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Danks for Nothing: NYS’s Restrictive New Medical Marijuana Law

Steven Wishnia Jul 16

New York’s new medical marijuana law, passed last month after last-minute negotiations among Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislators from three party factions, is one of the two most restrictive of the 23 state laws that permit some form of medical cannabis use. 

The law allows marijuana use for only ten conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord damage causing spasticity, epilepsy and inflammatory bowel disease. Cuomo insisted on deleting ten others, including muscular dystrophy and post-traumatic stress syndrome, before he would sign the bill. Even in its earlier form, the law would not have allowed cannabis use for conditions such as chronic pain. The herb will be distributed by up to 20 dispensaries that are supposed to open within 18 months. New Jersey, which has less than half as many people and less than one-sixth the land area, authorizes 10, although only three have opened since its law went into effect in 2010.

Most notably, the New York law prohibits patients from smoking marijuana on health grounds, upon Cuomo’s insistence. Instead, it permits dispensaries to sell cannabis food products (“edibles”) and extracts, including preloaded electronic cigarette products. It may also prohibit patients from vaporizing marijuana — although that and smoking are the simplest and most effective ways for people to get the drug into their systems immediately.

Will patients be able to get actual marijuana for vaporizing? “We don’t know,” says Julie Netherland of Compassionate Care New York — it would have to be approved by the state health commissioner. 

Medical marijuana providers in Colorado and elsewhere have developed various cannabis extracts, tinctures and oils in the last few years. The concern about such products, says Netherland, is that if taken orally, they are much slower-acting than smoked or vaporized marijuana, and as they are highly concentrated, they are often more potent — so it’s harder for patients to control their dose.

“It is ironic that at the same time some states are taking a harder look at the consumption of cannabis edibles (e.g., Washington and Colorado), other states like New York are mandating these sort of highly concentrated preparations in lieu of cannabis flowers,” says Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Minnesota’s law, enacted in May, also does not allow patients to have whole-plant cannabis.

Despite all the restrictions, New York’s medical-marijuana program might end up serving thousands of patients, says Netherland. Compassionate Care is pushing the state to get it running as soon as possible, she adds, and to give some patients the right to use it immediately. “A lot of these patients are terminally ill and won’t be here in 18 months,” she says.

HOW I SELF-MEDICATE

I am a medical marijuana user. I have used it for about 20 years to help control and relieve my migraine headaches, which I get on average about two days a week. At least one per month is incapacitating enough to put me in a dark room with a Vicodin and an ice pack on my temple.

I either smoke, vaporize or eat it, depending on the circumstances. When I need a quick dose — such as when I’m trying to abort an oncoming migraine — I vaporize or smoke, as these methods have the most instantaneous effects. The effects of eating it take at least an hour to come on, and are much stronger. 

When I need to stay functional for working or performing music, I use a combination of prescription painkillers and occasional tokes or vaporizer puffs. The marijuana augments the opioids so I don’t have to take as many pills. I can’t eat pot if I have to stay sober enough to work, so I do that only when I have a completely incapacitating headache or when I’m done for the day. (Also, it would hurt my lungs to smoke a dose that big.)

Cannabis was widely prescribed for migraines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the main federal drug law says it has no legitimate medical use. The state laws that allow it often have limitations intended to prevent the appearance of pot-smoking license, at the price of denying access for people in pain. The New York law does not permit marijuana use for migraines, although I could certainly get a recommendation from my doctor. 

Yet I was also unable to obtain it in California, the state widely derided for having the loosest medical pot law in the nation. When I popped a severe migraine while working on a documentary in Oakland in 2010, I went to a dispensary — and was dismissed within three minutes, because I wasn’t a state resident. (Later that night, some kind soul committed a misdemeanor and gave me an appropriately laced brownie.)

In contrast, when I popped a severe migraine on a previous trip to San Francisco, I went to the emergency room and got a prescription for codeine.

— Steven Wishnia