New York Is Legalizing Medical Marijuana: Answers to All Your Burning Questions

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Photo: David McNew/2012 Getty Images

Members of the New York State Legislature have been trying to legalize medical marijuana for nearly two decades, and on Thursday Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders announced that they've finally reached an agreement that will allow sick New Yorkers to use the drug. The specifics were still being hammered out late on Thursday evening, but the bill is expected to pass on Friday, making New York the 23rd state with medical marijuana. Governor Cuomo was initially opposed to legalizing the drug, and in January he proposed a plan to prescribe it in just 20 hospitals for research purposes. The new law will include strict restrictions, including a ban on smoking medicinal cannabis. New Yorkers are understandably excited (a recent poll found 88 percent of voters support medical marijuana), but there are a few things you need to know before you whip out your green corduroy jeans and prepare to enter a hallucinatory state.

When can New Yorkers actually start buying medical marijuana?

After Governor Cuomo signs the bill into law, there will be an 18-month waiting period to give the state time to add regulations, train doctors, and establish growing and distribution centers. The governor will have the power to "pull the plug" at any time if he decides that the program creates a public safety risk. Cuomo insisted on that provision, and another that says the program will expire in seven years, unless lawmakers reauthorize it.

Who will be eligible to buy medical marijuana?

Only people diagnosed with epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's Disease, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, neuropathies, spinal cord injuries, cancer, and HIV/AIDS. According to Syracuse.com, the health commissioner is expected to decide on whether to add Alzheimer's disease, muscular dystrophy, dystonia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and rheumatoid arthritis within the next 18 months, and conditions can be added or removed at any time.

How can New Yorkers get a prescription?

Patients will need to be certified by a doctor who is part of their continuing care, and who's registered with the state's medical marijuana program. They'll receive an ID card, which they must carry at all times. Obtaining the certification will cost $50 per year, but the fee may be waived due to hardship. Terminal patients will qualify for certification that lasts until their death, and other patients can be certified for a year or less, depending on what their doctor recommends. The drug probably won't be covered by insurance plans, as it's still illegal at the federal level.

How will marijuana be grown and distributed?

The drug will be produced, manufactured, and distributed in New York State (though somehow, we doubt it will replace Greek yogurt as lawmakers' favorite locally made product). Five manufacturers will be granted grow licenses by the state, and each will be allowed to run four dispensaries. Legislators can increase those numbers later, if there's greater demand. The dispensaries can be for-profit or non-profit, and guidelines will be developed to ensure that they're spread throughout the state.

There will be a 7 percent sales tax on the pot, and counties where the dispensaries are located will receive 22.5 percent of that revenue. Officials said they have no way of estimating how many people will buy the drug, or how much the state stands to collect in taxes.

What can patients buy? How much will it cost?

Patients can purchase marijuana in various forms – including edibles, tincture, e-cigarette-like vaporizers — but one of the Cuomo administration's major demands was that smoking the drug be banned. It's unclear how much the drug will cost, but it will be up to the health commissioner to set the price. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who sponsored the bill, said patients can be prescribed as much as two ounces of the drug every 30 days, according to Capital New York.

Why no smoking?

"We have spent billions of dollars in the effort to eliminate smoking, and it goes against all the wisdom of public health to turn our backs on all that we have done is this area," acting State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said on Thursday. He claimed edibles, oils, and vaporization can deliver marijuana just as effectively as smoking, but Gabriel Sayegh, the New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance, disagreed. "The cost of purchasing a vaporizer and the extract products will likely leave many low-income patients behind, and there is little research on the long-term health effects," Sayegh told the Daily News. He added, "The decision about the mode of administration for any medication should be left up to doctors and their patients."

Are there any other states that ban smoking?

Of the 22 states that have approved medicinal marijuana, Minnesota is the only one that bans smoking. The law was only passed there last month, and Minnesota won't begin distributing medical cannabis until July 1, 2015.

Could smoking medicinal pot still be added to the law?

While the health commissioner can change some parts of the program, expanding it to include smoking would require another vote by the Legislature.

Will it really be that hard for someone who's relatively healthy (aside from their, uh ... debilitating insomnia and back pain) to obtain a prescription?

Yes, unless you know a doctor willing to risk spending four years in jail. The law will make prescribing marijuana for patients who don't qualify a felony. Anyone else who tries to sell or distribute medical marijuana can be charged with a misdemeanor.

So, when can the rest of us smoke legally?

Several New York legislators introduced a bill in December that would have legalized recreational marijuana, but Cuomo's spokesman called it a "non-starter." During this week's debate, Cuomo described marijuana as a "gateway drug," citing the state's heroin and opiate prescription drug abuse problems, so it appears he's not evolving very quickly on the issue.