Log In Registration

Into the Shallow Weeds

With a majority of Americans now favoring total legalization, critics say Gov. Cuomo’s plan to allow limited medical marijuana isn’t enough, and might not work anyway

by Erin Pihlaja on January 9, 2014



Photo by Erin Pihlaja

“Twenty states have already started to use it, let’s now initiate a program allowing up to 20 hospitals to prescribe medical marijuana and we will monitor the program to evaluate the effectiveness and the feasibility of a medical marijuana system,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said to the packed Empire State Convention Center during his 2014 State of the State address on Wednesday afternoon (Jan. 8). 

The statement, met with little to no applause, came on the heels of a widely reported rumor that he would legalize the distribution of the substance under certain conditions. In the past, Cuomo has either dodged the issue or flat out opposed it. In April he told the press: “I do not support medical marijuana. I understand the pros and cons. I understand the argument. We are looking at it, but at this point, I don’t support medical marijuana.”

Needless to say, that when it leaked that he would announce his support in New York state, many people—pro-weed or not—were twittering. But with 20 states in the country having already passed some sort of legislation legalizing the use of marijuana to combat certain medical conditions (and two legalizing recreational use), the governor of the state whose financial industry keeps the heart of the nation beating came out moderately on an issue that is quickly becoming less of a moral discussion, and more of one that is all about policy. 

It was President Bill Clinton who once famously said that he had tried pot but “didn’t inhale.” More than 20 years later, President Barack Obama didn’t try to deny his marijuana use (“The point was to inhale”). In just over two decades, weed had gone from a political death sentence to carefully worded public admission. Washington and Colorado states have gone from limited medical usage to full legal recreational usage. But it was California, in 1996, that really set the stage and became an example for the rest of the watching world, many interested in taking the sale of cannabis from a back-alley stigma to the prescription of a medical doctor and eventually to a reputable dispensary counter. 

It was a pioneer move, and things didn’t go very smoothly. The state is largely “blue” along the coast, and “red” heading east. “Outside of Orange County,” says Mitch Earleywine, who lived in Los Angeles when Prop 215 passed with a 56 percent majority vote, “they didn’t want dispensaries. But in areas where we’ve seen medical cannabis since California, we haven’t seen that weird gold rush feel.”

Earleywine used to give guest lectures at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy on medical dosages of marijuana. “Every MD I know wants to know, ‘How much medicine am I giving?’” he says. “They want data like, 24THC or 1CBD, not Vulcan Kush or something crazy like that.” 


Mitch Earleywine. Photo courtesy of Mitch Earleywine.

Earleywine is now a professor of psychology and the Director of Clinical Training at the University at Albany. He was on the faculty at the University of Southern California for 14 years before moving to the Capital Region. He also wrote Understanding Marijuana and more than 100 publications on addictions and is on the executive board at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). 

“The key will be making it clear that there really is data in support of this, compelling data,” he says. “It’s not some scam for recreational use.” 

And as for all of those crazy names given to different strains of weed? It’s going to be something the medical community and growers need to collaborate on in order to avoid the culture collision that is inevitable between those who are pro-medical usage and those who are not. “Strains high in CBD [Cannabidiol], these ridiculous names don’t sound like medicine. Harlequin is the most widely used, but how does that sound?” he says.

The data is readily available, says Martin Lee, author of Smoke Signals, a book detailing the social history of marijuana. Lee also is a journalist who covered a lot of what was going on in 1996-era California. He saw the clashes between law enforcement and the legal dispensaries and says that it “drew him in.” Today he has helped to launch projectcbd.org, an initiative to help spread awareness about CBD, a component of marijuana that has medicinal properties but is not psychoactive—it doesn’t get you high. 

Lee points to CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who has celebrated CBD for helping to fight seizures that were once untreatable. “All adult mammals create new brain cells and processes that are activated by THC,” Lee says. He adds that amateur growers have inadvertently bred out CBDs from their strains, and many, like Earleywine, feel like regulations are the key to ensuring that breeding doesn’t erase CBDs completely. 

“There are great productive strains,” he says. “The ingenuity of the underground is astounding, with talent like the nano guys who could create strains for all kinds of symptoms.”

Gov. Cuomo isn’t pushing through new legislation that will regulate medical marijuana the way some would like; he will likely enact an executive order on an existing public-health law from 1980 called the Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substance Therapeutic Research Program. The law is focused on those suffering from extremely serious, and often fatal ailments. It has never been implemented in New York state. Some also say that it won’t be effective. 

“The proposal will likely be unworkable because it is expected to rely on federal agencies’ cooperation and/or hospitals violating federal law,” reads a statement released by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the nation’s largest marijuana policy organization.

“We’re pleased to learn Gov. Cuomo is among the 77 percent of Americans who recognize the legitimate medical benefits of marijuana,” says MPP director of state policies Karen O’Keefe from the same statement. “Unfortunately, his plan will not allow New Yorkers to access or use medical marijuana anytime soon.”

The release went on to explain why the organization thinks the governor’s plan will fail: “The National Institute on Drug Abuse is the sole source of federally legal marijuana. . . . If the program used federal marijuana, the Food and Drug Administration would need to approve of the state’s research protocol. . . . The Drug Enforcement Administration, which has been a vehement opponent of medical marijuana legislation, would need to approve Schedule I licenses for the physicians who would be administering the program in the 20 participating hospitals. It would also need to oversee the handling of marijuana during every step of the process, which would likely include (but not be limited to) the storage of marijuana in locked facilities in 20 hospitals. . . . The program would be administered by hospitals, which are federally regulated and typically unwilling to engage in activities that are illegal under federal law, such as distributing confiscated marijuana.”

“I’m concerned because I think a lot of people who could benefit won’t have access to it,” says Earleywine. 

“It’s a wait-and-see attitude,” says Lee. “There is an overwhelming pro-choice medical marijuana attitude, but there’s also a disconnect with the cultural consensus. It’s hard for even people who use medical marijuana to understand why it works, it’s even harder to people who don’t use it.” 

“Medical marijuana polls better than he does,” Earleywine says of Cuomo’s public support. “The clincher is having things as restricted as they are now as long as he can be flexible relatively quickly. By keeping dispensaries with the kind of regulations . . . not near schools, liquor stores. . . . This could be a huge success.”

“Historically we might look back and see it as what started the change,” Lee says of the money and freedoms lost to the war on marijuana. “Twenty years from now we might look back on this and go, ‘What was all the fuss about?’”