Yesterday, elected officials, patients, and more than twenty community groups gathered at Hostos Community College in the Bronx to discuss the proposed regulations for New York's medical marijuana program. At the end of December, the New York State Department of Health (DOH) released more than a hundred pages of draft regulations outlining many features of the proposed program. Yesterday's forum, which comes less than two weeks before the public comment period ends on February 13th, was aimed at creating an opportunity for the public to better understand and respond to the proposal.
The more than 100 participants raised a number of issues, including their concern that the program will not be accessible to low income people and that the program is overly restrictive.
The sponsor of the medical marijuana law in the Assembly, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, said in a prepared statement: "The proposed regulations are highly and unjustifiably restrictive and will make it as difficult as possible to implement the Compassionate Care Act. The Health Department should move quickly to clean up the regulations in response to the comments it is getting. And the Legislature needs to amend the law to take out some of the pointless restrictions that were added last year. It is distressing that the state is taking so long - and it will take even longer - for a single suffering patient to get any help."
The barriers to low income patients were one focus of today's discussion. Aside from a proposal to waive the $50 patient registration fee in case of financial hardship, the regulations make no provisions to help low income patients pay for medication or equipment, even though insurance is unlikely to cover these costs.
"Medical marijuana saves lives," said Robert Cordero, President of BOOM!Health. We need to make sure all patients, regardless of income status, can access medical marijuana services in the Bronx and beyond."
Advocates, who worked tirelessly to pass the legislation, are now concerned that they and many others will be left behind. They urged those in attendance to submit public comments and work to make the program as widely accessible to patients in need as possible.
"Having fought hard for the establishment of the medical marijuana program to serve thousands of sick and disabled New Yorkers - including myself - who are in desperate need of safe and legal access, I'm gravely concerned that the State is setting up a two-tier system where low-income and poor people of color are cut out," said Wanda Hernandez, a 20 year survivor of HIV and the Board Chair of VOCAL-NY. "We need our voices heard and our needs met in this process. I'm encouraging everyone who has a stake in this to participate in the public comment period and continue to take action as the program develops."
Other concerns raised at the forum included the limits on who is covered. The proposed regulations only cover ten medical conditions without providing any rationale or transparent process for how additional medical conditions that could benefit from medical cannabis will be added. Some elected officials called on the Department of Health to move quickly to fix these issues when they revise the regulations.
"While New York's medical marijuana program was a major step forward and affirmed the therapeutic value of medicinal marijuana, there are some major imperfections with this law. That is why I introduced Resolution 418 calling upon the New York State Legislature and the Governor to expand the Compassionate Care Act," said Council Member Mark Levine. "The current law excludes many diseases for which there is medical consensus that marijuana can truly benefit patients. Even worse, the bill does not allow patients to smoke marijuana, which advocates agree is the cheapest and most efficient way to consume it, thus adversely impacting low-income patients. In a state with an estimated of 83% of voters in support of medicinal marijuana, we can do better. The time to act is now to make important yet simple fixes to the Compassionate Care Act, which would not only make it a better law but also help fulfill its ultimate goal of comforting people in pain at a time when they need it most."
The regulations also limit the number of producers to five and the number of dispensaries to twenty for the entire state, restrict the kind of medical marijuana available to oils and extracts only, and prohibit each producer from manufacturing more than five strains, even though there are dozens of therapeutic strains for treating a variety of different symptoms and conditions. None of the other twenty-two states with medical marijuana programs include such restrictions.
"Based on the draft regulations, we have serious concerns that New York's program could be overly restrictive and limit patient access," said Julie Netherland, deputy state director at the Drug Policy Alliance. "We hope that, based on this kind of input from the public, the Cuomo Administration will modify the regulations with an eye towards insuring that all who are unnecessarily suffering have safe and legal access to the medicine they need."