Ending the Logjam On Cannabis a Victory for Incoming Gov. Hochul and Patients Alike

By Jeremy Unruh | August 19, 2021

It will take time for incoming Governor Kathy Hochul to address the growing list of complex challenges facing the state, but one outstanding issue in particular presents the opportunity for a quick policy and political win that will bring much-needed relief to thousands of New Yorkers.

Patients in the state’s medical cannabis program have been waiting for more than four months for implementation of changes approved in the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA), the law that legalized cannabis for adult recreational use. The law is widely supported by New York voters. Unfortunately, momentum has been sidelined by both political infighting and the state’s leadership crisis.

But Ms. Hochul can change all that. By allowing the improvements laid out in the MRTA to go forward and also appointing members to a new regulatory authority established to oversee the adult-use program, she can count fixing the state’s broken regulated cannabis system as an early win – one that has eluded the outgoing governor.

Participants in New York’s medical cannabis program, which is among the most restrictive of its kind in the nation, have waited far too long for these simple reforms that will improve both access and equity to a drug that vastly improves their quality of life and helps mitigate their pain. Ending this unnecessary limbo requires four simple steps:

1) As the MRTA provides, let physicians exercise their discretion to determine whether a patient might benefit from medical cannabis. No other medication has a pre-qualifying list of conditions that patients must meet; cannabis should be no different.

2)  Recognize that the supply limits for medical cannabis have changed under the law from 30 to 60 days. The state rightly extended this period at the height of the Covid crisis to reduce potential exposure to the virus for patients and dispensary employees alike. The MRTA codifies this change, which can and should be implemented without delay.

3). Allow the sale of whole flower in medical cannabis dispensaries, as the MRTA mandates. New York’s cannabis suppliers already produce a raw flower product that meets the state’s stringent safety standards. Allowing patients access to this more versatile and less expensive product can be done without any regulatory changes; it merely requires approval from the state Health Department, which thus far has not followed the legislative intent on this issue.

4). Appoint the board members and staffers to the new adult-use cannabis regulatory body. Without these appointments the adult-use program cannot launch.

New York has the potential to be a leader on regulated cannabis – both medical and adult-use. The MRTA calls for establishing one of the nation’s most equitable recreational programs to address the harms caused by years of cannabis prohibition. It is time for the state to demonstrate that it is indeed the progressive champion it has long claimed to be and move ahead with the blueprint established by the MRTA.

Developing a new adult-use cannabis industry understandably takes time and planning. But the longer we delay, the more time participants in the illicit market have to dig in and expand – especially now that possession of cannabis is no longer a crime.  The only way to disrupt and capture that market is to follow the law and get the regulated cannabis program moving again.

Even as the state works to establish its adult-use program, medical patients should not be held hostage to the process. Every day that passes without action in Albany is a day of useless suffering for these individuals. Ms. Hochul has the opportunity to end that the moment she steps into the governor’s office, delivering relief to thousands of patients; opening the door to creating new, good-paying, and often unionized jobs; and also chalking up a political and policy victory. That’s a win-win all around.

Jeremy Unruh is Senior Vice President, Public and Regulatory Affairs, for PharmaCann, one of the country’s largest vertically integrated cannabis companies and also one of the New York State’s original medical cannabis operators.