Medical marijuana expansion could be steppingstone to recreational legalization in New York

Pioneers of New York’s medical marijuana program are expressing cautious excitement over the prospect of adult use legalization.

“This industry is probably the fastest moving industry there is right now,” said Jeremy Unruh, director of public and regulatory affairs for PharmaCann LLC, which operates a dispensary in the Bronx.

Unruh suggested the state’s medical marijuana program could serve as a steppingstone as lawmakers move closer toward legalizing recreational use of the drug, but he also warned of a much-needed expansion to the current system before the average New Yorker is allowed to legally light up.

“I think that there are some intermediate steps that ought to be taken before adult use comes to fruition, but we’re very encouraged by the openness of policy makers to explore an expansion of the existing medical marijuana program and transition into adult use,” Unruh, 47, said by telephone on Tuesday.

Several state bills have been put forth related to marijuana consumption in New York, including one sponsored by Sen. Liz Krueger that would legalize and tax marijuana for adults over the age of 21.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, has said he would order the NYPD to issue summonses instead of arresting people who are caught smoking marijuana, citing the likelihood of legalization in the future.

The announcement comes amid a flurry of elected officials expressing support for legalizing recreational use, including Public Advocate Letitia James, who has launched a bid to become the state attorney general. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance also recently said that beginning in August, he would no longer prosecute marijuana possession and smoking charges unless the case posed a threat to public safety.

If the state does legalize adult use, NYU professor of public policy Mark Kleiman, 66, said he would like to see a model that is different from the way alcohol or cigarettes are sold, since those industries, he said, exploit consumers who continually buy their products.

“It’s a very bad idea to set up a commercial industry in an abusable commodity,” he said. “I would like to see nonprofits in the business; I would like to see state stores, lots of co-ops.”

There are several issues that need to be resolved, however, before adult use should be legalized, primarily with regard to patient access and statewide testing.

Nicholas Vita, CEO of Columbia Care, which operates a dispensary in Manhattan and is planning to open another in Brooklyn this summer, warned of quality control issues if the state moves too quickly.

“We believe that this is a net positive, particularly if New York does it the way it approached the medical program, which is a very methodical, disciplined rollout that focused on standards and quality,” Vita said of the prospect of marijuana legalization.

Even if there is an increase in operators in New York, Vita believes the state’s focus on quality and control of the product will remain a priority.

“You never want to have any products that are available to the general public that aren’t properly tested,” he added.

Whether it’s the difficulty of finding a physician, affording a physician or having to drive more than two hours to the nearest dispensary, Unruh said a lack of patient access is inhibiting the current program and could prevent adult use legalization from being effective if the issues are not addressed.

While there are about 20 million people living in the state of New York, there are just over 56,000 people enrolled in the state’s medical marijuana program. Considering the list of debilitating conditions to qualify, including cancer and HIV, Unruh said the number of certified patients could and should be much higher.

The current medical marijuana program allows 10 licensed companies to operate four dispensaries each, but a bill being considered in the state Senate would allow each of the organizations to open up to 25 dispensaries.

Unruh said the bill would serve a number of goals: improving patient access while simultaneously scaling regulators into a better position for an adult use industry, among them.

“If you’re going from 56,000 patients and 20 dispensaries up to whatever the market looks like in an adult use framework, which I have to think is hundreds and hundreds of thousands of consumers, that’s like going from zero to 1,000,” he said. “They need to figure out how to expand the existing medical program to ramp into that, just from a regulatory perspective.”

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Diane Savino, would also address Vita’s concerns about quality and control by increasing the number of testing facilities in the state from one to three.

Regardless of what adult use legalization comes to look like in the state, Vita said he’s not at all concerned about his company being pushed out of the market.

“There is a huge medical need, and more importantly I think there’s a very substantial demand profile for high quality manufactured products that can be used for lifestyle purposes,” he said.

Kleiman also argued there likely would still be a market for medical marijuana products, particularly for users with compromised immune systems that require a higher contamination standard.

“Leave the producers in place and let the sellers have two windows,” he said.

As New Yorkers watch the progress of decriminalizing marijuana unfold, Vita said he hopes that policy makers are using data rather than emotion to make legislative decisions.

“Ultimately, what we don’t want to happen is for a program to be rolled out that isn’t well thought out and it doesn’t have all of the unintended consequences addressed beforehand,” he said.