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Expand medical marijuana in NY

Curaleaf celebrates the grand opening of New York

Curaleaf celebrates the grand opening of New York State's newest medical cannabis dispensary on Feb. 18, 2019 in Carle Place. Credit: Howard Schnapp

I spent a great deal of time in Albany years ago fighting for common-sense legislation in hopes of taking patients like me, people who rely on medical marijuana on the advice of a physician, off the political battlefield. I had high hopes for the bill that ultimately passed in 2014, but the fact is that the law has not worked for patients, and it’s time for New York to face the issue of cannabis reform before the end of session this year.

The medical cannabis law of 2014 was, in retrospect, shortsighted and placed too many regulatory burdens on patients, dispensaries and other industry participants. The list of conditions was too limited and left many patients out in the cold. Further, the regulatory burdens placed on industry participants led to few products being available, and those products that were available were often so expensive as to be unaffordable for most normal New Yorkers.

While regulatory changes in 2016 added post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain to the list of eligible conditions, the program still serves just a fraction of eligible patients and unnecessary roadblocks remain. While New York State has more than 19 million residents, some 100,000 patients participate in the program. In other states, 11 percent participation in medical cannabis programs is about average. As of last year, New York’s participation rate is around 0.5 percent.

This session, the State Legislature is contemplating cannabis reform legislation that would expand the number of dispensaries from four per licensee to eight per licensee. The proposals also expand patient eligibility, promote needed research into the medicinal benefits of cannabis and make a point to add licenses with the goal of increasing participation in the industry by minority- and women-owned businesses. Each proposal has merit, and I’d encourage the legislature not to let the session end without passing meaningful cannabis reform legislation.

Legislators should keep in mind that New York has effectively been the marijuana arrest capital of the world, with nearly 800,000 arrests for possession of personal-use quantities of cannabis over the past 20 years. In 2016, 80 percent of those arrested were black or Latino. Simply put, when a white kid from the Upper East Side gets caught with personal-use cannabis, it’s a “phase” or “normal teenage rebellion.” When a black or Latino kid in the South Bronx gets caught, it becomes a criminal justice issue. Cannabis reform isn’t about making it easier for people to get high; it’s about remedying systemic racism. And to do that, legislators should look at options to provide restorative justice by wiping clean convictions for simple possession of cannabis statewide.

I’ve spent almost two decades traveling around the country hearing from patients. These people are not potheads; they suffer from multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, intractable chronic pain and more. I’ve met children with severe seizure disorders for whom only cannabis medicine provides relief. Legislators should look for ways to give patients safe access to medical cannabis and to combat the stigmas they face today.

I’ve seen the consequences of incomplete reform. It’s long past time for Albany to improve on the existing program and act to remedy the disastrous consequences of cannabis prohibition like the racial disparity in arrests, the prohibition on research or the fact one can lose one’s job or one’s housing over cannabis consumption. Government policies always pick winners and losers and the only winners in cannabis prohibition are the drug cartels.

Legislators have a chance before session ends next week to build a better, more inclusive program, and I hope they won’t let this chance pass. Seriously ill New Yorkers and those dealing with a lifetime of consequences from minor cannabis-related offenses desperately need relief.

 Montel Williams, a former TV and radio host, is the founder of the MS Foundation, which he established after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Williams is the majority owner of Lenitiv Scientific, which markets his line of cannabis products.