When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) proposal to legalize medical marijuana in the state via executive action comes into effect, as many as 100,000 individuals with serious health problems in New York City will gain access to the drug.
Despite having publicly opposed medical cannabis as recently as last spring, Cuomo is preparing to bypass the legislature and set up a system “that would allow limited use of the drug by those with serious illnesses,” according to the New York Times. It is thus far unclear how tightly Cuomo’s system will define “serious illnesses.”
One estimate, conducted by the New York City Comptroller’s office last year, put the number of city residents alone who would benefit from medical marijuana at over 100,000. And while it remains to be seen whether Cuomo’s definition of serious illness will encompass all of the conditions used in the Comptroller’s research, a statewide policy would reach about 2.5 times more people than a New York City-specific policy would.
The law on which Cuomo’s executive action is premised only names two specific sets of illnesses — cancer and glaucoma — but gives the state health commissioner leeway to designate other medical conditions that would be eligible for prescribed cannabis. Chronic pain sufferers, who make up the vast majority of those who would benefit according to last year’s Comptroller’s estimate, would have to be included in order for the program to reach anywhere near that 100,000 figure.
When Michael Bloomberg (I) was mayor of New York, he decried medical marijuana as “one of the great hoaxes of all time,” despite reams of medical evidence to the contrary and broad support for the idea from doctors. But with Bloomberg gone and Cuomo reversing himself on the issue after years of opposition, New Yorkers have renewed hope that science will trump the personal prejudices of their elected leaders.
The remaining questions about the policy shift, and the reality that Cuomo is entering a re-election year, aren’t stopping supporters of marijuana policy reform from touting his reversal as further evidence that momentum is shifting in their favor. Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) leader Ethan Nadelmann called it “a bold and innovative way of breaking the logjam” in the legislature, according to the Times, and the head of DPA’s New York branch applauded Cuomo “for taking action on behalf of some suffering patients.” While medical marijuana is a good start, advocates note that it’s a far cry from a complete fix to the state’s pot law problems. Arrest rates are still high, particularly for young black men, and Cuomo’s heady rhetoric on criminal justice reforms in major speeches last year did not succeed in bringing about changes from the legislature.
It is also politically advantageous for Cuomo to get loud about reforming marijuana laws. Polls show that a majority of the country supports outright legalization of marijuana, and a huge majority of New Yorkers support medical marijuana. Just 4 percent of Americans believe the government is winning the so-called “War on Drugs.”
New York will be the 21st state to enact a medical marijuana program. The District of Columbia also allows medicinal cannabis, and days before Cuomo’s decision came out, the state of Colorado’s newly minted recreational marijuana system launched to great media fanfare.