Budget outlines. Drafted tax proposals. It’s almost a sure bet that New York is going to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis. Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged to legalize recreational marijuana in 2020, and it appears he’s going to work to do just that. The only glitch? After royally screwing up the state’s medical marijuana program, medical marijuana community leaders are extremely wary of how the state would regulate the recreational industry. If done right, though, the industry has the potential to create an economic boost with business opportunities and additional jobs.
Part of the hesitation from the medical marijuana community relates to how Gov. Cuomo rolled out the medical program. Initially, the program prohibited whole-plant cannabis and excluded pain patients, two vast segments of medical marijuana programs in other states. Critics say the medical regulatory model was too restrictive and caution the regulatory bodies from making the same mistake with recreational.
To obtain a license meant spending tons of money, which reduced who could afford to participate– in other words, diversity was nil. Additionally, the program only allowed five vertically integrated licenses, with four locations each, to serve a state with almost 20 million people. Throw in over-regulation, qualification challenges and high costs, and the result was that the medical market lost half of their patients. These folks, sick of jumping through hoops to get their medicine, decided to skip the hassle and get their cannabis through the cheaper and more open, unregulated, illicit market.
Industry stakeholders, burned by the state’s medical program, are weighing in. Hillary Peckham, Chief Operations Officer of Etain, a woman-owned medical marijuana business with operations throughout the state, knows first-hand the struggles faced by the industry. In a recent interview with the Cannabis Business Times, she wants medical marijuana producers to have the option of selling products produced by medical marijuana businesses to their recreational consumers. Peckham’s goal? To “create a program with products and business practices that keep both consumers and public safety at the forefront.”
Product safety and quality is a concern of Adam Goers, too. Still, he’s also weighing in on regulations that include social justice and law enforcement. Goers is vice president of corporate affairs at Columbia Care, a medical cannabis provider with locations in New York and ten other states, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. He expressed concerns that the recreational industry would peddle lesser-quality products than what is currently used by medical patients. He argues that all cannabis users should feel secure that their products are consistently high quality. Peckham echoed Goers, indicating the same stringent standards for microbial, metals and contaminants that medical marijuana must abide by also apply to the adult-use side of the industry.
Most stakeholders agree that easy access to legal, regulated marijuana is essential for patients and recreational consumers alike. With one medical dispensary for every half-million New Yorkers, access is a critical roadblock to progress.
Likewise, the state needs to level the playing field, avoiding exorbitant fees and over-regulation. One way to do that in the event of recreational cannabis legalization is to distribute licenses in a way that reflects the population’s diversity and geography. Those in rural, upstate areas should have the same access as those in urban areas.
Access would also improve if physicians could certify medical patients without having to pay for a unique course, which in effect limits the number of qualifying patients. Another barrier to access is reasons for qualification — right now, only people with a ‘qualifying condition’ can participate in the medical program. Peckham believes that as long as their doctor thinks they will benefit from cannabis, that alone should suffice for qualification.
One final piece in the puzzle that medical marijuana advocates are fighting for would benefit the adult-use market. We’re talking about convenience factors like driver requirements, additional testing labs, and eliminating tedious travel requirements. The state’s medical marijuana regulations require two drivers to transport products. Industry insiders want to drop the rule, claiming that it only serves to complicate things.
By the same token, the limited number of testing laboratories now available to medical marijuana producers would be even more tiresome if they were also testing adult-use cannabis. Combine the two-driver rule with limited labs available for testing, and you have a recipe for long delays, consumer inconvenience and missed income opportunities.