New York Officials Promote Medical Marijuana Program, Encouraging Dispensary Applicants Amid Adult-Use Legalization Rollout

As New York prepares to proceed with hundreds of new marijuana retailer licenses, regulators are aiming to simultaneously expand the state’s existing medical cannabis program, issuing a reminder that they welcome applications from prospective dispensary owners. It’s part of a state effort to balance enthusiasm for adult-use sales with the need to adequately serve patients.

Much of the attention in New York has focused on the adult-use cannabis legalization rollout, including recent settlement agreements approved by the state Supreme Court and the subsequent lifting an injunction that’s blocked regulators from licensing additional recreational shops.

But even as those licenses were held up for months, the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) has been accepting applications for new medical cannabis organizations since October—a window that closes on December 19,

The office is encouraging people to take advantage of the opportunity to expand and diversify the medical marijuana program. At the same time, general adult-use retailer applications are also being accepted through December 18.

Tabatha Robinson, OCM’s deputy director for economic development policy, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Tuesday that regulators have spent a lot of time discussing how to effectively balance the need to implement recreational legalization while ensuring that medical cannabis patients have access to a robust program that meet their needs.

They’ve worked to answer the question: “How can we respect the bifurcated market that we have—a medical market and the adult-use market—and how can we make sure that both are prospering and thriving, but not at the expense of each other?” she said.

Part of that effort was to synchronize the application windows for both license types, so that “opportunities are available for any kind of applicant at the same time.”

Becoming a medical marijuana provider means, of course, grounding the business in a patient-centered structure and understanding the unique market dynamics, Robinson said. The barriers to licensure are “a little bit higher” when it comes to providing medicine, but the state is determined to build out the program under the regulatory framework provided by the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA).

“Public interest is really at the heart of this application,” she said. “We want applicants who will do right by their patients, first and foremost, but also right by their employees, right by the communities in which they operate, right by the environment.”

The application also asks about issues such as how prospective licensees would promote product affordability, equitable employment practices and environmental sustainability.

“These are all things that we are looking for,” Robinson said. “These operators need to prove that they are going to serve patients—but also prove that they’re gonna serve the broader New York State at large.”

While the criteria might be more intensive for medical marijuana businesses, the state’s goal is to bring attention to the application window to expand the candidate pool. That would help support the broader goal of giving the state’s medical cannabis program equitable focus at a time when many eyes are fixed on the burgeoning recreational industry.

In addition to licensing, OCM is also inviting people to share stories about their personal experiences with New York medical cannabis program. The initiative asks practitioners, patients, caregivers and others to fill out “engagement forms” about their participation, which could ultimately inform advertising opportunities and other projects meant to highlight the medical-centered market.

The message New York is hoping to send with these efforts is that “we’re listening to our patients,” Robinson said.

“The medical program first launched in 2015, and the state has come a long way since then,” she said. “A lot of work has been done, and so we are listening to our patients to find out where they are now.”

The state’s adult-use marijuana market, meanwhile, is now positioned to significantly expand in light of the court settlement of a pair of lawsuits that have held up the licensing process for hundreds of retailers since August.

Amid the protracted rollout, illicit cannabis operators have proliferated across the state, prompting the governor to announce that they would be “ramping up” enforcement.

In October, the New York Senate Cannabis Subcommittee, which was established in April and is being chaired by Sen. Jeremy Cooney (D), heard from witnesses and discussing potential legislative solutions to the state’s ongoing cannabis legalization implementation problems.

Meanwhile, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) recently signed legislation that attempts to make it somewhat easier for financial institutions to work with state-licensed cannabis clients.

She also signed a separate bill that’s meant to provide tax relief to New York City marijuana businesses that are currently blocked from making federal deductions under an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code known as 280E.

While Hochul signed a an earlier budget bill last year that included provisions allow state-level cannabis business tax deductions—a partial remedy to the ongoing federal issue—New York City has its own tax laws that weren’t affected by that change. The new measure is meant to fill that policy gap.

Last week, the governor additionally approved legislation that will allow hemp seeds to be included in animal feed for pets, horses and camelids such as llamas and alpacas.

As part of the state’s effort to speed consumer access to legal marijuana, regulators also launched a program, known as the Cannabis Growers Showcase (CGS), an initiative of OCM that allows licensed growers and processors to sell directly to consumers.

Regulators voted to approve that program in July and quickly began accepting applications. The first pop-up event kicked off in the Hudson Valley in August, and another was held down the road from this year’s state fair.

In September, 66 state lawmakers—about a third of the entire state legislature—also wrote to Hochul urging her to sign a bill that would allow licensed marijuana producers to sell products to tribal retailers. The plan would offer a release valve to hundreds of cannabis farmers who are currently sitting on surpluses but have no place to sell their products.

Meanwhile, New York regulators are working to debunk what they say is the “false” narrative that cannabis is commonly contaminated with fentanyl—a “misconception” that remains “widespread” despite a lack of evidence. OCM recently put out a factsheet on the issue, acknowledging that while fentanyl has been found in drugs like MDMA and heroin, anecdotal claims about marijuana laced with the potent opioid are so far unfounded.

The state’s Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS) also recently revised guidance around THC testing for people in treatment for substance use disorder, advising marijuana screening only in cases where “the patient has identified a reduction in, or cessation of cannabis as part of their treatment goals.”

Last month, on the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday, regulators encouraged people to take advantage of the deals and support small businesses by shopping for cannabis at licensed retailers.

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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