JOHNSTOWN — Another year, another shot at legal marijuana sales in New York.
With marijuana for sale (legally) just across the state border in Massachusetts and legal sales pending in Vermont and New Jersey, New Yorkers will have increasingly easy access to it without breaking the law.
New York state government, meanwhile, is desperate for any source of new tax revenue it can find, and legislators may be more willing to legalize sale for recreational use, a goal that has proved elusive in the past two legislative sessions.
A local medical marijuana producer led journalists through its Johnstown production facility Monday to mark the fifth anniversary of the first harvest there, and to offer a plan of expansion if it can boost its product line to include recreational products.
Over the five years, Vireo Health International has more than doubled its workforce in the Tryon Industrial Park to about 40 people. It said Monday it has secured an option to buy up to 96 acres of the former state youth detention facility if it gets the green light to enter the recreational market in New York.
Production and sale of marijuana for treatment of various medical conditions is highly regulated in New York. With the limitations placed on it, and with recent competition from swarms of retailers offering CBD, a key marijuana extract, the medical market in New York has not been as lucrative or grown as quickly as some had hoped.
Recreational use — getting high for fun rather than medicating for pain or anxiety — holds the potential for a significant increase in sales, and high-tech operations like Vireo have all the infrastructure in place to jump into that market.
The initial push in early 2019 to legalize recreational use — or “adult use,” as the industry prefers to call it — bogged down amid debate over how the business opportunities and revenue from legalization would be channeled to benefit communities disproportionately harmed by the decades-long war on drugs. (Those arrested and imprisoned for breaking drug laws now criticized as overly harsh were, in many cases people of color.)
The issue also went nowhere in early 2020, amid the COVID crisis.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo predicts movement in 2021, during the next legislative session.
He said Thursday on WAMC radio: “I think this year it is ripe because the state is going to be desperate for funding, even with Biden, even with the stimulus, even with everything else, we’re still going to need funding. And it’s also the right policy. So I think we get there this year.”
Vireo hopes so.
“We are waiting on adult use passing in New York state,” said Kaitlyn Nedo, general manager of the Johnstown facility. “It hasn’t the past couple of years but we are hoping that it will in the coming year or potentially the next year.”
Vireo Chief Medical Officer Dr. Stephen Dahmer said he expects there will be a racial justice component in whatever form of legalized recreational marijuana use is enacted in New York, and he believes there should be. He said minority communities should be specifically offered a chance to reap the economic benefits of legalization.
A key step in all this would be the federal government removing marijuana from its list of Schedule I controlled substances — those with high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use, a list also includes heroin, LSD, ecstasy and peyote.
As long as marijuana is a Schedule I drug, it can’t legally be transported across state lines, so efforts to produce and market it are hampered.
Dahmer said de-listing marijuana would open up funding for research to better determine the medical uses of the active ingredients in the cannabis plant. THC and CBD are perhaps the best-known, but there are more than 100 other cannabinoids.
That’s his interest in legalization: With greater use will come more industry interest and more revenue to fund research.
Wouldn’t it also, The Gazette asked him, ease the way for people who just want to get high more easily?
It would, he agreed.
But other legal substances are more harmful, Dahmer said, particularly alcohol and tobacco.
“As a physician, one of the things we look at very closely is harm reduction,” he said. “Alcohol is a big one on my list as a physician. The harm that I’ve seen personally and professionally from alcohol could be markedly minimized in an adult-use program.”
Dahmer added: “I think [legalization] will increase affordability and accessibility, and I think that it can support the medical model that has been going forward for five years in New York.”
Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, the only Capital Region member of the Assembly health committee, said Monday he doesn’t yet have a read on the prospects for legalization in the upcoming legislative session.
There are three schools of thought on the issue, he said: 1) The revenue is critical; 2) there won’t be much revenue but marijuana isn’t harmful enough to warrant criminalization; 3) marijuana use is too great a threat to be legalized. Steck subscribes to the second: The amount of revenue gained from taxing recreational marijuana sales won’t be as much as some people expect, he said, and a good chunk of it will need to be used for increased education, regulation and substance-abuse counseling.
There’s also the lingering question of whether New York can create a recreational marijuana market model that works. Its medical marijuana program has been criticized as too limited for patients, too restrictive for producers, and too expensive for both.
At the Johnstown grow facility, for example, rules range from a ban on male plants to mandatory 16-foot high walls on the two greenhouses Vireo has built, which limits the amount of natural light that is the whole point of building a greenhouse.
Strictly speaking Vireo can’t even sell marijuana for medical purposes in New York. No one can. State law limits medical marijuana to extracts.
But New York is not the hardest state to deal with among the eight where Vireo is licensed to operate, Dahmer said.
As of Nov. 3, 129,316 patients have been certified for treatment and 3,021 healthcare professionals registered to certify patients in New York.