On the road to legalizing recreational weed in New York? (commentary)


New York state’s medical marijuana program is going through some growing pains.

Forgive the pun.

But the trajectory of the program isn’t all that surprising, and nobody should be surprised if it eventually leads to a debate over legalizing marijuana for recreational use in the Empire State.

When the the use of medical marijuana here was first approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo a few years ago, it was meant to provide relief only for certain serious debilitating illnesses, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and seizure disorders.

It was hard to deny people with terminal or incurable illnesses the relief of medical marijuana. The same went for people with epilepsy and seizure disorders, including kids. Who could say no?

So the foot was in the door, and, not surprisingly, that list of covered illnesses has expanded over the last three years. Now you can get medical marijuana for back pain and migraines, among other ailments. This year, the Legislature approved medical marijuana for PTSD.

Again, hard to argue. And isn’t marijuana a better option for people with chronic pain than deadly, addictive opioids? In some states, doctors can prescribe medical marijuana for a wide variety of conditions. It’s almost like there are no limitations. New York could be headed in that direction.

So, the program continues to expand here. There are delivery options so folks who may be disabled don’t have to travel to dispensaries. There are more dispensaries coming. And more physicians to certify people for the program.

The only thing that hasn’t changed is that you can’t use medical marijuana in any kind of smokable form here in New York. You can’t light up a joint and puff away your pain. And that’s a problem for some folks, who complain about the quality of the capsule, oil and vapor forms of medical marijuana that are available here.

It’s also expensive, patients say. And it’s not covered by insurance. And you have to pay cash. It’s apparently so bad that some folks would rather go out and cop weed on the street. That way they get the buzz and don’t have to pay through the nose for it (not to mix drug metaphors).

So, it’s a conversation that we’re going to have to have. Why do we have a medical marijuana program if the people who need it can’t make use of it? Why the roadblocks? Why the high cost? Why is it not covered by insurance? It could be one of the last cash-only businesses left. And why are doctors who have no qualms about prescribing opioids reluctant when it comes to medical marijuana?

And it’s not hard to see that conversation leading to another: If medical marijuana is OK and in wide use, why aren’t we talking about recreational weed? After all, eight states and the District of Columbia allow for recreational weed (and 29 states have medical marijuana). And New Jersey is expected to look at the question after the Garden State’s new governor is sworn in next January. If recreational weed is legalized in New Jersey, it’s going to have a big impact on Staten Island in particular, and will certainly spur debate throughout the state.

Other states have made the journey from medical marijuana to recreational. New York City has already basically decriminalized certain amounts of weed. You’re smelling pot more these days out on the street than you did even a couple of years ago. Plenty of people out there, of all ages, already believe that pot is no more harmful than a couple of glasses of wine, despite the protests of treatment professionals. And, hey, when was the last time you heard of someone overdosing on weed?

So the door is open. Will New York state step through?