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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

State paves path for medical marijuana

Erik Williams wants to do business in New York.

But first he needs the state Legislature to legalize his business.

Williams is director of government, public and patient relations for Gaia Plant-Based Medicine, a Colorado company that grows and sells medical marijuana.

Unlike many entrepreneurs, he regards New York’s reputation and history of strong regulation as an asset.

“It’s important for us to only be in states with a strong regulatory structure,” he told me. “We put it all on the line by growing and selling a federally illegal product.”

“We are pushing to have this passed this year,” Williams said. “It’s clearly a lengthy process.”

In Albany, Gaia is represented by Pataki administration veteran Patrick McCarthy, a lobbyist with the firm Mercury Public Affairs.

“Our goal is to create a safe, limited regulatory structure for patients who need it,” he said. “We’re trying to make it clear that medical marijuana is not code for legalization.”

In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a big splash by calling for the creation of a research program that would permit 20 hospitals to dispense pot to patients with certain serious ailments, such as cancer. But the budget made no mention of the program, and contained no funding for it. Meanwhile, support for the Compassionate Care Act, which would create a more comprehensive medical marijuana program, appeared to be growing. Would lawmakers be willing to work out some kind of medical marijuana deal?

Right now, the answer appears to be yes.

Advocates for medical marijuana say they’re optimistic, and last week a revised version of the Compassionate Care Act was introduced, in the hopes of making the legislation more palatable to lawmakers still on the fence. McCarthy and Williams both emphasized that they don’t want to emulate the loosely regulated medical marijuana industry in California, where pot is prescribed for minor ailments such as headaches and federal raids on dispensaries occur regularly.

“We want to help people who are seriously ill,” McCarthy said, “not someone with a hacky-sack injury.”
I’ve looked at the legislation, and it does what McCarthy and Williams say it does — establish a tightly controlled system for growing and dispensing medical marijuana. As a supporter of medical marijuana, I’d like to see it passed this spring.

If passed, the CCA would create a medical marijuana program similar to the one that exists in Colorado, where Gaia operates three dispensaries, in Colorado Springs, Denver and the rural town of Berthoud.

The bill calls for a “seed to sale” system where organizations — perhaps Gaia would be one of them — are licensed to grow, transport and sell marijuana.

Medical marijuana would only be available to certified patients with serious illnesses and life-threatening conditions, and treatment would be overseen by a medical professional. Patients would be prohibited from possessing more than 21⁄2 ounces of marijuana, and dispensaries would be required to report all sales to the state Department of Health.

“The plant is tracked from its time in the dirt until it gets to the patient,” McCarthy explained when I met with him in his office in downtown Albany. The idea, he said, “is to eliminate leakage of the product.”

One of the recent revisions to the bill bars patients under the age of 21 from smoking marijuana, though they would be permitted to use it in vaporized or oil form. Another requires that medical marijuana be dispensed in a sealed and properly labeled package. About 20 ailments, including cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder and multiple sclerosis, would be eligible for treatment; previously, medical professionals were allowed to determine whether a medical condition or illness was serious enough to warrant treatment with medical marijuana.

To me, the legalization of marijuana represents an opportunity to help people who are in pain. But to others, it represents a business opportunity.

Gaia might believe in the medicinal benefits of marijuana, but it also sees New York as a potential market. Which isn’t a bad thing — establishing a statewide medical marijuana program will require the participation of savvy companies that are willing to take risks.

“This is a long-term prospect for us,” Williams said. “We’re here for the long haul.”

It’s tough to predict what the state Legislature will do, but I’m feeling strangely optimistic, and I suspect it’s only a matter of time before New York becomes the 22nd state to legalize medical marijuana.

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