Watch for consequences
The Times Union
New York’s possible legalization of recreational marijuana could have consequences for those who use it for medical reasons.
The state should ensure it doesn’t harm those who need the drug.
The money, the taxes, the benefits for farmers, the sense of social justice — oh, and the polls. Little wonder legalization of recreational marijuana in New York seems to be on the fast track.
But with all the talk of recreational marijuana, the effects of legalization on the state’s existing medical marijuana program seem to have gotten minimal attention. Whether it would help those who use marijuana for health reasons or make an imperfect program even worse is something the Legislature must weigh before it opens marijuana sales to all adults.
It’s worth remembering that New York created a uniquely intricate program when Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers agreed to legalize marijuana for medicinal use. Producers are highly regulated. The number of sales outlets is tightly limited. The product is available only in certain nonsmokable forms — vaping cartridges, pills, oil, and oral spray — in the interest of accurate dosing and health protection, the state says. Products are tested for cannabinoid content and purity. Doctors must take a state course and be certified to prescribe medical marijuana, and their patients approved by a doctor for a state registration card. Marijuana may be prescribed only for a limited set of ailments.
The result is that medical marijuana in New York is expensive — costing some patients upward of $1,000 a month. Less than two-thirds of the more than 98,000 people who registered last year actually got the drug.
Legalizing recreational marijuana could affect that program for both good and bad. It could prompt many people — perhaps half, by one medical marijuana industry estimate — to abandon it in favor of what would almost certainly be a cheaper product. That could drive prices even higher, or kill the state’s medical marijuana industry altogether.
The medical marijuana industry suggests that since it already has the cultivation and distribution infrastructure, one solution would be to allow it to sell both the medicinal and recreational products. The economy of scale, it says, could bring down the price of medical marijuana.
That idea, though, could clash with a social justice goal that’s been frequently raised in the discussion about full legalization — to allow low-income minority communities that for decades have been the prime targets of marijuana criminal enforcement to share in the benefits. One analytical firm predicts $1.3 billion in sales the first year, growing in three years to upward of $3 billion.
So there is a lot for the Legislature to analyze and debate here, starting with hearings. But the state’s original reason for getting into the marijuana business — to relieve people’s suffering — can’t be lost in the quest for tax revenue. When it comes to those who depend on marijuana to treat pain, seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe nausea and other conditions, New York should keep in mind the mantra of healers: Do no harm.