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Feds sow confusion over state’s medical marijuana program

ALBANY — A Trump administration decision to take a tougher approach toward pot could have a “chilling effect” on a medical marijuana program that is just finding its footing in New York, key state legislators said Friday.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Thursday that the Department of Justice would aggressively enforce federal marijuana laws, reversing a hands-off approach by the Obama administration that allowed medical marijuana programs to grow in 29 states and spark moves in several states to legalize recreational use.

Though the immediate impact is unknown, patients, their families and businesses said Sessions’ action could undermine New York’s program. Many said Congress had to act to remove marijuana from the list of drugs contained in the Controlled Substances Act.

One activist-turned-state-legislator called the action “unconscionable” and said it reflects Sessions’ lack of knowledge on the issue.

Took action for her son

“I spent years going back and forth with my child, walking the halls [of the State Capitol], testifying at hearings, press conferences and roundtables trying to change minds of people who just didn’t know. People just like him,” said Assemb. Melissa Miller (R-Atlantic Beach). “He has no idea the relief that comes from this medication. . . . His decision puts the program in jeopardy and that is just unconscionable. He should not be interfering.”

Miller, before being elected in 2016, was one of the most recognizable activists in the successful push to win approval in 2014 for New York’s medical marijuana program. The medication helps her teenage son cope with a severe form of epilepsy that triggers constant seizures.

New York is one of 29 states that offer medical marijuana. Though the state has one of the strictest laws, it now has authorized 10 companies that can operate 40 dispensaries. Patient enrollment has grown to 40,000, a boom fueled by the recent addition of chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of ailments approved for treatment.

Even so, companies still are struggling to get bank accounts and insurance — because marijuana is illegal under federal law — and Sessions’ federal action could make matters worse, said another key lawmaker.

“This is an industry which is already fraught with anxiety for any number of reasons,” state Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), one of the prime architects of New York’s medical marijuana law, said. “And this is more than just saber rattling by the [Trump] administration. This will have a chilling effect. You saw it when marijuana stocks took a tumble.”

Indeed, stock prices for prominent marijuana companies dipped 10 percent or more Thursday afternoon after the announcement, The Associated Press reported.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said the state “cannot turn our backs” on enrollees in the state program. He said the state would review the federal decision with the “goal of continuing the program and protecting the patients and providers who participate in it.”

Pot ‘dangerous drug’

Sessions said his decision reflects “Congress’s determination that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime.” He said the Obama policy undermined the “rule of law.”

His decision gives power to the U.S. attorneys across the states to decide whether to prosecute those who violate federal marijuana laws.

“This may result in even more confusion in marijuana policy as some U.S. attorneys may decide to prosecute while others may not,” Heather Trela of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, based in Albany, said in a blog post. “For an industry that already has uncertainty due to federal law, this could potentially introduce more chaos into the mix.”

The Medical Cannabis Industry Alliance, an umbrella group for manufacturers in New York, said Congress should act to clear the waters.

“It’s time for members of Congress that believe in state rights and drug reform to work together to pass bipartisan legislation to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and allow individual states to regulate marijuana as they deem appropriate,” the group said in a statement.

“We fought like animals to get this passed. We changed their minds. We did it,” Miller said about the yearslong effort to legalize medical marijuana in New York. The idea of a rollback, she said is “very scary. Very disturbing.”

State & Region