New York State

The other argument for recreational pot

State lawmakers tout the potential health benefits of opening marijuana up to everyone.

Girl smoking week closeup

Girl smoking week closeup Stanimir G.Stoev/Shutterstock

The push to legalize marijuana for recreational use is gaining momentum in New York. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon is pushing for it, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signaled that he is open to it and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has concluded that it is inevitable.

Much of this drive appears to come from a social justice campaign to end racial disparities in arrests for marijuana offenses. Nixon made that clear in her campaign video. De Blasio’s new position, which included a demand that the NYPD stop making arrests for smoking marijuana in public, came after reports of enforcement disproportionately affecting black and Latino residents.

But changes could remove or ease restrictions on medical marijuana in New York and might even help to curb the state’s opioid epidemic.

New York has a medical marijuana program, but it is more restrictive than in other states. For instance, a person must be diagnosed with a qualifying condition. While that list was recently expanded to include post-traumatic stress disorder, a patient must still have a “severe, debilitating or life-threatening” condition, which leaves out many others who may benefit from medical marijuana.

However, legalizing recreational marijuana would not automatically mean major changes to medical marijuana. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who chairs the Health Committee, has been pushing to expand the program for the past two years, including legislation that would broaden the list of qualifying conditions. He said that the full legalization of recreational marijuana would not necessarily change the medical marijuana program, and wants to make sure that everyone understands the difference between cannabis for recreational purposes and cannabis for medical purposes.

Though the details of full legalization are still unclear, one thing is certain: It would come with new regulations. The state would likely set quality standards and issue new guidelines for how it could be used in the medical community, according to state Sen. Liz Krueger, who is sponsoring legislation to legalize recreational marijuana.

“I like that if you go to buy something, you will know what it is you’re buying, and somebody won’t be stuffing some stuff in the bag that you really shouldn’t be using,” Krueger said.

“I’m not going around saying it’s the miracle cure for everything. But it seems to be treating the symptoms incredibly effectively.” – state Sen. Liz Krueger

Proponents also argue that marijuana would help combat the opioid epidemic. Although federal law still restricts most marijuana research, multiple studies have found that areas with legal marijuana had fewer opioid-related deaths than in areas without it.

Like Nixon and de Blasio, Krueger was inspired to introduce the bill to end a law enforcement policy that she saw as unfairly affecting minorities. But she also recognized the potential to curb opioid addiction if patients don’t have to rely on highly addictive drugs for pain relief. Krueger said she has followed overseas studies about new and different ways that cannabis can used by the medical community.

“I’m not saying I’m going around saying it’s the miracle cure for everything, but it seems to be treating the symptoms incredibly effectively without putting these patients into physical risk and danger and almost guaranteed addiction,” Krueger said.

She added that even if someone does not receive a prescription for cannabis, it offers a far safer option than other illicit drugs, alcohol or cigarettes for anyone choosing to self-medicate, as it is poses far fewer risks, cannot lead to overdose and is largely not addictive, with the possible exception of those predisposed to addictive behavior.

Of course, Krueger’s legislation has never made it very far in the Republican-controlled state Senate, and neither did the Assembly version of the bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes. In both chambers, the bill never made it out of committee. But Krueger sees that changing. She does not think that the bill will pass this session, but sees it going further than it has before and said that Peoples-Stokes thinks the Assembly version may pass for the first time. Krueger added that she thinks it could pass in the full legislature next year, saying that several upstate Republicans have told her their constituents want them to vote for it.

“Four months ago, I never would have told you that I thought it could pass next year,” Krueger said.

Bills of health

Single-payer health care

Passing single-payer health care has long been a priority for Democrats and progressives in the state. The New York Health Act has passed in the Assembly the past three years. This year, it is on the floor calendar for a vote and is poised to pass again before the end of the session. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also signaled that he would be open to establishing a single-payer system on the state level. However, the bill has never been brought to a vote in the state Senate, something that is unlikely to change this year.

Nurse staffing ratios

The issue of nurse staffing ratios has long been a key issue of the New York State Nurses Association, which has pushed for the passage of the Safe Staffing for Quality Care Act. The legislation is meant to ensure that hospitals maintain a ratio of nurses to patients that does not overwork the nurses and hurt their ability to care for patients. It passed in the Assembly in 2016, but has never made it to a vote in the state Senate, though nurses are still urging the state Legislature to take action. Plus, the bill has faced strong opposition from hospitals and business groups.

Opioid epidemic

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced a plan to introduce supervised injection sites for illegal drug users. The sites are meant to decrease overdose deaths by giving drug users a safer place to get high. However, the plan would require approval from the state Health Department, which ultimately answers to Cuomo. The state Senate also continues to hold public forums and hearings of the Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction. The state Legislature also enacted several pieces of legislation addressing the opioid crisis as part of the state budget, including putting a limit on how long a prescription is valid.

Health insurance guaranty fund

One of the most contentious health measures in the state budget was a health care shortfall fund to brace the state for the potential loss of federal funds, which had been a top priority of the Greater New York Hospital Association. In the second half of the session, GNYHA is now pushing for a health insurance guaranty fund. This would cushion the blow for consumers and health care providers should a health plan shut down, like when Health Republic did in 2015. Legislation to create such a fund is sponsored by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and state Sen. David Valesky, although it has drawn opposition in the state Senate and remains in committee in both houses.