Why Nobody’s Buying Legal Marijuana in New York State

drying bud, trimming
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When he signed the country’s most restrictive medical-marijuana program into law in 2014, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wanted to keep marijuana “out of the wrong hands,” as NBC-4 reported at the time.

This was the reasoning behind banning marijuana in its most popular form—that is, marijuana that can be smoked. By his own metric, Cuomo, a 2020 presidential hopeful, has recorded a smashing success, as medical marijuana is extraordinarily difficult to access in New York State.

In a state with a population of nearly 20 million, fewer than 14,000 sick people have managed to find a doctor willing to recommend them medical marijuana as of Feb. 7. This could be because the list of conditions for which marijuana can be recommended was for the first few years limited to terminal illnesses and some of the most debilitating conditions. It could also be because the list of cannabis-recommending doctors is a literal state secret.

Whatever the reason, marijuana is so hard to buy legitimately that half of the patients who do manage to walk into a New York state dispensary and lawfully access cannabis never do so again, according to new state data.

Worse, 25 percent of the state’s so-called cannabis patients have yet to access any cannabis at all.

Through the end of January, “10,250 patients had been dispensed a medical marijuana product,” as the Albany Times-Union reported. “But the number of patients who had been dispensed a product more than once was 6,403.”

The data does not account for patients who died, either after buying a cannabis product once, or before they could visit a dispensary at all—which is a serious issue with the aforementioned restrictions.

It also does not specify how many patients were so shocked with the dispensary prices that they went back to the black market—which, with only five companies licensed to produce cannabis in the entire state, is also a real problem.

It’s a supply-and-demand conundrum, on both ends of the equation. State health regulators say they think they can fix the pricing problem by allowing more companies to cultivate, dispense and sell marijuana. If supply is added, it might not matter, because there’s so little demand.

According to Ari Hoffnung, CEO of Vireo Health in New York City, five companies is four too many. One company would be sufficient to service the state’s patients, even if all 13,000 licensed patients were buying marijuana regularly, he told the Times-Union.

But they aren’t.

And unless the program is overhauled drastically, it’s hard to see how they will. Keep in mind how big the state is—and now imagine choosing between a three-hour drive to buy a pricey cannabis product or breaking the law by either growing your own or patronizing “your guy.” 

Exactly. It’s no choice at all. Thanks, Cuomo.

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