concept of doing what can be done to try to improve the situation with regard to legal access to marijuana as medicine," he says. "I think that the science has shown that it’s extremely helpful in a whole variety of illnesses. I think [the bill] is really important because people with HIV and AIDS have a lot to benefit from access to marijuana as medicine both because of issues around nausea, appetite suppression, the chemical side effects of HIV medication, and also for pain management, neuropathy, and other pain-related side effects.”

Sawyer has been lobbying members of the council and says he's hopeful that Councilman Corey Johnson, whose district includes the West Village and Chelsea, will sponsor the proposal.

“At this point he’s referred it to his legislative aide for further research and evaluation,” says Sawyer. Representatives from Johnson's office confirmed they are aware of the group's proposal but told the Voice it was "too soon" to comment.

The group's long-term goal is to change medical marijuana legislation on the state level. One opening they see is Cuomo's highly publicized blueprint to end the state's AIDS epidemic by 2020. “There is hope in the advocate community that as part of a process of implementation of the plan to end AIDS, there will be further discussion and hopefully broadening of the medical marijuana bill so that it’s more favorable to patients,” says Sawyer. “That will remain to be seen.”

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