New York State’s Long-Running War on Weed


A U.S. map that shows where pot is legal looks a lot like recent electoral college maps, except instead of blue, the liberal states are rendered in green: the entire West Coast (California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada), progressive mountain and Midwest states (Colorado, New Mexico; Michigan, Illinois), all of New England, plus New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws legalizing medical marijuana; in two of them, recreational weed is all good, too.

Conspicuously absent from that map: New York.

How is it that one of the most liberal states, with a Democratic governor and a Democratic majority in the state assembly, a state where popular support for legalization is overwhelming — a February poll from Quinnipiac University showed 88 percent of New Yorkers are in favor of legalizing medical marijuana — how can such a left-leaning state lag so far behind its ideological peers?

Albany, replies Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, is a place “fraught with drug war politics, and it lacks a coherent sort of frame-work to address these types of questions.”

For one thing, Sayegh explains, “You have a history of some very draconian policies” like the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which set the mandatory sentence for selling two ounces or possessing four at a mandatory 15 years, minimum. (Those laws remained on the books until 2009.) Four decades later, New York leads the nation in arrests for marijuana. And it’s not even close: According to an ACLU report, the Empire State made 29 percent more pot busts than its closest competitor, Texas.

“On the other hand, you have some really smart innovations that have occurred,” Sayegh adds. New York, for instance, passed legislation to research the therapeutic applications of marijuana way back in 1980.

In January, Andrew Cuomo announced he would use that 1980 law — the Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Program — as the legal basis for his own medical marijuana program. “We’ll establish a program allowing up to 20 hospitals to prescribe medical marijuana, and we will monitor the program to evaluate the effectiveness and the feasibility of a medical marijuana system,” Cuomo declared.

For a man who only a few years earlier declared his unequivocal opposition to legalizing medical marijuana, that was quite the turnaround. “The dangers of medical marijuana outweigh the benefits,” Cuomo said on the campaign trail in 2010. It could raise revenues, though, a reporter noted. “A lot of things could raise revenues,” Cuomo said. “Legalizing prostitution could raise revenues. I’m against that, too.”

Antonio Olivieri was 37 years old, a handsome, Harvard-educated partner in a law firm, a father of two, a rising Democratic star with a seat on the New York City Council, and the picture of health — he’d just returned from a five-mile jog — when he collapsed at his office on a May morning in 1979. It would take until August of that year for surgery to reveal the cause: a malignant brain tumor.

He had only a little over a year left to live, but throughout that year Olivieri remained devoted (conducting staff meetings from his hospital bed at times) to the same issues he had spent his career advancing — health, the environment, tenants’ rights — and a new one: medical marijuana.

Olivieri lobbied leaders in the state legislature (many of whom he knew from his own time in the assembly, where he represented Manhattan’s 66th District) to legalize marijuana for use by cancer and glaucoma patients. He made a deeply personal appeal to the chairman of the Senate Health Committee, convincing that man, Tarky J. Lombardi, that cannabis eased the nausea that accompanied his chemotherapy treatments and helped him maintain an appetite.

With Lombardi’s support, the Antonio G. Olivieri controlled substance therapeutic research program was approved by the New York State legislature; in July 1980, Governor Hugh Carey signed it into law. Olivieri died a few months later, before one of its key provisions — a panel that would review each patient’s petition for medical marijuana — was implemented.

“He had no time for halfhearted political gestures,” a staffer said at a memorial service for Olivieri. Ironically, the law he spent the last months of his life working on turned out to be exactly that. The review panel was never established; not a single patient has ever received marijuana through the program.

When a reporter for the New York Times called a few of the law’s key supporters 21 years after it passed, most had no memory of it. The forgotten legislation lay dormant for another 13 years, until January 2014, when Cuomo revived interest in it during his state of the state address.

It now appears Cuomo’s declaration may be just another halfhearted political gesture.

Consider the New York state budget, finalized March 31. The assembly’s version included funding for the program. That funding disappeared from the final version, the one approved by both the state senate and the governor. A member of the governor’s policy team tells the Voice that the program doesn’t need dedicated funding yet.

To introduce a research program like the one Cuomo proposes, the New York State Department of Health must jump through several hoops. First, it needs to secure approval for the study from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Next, it will need to win the support of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Also required: a license from the Drug Enforcement Administration to distribute a Schedule I drug.

And they’ll need to score the weed.

As originally envisioned, the Olivieri law would redistribute to cancer patients marijuana that had been seized by the New York State Police. Nirav R. Shah, the state’s heath commissioner, recently said his department will tap “federal sources” for its marijuana.

There is only one federal source of marijuana: the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which has grown research-grade marijuana at its University of Mississippi farm since 1974.

But there’s a hitch: NIDA has typically provided marijuana for studies about drug abuse, not research into marijuana’s therapeutic applications.

The institute made an exception to that rule last month, when it approved an application from the California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies to study the therapeutic effect of marijuana on veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We fought for 22 years to get permission to buy the marijuana from the federal government for this study,” says Brad Burge, director of communications for MAPS.

The nonprofit first began pursuing research into medical marijuana in the ’90s, but it started the approval process for its PTSD study in November 2010. The FDA accepted the proposal the following April. Additional vetting from an independent institutional review board, at the urging of the Public Health Service, added a full calendar year to the approval process.

The process still isn’t over — researchers still need a DEA license — but in March, NIDA greenlit the MAPS study. Burge estimates that at least four full-time employees have worked for three years on the approval process alone.

Meanwhile, there’s no evidence New York’s Department of Health has even begun the lengthy approval process for its own program.

A spokesman for the department would not comment for this story. An official in the governor’s office was only slightly more forthcoming, informing the Voice that a multi-agency team consisting of “dozens” of officials is drafting a research proposal for FDA approval.

Medicinal marijuana advocates skeptical of the governor’s proposal remain committed to their efforts to pass the Compassionate Care Act, which would legalize medical marijuana on a broader basis.

“The governor’s proposal is for a research program,” says Sayegh. “A research program is not the same as a patient-access system, and that’s what it is that we need in this state: We need a patient-access system. We need a way for people who have cancer, MS, severe epileptic-seizure disorders, and other conditions — we need a way for them to be able access marijuana medicine.”

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried introduced the Compassionate Care Act for the first time in 1997, and it has been reintroduced every year since. The bill has passed the assembly four times, only to die in the senate.

Sayegh, for one, remains cautiously optimistic that this year will be the year it passes. For one thing, he says, there’s overwhelming support for the issue from both sides of the aisle. “The second thing is that there is simply no dispute by any reasonable person that medical marijuana is needed here in New York. The governor has said that. Even Dean Skelos, the Republican leader, has said that. Even the opponents will concede that medical marijuana needs to be made accessible to people — the only question is how.”

The Village Voice Marijuana Issue Table of Contents:

A Day in the Life of Your Friendly Neighborhood Weed Messenger

Weed Eaters: Stoner Food Isn’t Just Blowing Smoke

Even Country Music Is Ready for Marijuana Legalization