As the year comes to a close, and as we look ahead to the fast-approaching launch of New York’s medical marijuana program, the Village Voice is looking back on some of the year’s most important developments in weed throughout the city and state. With several milestones having propelled the cannabis movement, public opinion has begun to shift more rapidly as well. “There’s a lot less fear than there was last year. I don’t think it’s taboo anymore,” says Michael Zaytsev, organizer of High NY, the city’s largest cannabis meetup group. “I think a lot of the stigmatization has turned into curiosity.”
Politicians, reform advocates, and the general public are now looking forward to next year. “We started our path down medical marijuana, and now simultaneously turned our attention to adult-use legalization,” says Evan Nison, founder of the New York Cannabis Alliance, noting the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, introduced by Senator Liz Kreuger in December 2013. “I want to get that conversation going a little bit more in New York.”
Now, without further ado, here are some of the 2015 highlights in the world of weed.
March: U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand co-authors the Carers Act.
Together, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) co-authored and introduced legislation asking the federal government to reschedule cannabis from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance. The move would allow for more government research into the benefits and effects of marijuana while broadening states’ rights to govern their own marijuana policies. Perhaps most important to New York in the short term, the bill would alleviate any remaining federal issues that block banks from working with cannabis businesses.
April: The Department of Health releases the application for a medical marijuana growing license in New York.
On April 27 the New York “green rush” officially began with a thud when the health department posted its “Application to Become a Registered Organization,” which consisted of four PDFs on its website. The application, which most applicants said was extremely confusing, was released with no prior notice and was originally slated to remain open for a month. After conceding that the paperwork was too difficult to complete, the state extended the deadline by a week. Initially, hundreds of companies were expected to apply, but in the end only 43 filed applications. The application fee itself cost $10,000, and chosen applicants were required to fork over an additional $200,000. To put together a successful application, or even a competitive one, applicants ended up shelling out upwards of a million dollars each on greenhouse architects, seed-to-sale tracking systems, lobbyists, and so on.
May: Assemblyman Richard Gottfried introduces legislation to expand on New York’s medical marijuana program.
The bill’s formal title is a mouthful: “An act to amend the public health law, in relation to medical use of marihuana [sic]; and repealing certain provisions of such law relating thereto.” But its aim is a noble one. Gottfried has been an extremely vocal critic of the almost cripplingly restrictive Compassionate Care Act (which established New York’s current program). With the new legislation, he seeks to make medical marijuana more easily accessible to patients. Gottfried’s bill, introduced in the legislative session this past spring, is intended to undo some of the restrictions Governor Andrew Cuomo had insisted upon before passing the Compassionate Care Act.
May: The Cannabis Parade
On May 2, hundreds of people gathered in Union Square for the NYC Cannabis Parade — an, er, high-spirited event with performers, artists, politicians, and marijuana law reform advocates. Despite the NYPD supervising the event, demonstrators smoked weed openly during the parade.
June: Both the New York State Senate and Assembly pass the Emergency Access bill.
Originally introduced by Gottfried, the Emergency Access bill allows patients in critical condition who qualify to receive treatment under the Compassionate Care Act to legally obtain medical marijuana as soon as possible — even before the law goes online in January. The bill offers protection to patients and parents of patients from law enforcement and child services while New York’s medical marijuana program is still being established. The bill, however, was not signed into law by Cuomo until November.
July: The Department of Health announces the winners of the competition for a medical marijuana growing license.
Of the 43 companies that applied for a medical marijuana growing license in New York, Bloomfield Industries Inc., Vireo Health of New York, Etain LLC, Columbia Care NY LLC, and PharmaCann LLC were the five selected by the Department of Health. The applicants were evaluated based on weighted, scored criteria, including product manufacturing, security, transportation, distribution, sales and dispensing, quality assurance and staff, property and equipment, geographical distribution, architectural design, financial standing, and “public interest.” Anticipating that the rejected applicants might be angry over the state’s selection process, one attorney even decided to offer his services to anyone wishing to sue the state.
September: Williamsburg hosts the first ever New York City Cannabis Film Festival.
Organized by High NY, the NYC Cannabis Film Festival launched at 4:20 p.m. at the Wythe Hotel on September 26. The festival featured a documentary on the scientist who discovered THC, as well as a number of shorts, including the first episode of Growing Community, a new Web series about cultivating cannabis in Brooklyn.
October: New York City bans the sale of K2, Spice, and other synthetic cannabinoids.
After a reported spike in the use of K2 and other forms of synthetic cannabis was believed to have landed thousands in the emergency room, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation criminalizing the sale and production of the drugs. Soon after, to educate the public about the dangers of drugs marketed as legal marijuana alternatives, the city launched a campaign against K2, with the tagline “0% marijuana, 100% dangerous.”
October: The Department of Health releases the required training course for doctors to recommend medical marijuana.
With the medical-education website TheAnswerPage making it available online, doctors could now sign up for the mandatory $249, four-hour course designed to teach physicians about medical marijuana. The course — required under the Compassionate Care Act for any doctor who wants to be able to recommend cannabis to patients — includes information on pharmacology, side effects, contraindications, dosing, routes of administration, abuse and dependence, and overdose prevention. So far, medical marijuana advocates are worried that not enough doctors are signing up to take the course.
November: Cuomo signs the Emergency Access bill.
In June, both houses of the New York state legislature passed a bill to provide emergency access to medical marijuana for patients in dire need. Five months later, Cuomo finally signed the bill into law, just two months before the Compassionate Care Act was due to take effect. Some have argued that the bill’s delayed passage renders it useless.
November: New York activist Tom Angell delivers a petition with more than 100,000 signatures asking President Barack Obama to ax his DEA chief for calling medical marijuana a “joke.”
When acting Drug Enforcement Administration head Chuck Rosenberg called medical marijuana a “joke,” Tom Angell, founder of Marijuana Majority, launched a petition on Change.org urging Obama to fire Rosenberg. To date, 148,160 people have signed the petition. At the end of November, Angell delivered the petition in person to the DEA headquarters.
December: Regulations finalized for Hemp Research Bill
The regulations for the Hemp Research Bill, signed into law last year, will become finalized by the end of this month. In 2016, ten hemp growing license holders will be able to plant their crop and begin their research into different hemp types, or “cultivars,” their uses, and where they grow best.