Legal Weed is Coming to New York | Hemp & Weed | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Legal Weed is Coming to New York 

Cannabis and the Empire State

Last Updated: 02/10/2021 2:48 pm
Marijuana flower at Etain's growing facility in Chestertown. Currently licensed in New York to grow and sell medical marijuana, Etain is well positioned to enter the recreational cannabis market.
  • Marijuana flower at Etain's growing facility in Chestertown. Currently licensed in New York to grow and sell medical marijuana, Etain is well positioned to enter the recreational cannabis market.

Persistence pays off in politics, and as Governor Cuomo prepares to present a recreational cannabis bill in the upcoming legislative session for the third time in his tenure, the feeling in Albany is that it will happen this time around.

Approximately 1.3 million people across the state consume THC-based products (the stuff that gets you high—think Cheech and Chong; big, stinky buds). A poll conducted by Spectrum News of Albany and IPSOS Global in October found that 61 percent of respondents favored the legalization of recreational cannabis. In 2018, residents of New York City consumed an estimated 77 tons of cannabis flower—more than any other city on the planet according to a 2018 study from Seedo.

The state's medical cannabis program, launched in 2014, has 133,362 "certified patients," with over 3,000 medical practitioners across New York registered to prescribe medical cannabis (albeit in some derivative form, not flower). Hemp is also big business, with approximately 18,000 acres of the crop being produced by more than 400 licensed growers. But there is a gap. While New York decriminalized recreational marijuana use in 2019—possession of small amounts of the drug are punished with fines rather than jail time—it's still not legal.

Recreational Cannabis: The View from Albany

The financial downturn caused by the pandemic will cost the state a shortfall of almost $63 billion over the next four years, and recreational cannabis would generate an estimated $300 million in additional annual tax revenue—an attractive argument for legalization. (Even if lawmakers legalized marijuana tomorrow, however, it would be years before revenue from the marijuana industry hit the $300 million level.)

Consumer demand remains strong, and with neighboring Massachusetts selling legal weed and New Jersey voters approving recreational marijuana at the polls, New York is late to join the party. Add a Democrat supermajority in both chambers, and the deal seems all but done.

But not everyone at the Capitol is convinced. Senator Pete Harckham (D) serves as Chairman of the Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse and co-chair of the Joint Senate Task Force on Opioids, Addiction & Overdose Prevention, and feels the proposed legislation does not go far enough to address substance abuse, treatment, and education. "The governor's bill is just treated as general tax revenue that goes in the general fund," says Harckham, whose district includes parts of Dutchess, Putnam, and Westchester counties. "We desperately need the money to go toward substance abuse disorder. New York State is woefully underfunded, and during the pandemic the overdose rate has doubled. Treatment providers are hanging on by a thread. This is a real crisis."

But Harckham is not opposed to recreational cannabis. Instead, he points to an alternative bill, S1527B sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D) and Senator Liz Krueger (D), that directs 25 percent of recreational cannabis revenue toward substance abuse, treatment, and education.

"It's all covered," continues Harckham. "There is money in the bill for local police who don't have the resources to address DUIs, money for school districts to address risky behavior, and provisions for opt-out and local zoning."

Another advocate is Melissa Moore, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "We solidly support the Krueger bill because it learns lessons. From an advocacy perspective, the areas that stand out still with the Governor's bill are what we would do with cannabis tax toward social equity and diversity components."

However it shakes out in Albany, change is most certainly needed. Under current legislation, cannabis growers in New York State (whether medical or hemp producers) are not permitted to sell flower, meaning consumers and patients can only attain cannabis byproducts rather than organic plant material.

"It is a public policy failure," says Jason Minard, attorney to Hempire State Growers. "Vapes, which are full of toxins, are in, while natural flower, which farmers can grow and quality control, is out. The ban on flower products has been a major blow to Governor Cuomo's promise to protect the farmer. It is an injustice and doesn't add up."

click to enlarge scenes from Hempire State Growers' Hudson Valley farm: Amy Hepworth, lead farmer, directing farm crew
  • scenes from Hempire State Growers' Hudson Valley farm: Amy Hepworth, lead farmer, directing farm crew

The New York Small Farm Alliance of Cannabis Growers and Supporters (NY Small Farma) is a nonprofit founded to "ensure social and environmental justice for cannabis in New York State," and as vice president Donna Burns, says, "the ability of ordinary people to enter this industry must be recognized. Farm co-ops and sustainability must be embraced as part of the solution. If industrial grow warehouses become the norm, we could see the state's progressive climate goals nullified. The tax scheme needs to expressly incentivize outdoor growing. Leaders should think big and enact small."

click to enlarge scenes from Hempire State Growers' Hudson Valley farm: air drying freshly harvested hemp.
  • scenes from Hempire State Growers' Hudson Valley farm: air drying freshly harvested hemp.

The Medical Opinion

Cannabis remains under close scientific scrutiny, having only been made available for legal study within recent years. But a consensus on patient use is already forming within the medical community, and it is overwhelmingly positive. Dr. Richard Carlton, a specialist in integrative psychiatry based in Port Washington, has been practicing medicine in New York for over 20 years, and began prescribing medical cannabis for his patients in 2013. Inspired by his successes, Carlton has studied the plant ever since. "Cannabis is the most effective pain reliever, bar opioids, on the planet," states Carlton. "But unlike opioids, you cannot overdose on cannabis because there are no receptors in the respiratory and cardiac system of the brain."

Carlton continues: "There are two main cannabis receptors in the brain—and I am oversimplifying—CB1 and CB2. These cannabinoid receptors [part of the endocannabinoid system that regulates and balances processes such as immune response, metabolism, and communication between cells] are hit by the cannabis in the plant."

"Cannabis receptors are presynaptic, meaning they transmit signals in the brain," details Carlton. "When pain is overfiring, postsynaptic neurons are bombarded with pain messages. Cannabinoids hit the presynaptic neuron, causing them to blunt the pain."

Dr. Rachel Kramer, an oncologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital and Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, echoes Carlton's convictions, prescribing both THC and CBD as solutions for pain relief, appetite stimulation, and nausea management. "Narcotics and regular antinausea medications are limited because they cause constipation," explains Kramer, "and chemo patients are frequently constipated due to the side effects of their treatment. Medical marijuana is a way of managing the nausea, appetite, and pain."

Kramer also reassures her patients against historic misconceptions. "There is zero medical basis to suggest that cannabis is a gateway drug. Those who prescribe Percocet—there is no greater gateway drug." Carlton agrees: "It's why oxycodone makers are so opposed to cannabis and fund groups who are opposed to it. Cannabis is the exit to serious addiction; it gets them off the opioid."

However, there are institutional limitations to who can benefit from the medicine. One of Kramer's patients was a police officer, yet he was ineligible for a medical cannabis prescription due to the laws surrounding his employment. "If the plant didn't have THC," explains Carlton, "it would be the most widely prescribed herbal medication. If it were just the other cannabinoids and terpenes, it would be the most widely used drug on the planet. It has been proven in scores of medical conditions—ALS, migraines, Crohn's disease, arthritis, cancer, the list goes on."

The People's Voice

There is more to cannabis and its social impact than bureaucratic posturing and the focusing of microscopes. For over 100 years, the plant has been used as a tool of racial oppression, and the legacy of that mistreatment will take more to unravel than the signing of a bill.

In June 2017, Assembly Member Peoples-Stokes (D) reported that, "Black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for pot. This criminal record follows them and they're essentially locked into a second-class status for life."

Moore of the Drug Policy Alliance agrees. "It isn't enough to simply turn the page. There have been generational socioeconomic impacts as a result of marijuana prohibition and targeted policing, disproportionately in Black communities."

"People may not be aware how much cannabis, race, and drug policy have wound their way around each other. Cannabis possession is the second most stated reason for the preponderance of what immigration officials are using as basis to deport people and destroy families."

Moore relates that prohibition was never founded on pharmacology, but through a desire to control and criminalize populations. "In the nightclubs of the 1920s, white people were freely mixing with people of color. It is then you see a ramping up of legalization campaigns as a way of keeping these populations apart."

"Demonization of this ancient and useful crop was very misguided," says Burns. "This plant has been part of human history for thousands of years. As the 100-year prohibition lifts, we need to create a sustainable path for those who have been harmed by the war on drugs and practices of exclusion."

The path toward recreational cannabis in New York has laid its first stones, its pioneers taking their first steps on what will be a journey of endurance. A stage, if it can be called that, has been set, and the directions from those on the wings call for small, community practices founded in quality, sustainability, and local development. Governor Cuomo knows what needs to be done, the voices around him are loud, clear, and uncompromising: New York could be a model for the rest of the world.

click to enlarge The Canna Provisions dispensary in Holyoke, Massachusetts. If recreational marijuana is legalized in New York, consumers might be able to shop in weed in swank boutiques like this one. - PHOTO BY MELISSA OSTROW
  • Photo by Melissa Ostrow
  • The Canna Provisions dispensary in Holyoke, Massachusetts. If recreational marijuana is legalized in New York, consumers might be able to shop in weed in swank boutiques like this one.
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