Give Gov. Andrew Cuomo credit: He likes to think big. He likes to think the government he runs is capable of almost anything, despite the facts on the ground. And so the governor is proposing an ambitious study to determine what it would mean to legalize recreational marijuana in the state — and whether New York should do it.
Considering how things are going across the country, there is an increasing likelihood that New York will, in fact, go in this direction at some point.
But first things first. It should not be lost on anyone that, while Cuomo wants a commission to look at this issue, the state has struggled mightily to gets its medical marijuana program running in an effective manner, which should be the priority.
Making matters worse, New York, as well as about 30 other states that have such programs, has to try to decipher the meaning of a Trump administration memo giving prosecutors more leeway to crack down on the drug. In a potentially harmful move, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded Obama-era guidelines that allowed federal prosecutors to take a hands-off approach with state-level marijuana laws. Keep in mind this includes not only states that allow marijuana use for recreational purposes — but states like New York that have sanctioned it only for medical reasons.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, called Sessions’ decision a “direct attack on patients,” and she’s right. Medical marijuana can provide relief to patients with cancer, glaucoma and other serious illnesses.
Obviously, this new federal direction has to be sorted out, and states, including New York, will have to push back, especially if this in any way impedes medical marijuana programs. New York’s program has about 40,000 certified patients, boosted by the state’s decision last year to add chronic pain to the list of qualifying conditions. It has taken a ridiculously long time for the state to get to this point. And New York’s program is one of the most restrictive in the country. The drug is not permitted in smokable forms, with certified patients instead able to purchase items such as creams, oils and pills.
New York initially allowed only five medical marijuana companies with 20 dispensaries in the state — despite the pleas of many that these numbers would be inadequate. State health officials have now allowed a doubling of both these numbers.
As for the wisdom of legalizing recreational use, New York can at least draw upon the experiences of other states and get deeper into the pros and cons. And, surely, New York should be studying the issue in depth and gaining plenty of public feedback, considering the neighboring states of Massachusetts and Vermont have moved to legalize recreational use and New Jersey may consider it.
As that particular debate ensues in New York, there should be no argument the immediate focus should be on improving an existing but fledging program designed to provide medical relief for those who need it now.