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This story was originally published on May 6, 2019 by THE CITY.

A long-awaited push to expand New York’s highly restrictive medical marijuana program is coming as hopes for legal, recreational weed are going up in smoke.

The same architects of the state’s 2014 law that created the medical marijuana program in New York are introducing legislation aimed at loosening restrictions on who can access the drug and how it’s sold.

More doctors would be able to prescribe pot, more patients would be able to get it – and smokable forms of medicinal marijuana would be legal.

But the legislation is a last resort if discussions over legalizing adult use of marijuana stall in the state Legislature.

“I think there’s widespread agreement that these are needed improvements in the medical program and ideally this would be part of an adult-use bill,” Assemblymember Dick Gottfried (D-Manhattan), the bill’s sponsor, told THE CITY.

“We’re putting this bill in so that people can see the language and so it will be available in the event that the adult-use bill runs aground.”

The 2019 legislative session is scheduled to end on June 19, meaning lawmakers have roughly six weeks to negotiate several thorny issues and come up with a cohesive measure to legalize recreational pot that Gov. Andrew Cuomo would be willing to sign into law.

Bringing legal weed to New York is about more than just creating a forward-looking recreational program.

Lawmakers also are discussing how to address decades worth of draconian drug laws that have overwhelmingly affected minority communities, as well as how to tax marijuana – and what to do with the revenue.

The Cuomo administration and legislators previously discussed making legalizing recreational marijuana part of the state budget. But they couldn’t come to a consensus between the start of the legislative session in January and the April 1 budget deadline.

Now pressed up against another deadline, State Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) — who’s often referred to as the “mother of marijuana” in New York — and Gottfried are setting up a contingency plan if the Legislature can’t meet the June 19 cutoff.

“As of today, I do not have any degree of confidence that a standalone adult-use marijuana (bill) will pass the Legislature. Medical marijuana is completely independent of it,” Savino told THE CITY last week.

In the Weeds

Savino and Gottfried blamed the strict regulations outlined in the Compassionate Care Act for creating too many barriers to access.

“Our goal is to expand and strengthen the medical cannabis program. I think there’s widespread agreement that the program works but needs to be expanded,” Gottfried said. “What we’re proposing will help make medical cannabis more easily available to patients, bring down costs and help support the medical cannabis providers.”

Gottfried and Savino’s bill — which was shared exclusively with THE CITY and includes provisions endorsed by Cuomo — would do away with the list of 17 severe and debilitating illnesses that allow patients to qualify for medical marijuana and broaden it to include any condition certified by a doctor.

It would also expand the limited list of medical practitioners who can certify a patient to any doctor who can already prescribe controlled substances, including dentists and podiatrists.

“We’re looking at lifting the conditions as a requirement for becoming a patient and allowing health care providers and their patients to make that decision,” Savino told THE CITY.

Smokable forms of medicinal marijuana also would become legal — which Cuomo disallowed in the original bill in attempt to prevent excessive use.

While registered organizations would still need to document price changes, Gottfried and Savino’s bill proposes removing the requirement for the companies to receive prior approval from the state Department of Health. The agency’s commissioner would still be able to modify prices.

Advocates for medical marijuana told THE CITY that pricing has been particularly challenging for patients.

There are “still really significant challenges,” said Melissa Moore, deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for drug decriminalization. “Just the cost being prohibitively high for so many people or forcing people to make really gut-wrenching decisions if they can afford this medication or pay for housing or food.”

Treks for Prescriptions

There are 40 dispensaries authorized to operate in New York state, but five have yet to open.

As of the end of April, 98,701 patients were certified to purchase medical marijuana and 2,311 practitioners were registered to serve them.

The bulk of these patients — nearly 8,000 — reside in Manhattan, where there are four dispensaries, from a busy stretch near Union Square to a prominent location right across from Bryant Park.

Other boroughs are more poorly served. The Bronx counts just one dispensary, in the Hunts Point neighborhood, and Brooklyn only just got its two dispensaries in the past three months. Queens has three.

Staten Island, with roughly 2,500 patients — the largest share of any borough’s population — so far has none, though a dispensary has been authorized.

A spokesperson for Citiva Medical, the company tasked with opening the dispensary, told THE CITY that the team is “gearing up for a June launch” but did not divulge a location.

“Hopefully we’ll gain the trust and confidence of Staten Islanders,” said Amy Holdener, Citiva’s vice president of operations.

Patients say that the city’s inconsistent dispensary distribution has meant they must drive out of their boroughs to purchase medical marijuana. Up until recently, Joe Cimino, 69, of Greenpoint, said that he had to make regular trips to Elmhurst in order to quell his neuropathy pain.

“I don’t drive when it’s dark out when it’s rainy, or snowing…. The parking was crazy,” Cimino said, adding that the cost and lack of insurance coverage were also steep obstacles.

“All this marijuana stuff is keeping me healthy, I guess, it’s keeping me going,” he added. “I don’t have as much pain at night as I used to. I’m from the ’60s so it makes you feel good, you know?”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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