New York’s medical marijuana law, known as the Compassionate Care Act, launched just last month but has been the target of harsh criticism since Governor Andrew Cuomo signed it in July of 2014. Now Albany’s biggest advocate for legal medical marijuana, Manhattan assemblyman Richard Gottfried, has proposed legislation to improve the program. Gottfried, who originally introduced the measure in 1997, has been among the most forthright critics of the version that was eventually made into law.
Albany’s latest legislative session began less than a month ago, and already Gottfried proposed a new bill that would direct the New York State Department of Health to approve at least five more companies — called “registered organizations” — to grow and sell medical marijuana. The current law allows only five companies to produce and market the products. “In order to speed up the process, it authorizes the [health] department to consider the information that was submitted by various applicants in last year’s licensing process,” Gottfried tells the Voice. The department, in other words, could look at the runners-up from the 43 companies that competed for the five coveted licenses.
Gottfried’s new bill is the first of around seven pieces of marijuana-related legislation Gottfried plans to introduce in the next few weeks. Each of these bills focuses on one of the various aspects of a larger measure Gottfried introduced last year. The thinking, he says, is that presenting the bills piecemeal might make it easier for the rest of the legislature to handle. “Different pieces might be more acceptable to some legislators,” he explains. “I’m sure some pieces will be more controversial than others.”
During the 2015 legislative session, Gottfried had introduced a comprehensive bill to address the shortcomings of the Compassionate Care Act. All at once, that larger bill would remove the law’s ban on smoking medical marijuana, add five more accepted medical conditions for patients to qualify for the program, and expand the number of companies allowed to grow and sell.
“Now that [the Compassionate Care Act] has been to some degree implemented, I think now we can make a clearer case that changes are needed,” says Gottfried.
As of this week, only 334 physicians and 551 patients have registered with the state — way short of the state’s projections. “Patients have been waiting years and years and years for medicine,” says Julie Netherland, head of the New York office of the Drug Policy Alliance. “They didn’t launch a patient registration system till December 23 and they didn’t launch the physician training system till mid-October. Patients in New York are suffering, and they are suffering much longer than they need to be. I don’t think there’s any reason to take as long as it has.”
Netherland says advocates have a dual strategy for improving the law and increasing access to medical marijuana. One approach is to put more pressure on the state. “A lot of the issues with the program are ones that the [health] commissioner can address without legislative change,” she says. “We’re also eager to work with Gottfried and others in the legislature, given that it seems unlikely that the administration is going to make the improvements that we want to see.”
Gottfried attributes the program’s slow start to the state publicly withholding the list of registered doctors who can recommend cannabis. The list will only be distributed among physicians, making it harder for patients to find a doctor who is on board with the program. “You can’t sign up as a patient unless you find one of those 300 doctors. I think it’s plainly illegal to keep that list secret,” Gottfried says. “The rollout has made it clear that the restrictions that the governor put into the law and that the [state] put into the regulations are in fact making it very difficult to implement the program and get help to thousands and thousands of seriously ill patients.”