By Marguerite Arnold
It is a moment that activists and legalization proponents from the business community thought might never happen. The state of New York started medical marijuana sales on Jan. 7, 2016.
As Health Department spokesperson James Plastiras said earlier this week, “New York State’s Medical Marijuana Program is scheduled to launch on January 7, 2016, just 18 months after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act.”
The commencement of market sales may be launching “just” 18 months after the governor signed the state’s much watered down legislation, but it is also coming close to a quarter century after the first organized efforts to get marijuana legalized in the state, for any reason, began challenging the state legislature to do so.
Since that time, the state has lagged behind not only California but a raft of other states who have moved forward on both the medical and recreational front. For those very reasons, many are watching the industry development in the state with a considerable amount of reserve rather than enthusiasm.
“It’s not going to happen very effectively in New York,” commented Marc Ross, a partner in Sichenzia Ross Friedman Ference LLP. We will have to find out what the availability of dispensaries really will be.”
“New York’s Legislature was prepared to pass a more comprehensive medical marijuana law, but Governor Cuomo insisted on this restrictive program,” said Evan Nison, a legalization advocate, NORML national board member and the owner of a public relations consultancy. “If the program ultimately winds up being unworkable or insufficient for patients, it’ll be on his shoulders. Now New York should look towards adult use legalization to help the patients that won’t be covered under or current medical marijuana program.”
Even now, the program is being rolled out in a tightly controlled manner that all but the governor and the New York State Department of Health, itself occasionally accused of corruption and mismanagement, understand is likely to create more problems than it hopes to solve. As of launch date, rather unbelievably, considering that a vast majority of New Yorkers believe that marijuana should be at least available for chronically ill patients, only four doctors are licensed per the new regulations to prescribe it, at least according to the website marijuanadoctors.com.
Columbia Care, one of five dispensaries licensed to grow marijuana in the state, opened its first dispensary on Jan. 7 in Union Square. Other dispensaries are planning to open in the Bronx and Queens later in the month.
While the program has been roundly criticized nationally for the level of restrictions it has created—one of the most rigidly regulated new markets in the U.S.—there is at least one interesting aspect to the Big Apple’s strange cannabis market. The New York market is the first to have the nation’s first certified kosher marijuana.
For now, at least, this is about the most New Yorkers hoping for medical relief and an accessible program have to hang their hats on. On the marijuana front at least, it also appears that the Empire State will follow rather than lead for the foreseeable future.