New York Will Finally Allow Medical Marijuana, But Not If You Smoke It


New York will likely become the 23rd state to enact a medical marijuana law after legislation passed the state legislature on Friday. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said he plans to sign it. The bill is a compromise measure that emerged after almost two decades of battling over medical marijuana in the state legislature. Several years in a row, measures passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly before dying in the Republican House.

This year, lawmakers were able to make a deal after several Republican lawmakers shifted to support the bill. The law that passed, however, does not allow patients to smoke, or to access marijuana in raw plant form. Users can only purchase it in extracted forms such as through an edible, pill, or as an oil to be used with a vaporizer. New York’s compromise comes several weeks after Minnesota became the first state to pass a comprehensive medical bill bill that doesn’t allow smoking.

In both states, advocates conceded to the compromise measure, but lamented that smoking “raw cannabis” is often the best means of delivery for treating medical conditions, and that vaporizing the marijuana oil will be much more expensive and leave out low-income patients. Advocates in Minnesota also worried that, by buying a manipulated form of the substance rather than being able to consume the plant, they would have very little control over dosing and thus experience unwanted effects.

The bill also imposes significant limits on the conditions that can be treated by marijuana, and on the number of producers and suppliers. Eligible conditions include epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, neuropathies, spinal cord injuries, cancer, and HIV/AIDS. Other conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and arthritis, are not permitted, but may be added by the health commissioner later. And it makes it a felony for doctors to prescribe marijuana for conditions other than those designated in the law.

One particularly interesting nuance of the law is that it also requires doctors who are making medical marijuana recommendations take a training course, a “requirement for which there is only one other precedent in all of U.S. medicine,” according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

The bill advanced as medical marijuana has become an increasingly mainstream political issue. Support for medical marijuana was at 88 percent among New Yorkers, according to a February Quinnipiac poll. The stories of young children with severe epilepsy who have seen remarkable relief from a marijuana extract have had a particular effect in propelling stalled bills forward. But increasingly, some of these bills are narrow. While New York is now the second state to pass a medical bill that does not include smoking, Florida passed a significantly more limited bill that only allows a low-THC strain of marijuana aimed particularly at children with severe seizures. State voters will consider a much broader ballot initiative in November.

Marijuana arrests, meanwhile, remain at the same high level in New York City, even after Mayor Bill DeBlasio took office, and even though marijuana possession is decriminalized in New York.