Since Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act (N.Y. Pub. Health L. §3369 (2014)) (CCA), into law in July 2014, legalizing medical marijuana in New York state, the landscape for legal cannabis in New York has changed considerably. What originally was seen as one of the most restrictive medical marijuana laws in the country, viewed by some as so narrow and limited in scope that it was intended to fail, has evolved considerably as the atmosphere in the United States with regard to legal access to marijuana has changed.
The medical marijuana program created by the CCA, administered through the State Department of Health, established five “Registered Organizations” (ROs) for the distribution of cannabis. Each of these entities is allowed to be involved in all phases of the medical marijuana project created by the statute, from cultivation of marijuana plants to retail sales of the product. Cannabis, which was to be available only in capsules or liquid and oils (for vaporization or inhalation), may only be sold through authorized dispensaries. Each Registered Organization, however, was allowed to have only four dispensaries—a total of 20 in a state of more than 19 million people. Participation in the program was limited to persons with a handful of serious conditions—including cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis—and thus excluded many individuals who might benefit from it.
Further, to participate in the program an individual must be certified by a physician who is registered with it. One significant provision in the CCA that received little attention at the time it was signed deems persons covered by the program to be disabled under the New York State Human Rights Law. N.Y. Executive Law §296 (2005). And, the CCA prohibits any criminal penalties for physicians, patients or ROs for participating in the program.
Implementation of the CCA began in 2015 when the New York State Department of Health promulgated regulations. On July 31st of that year, licenses were awarded to five ROs and a certification course for physicians became available. ROs began dispensing medical marijuana to patients in January 2016. That same month, the first major change in the CCA’s initially narrow reach took place: Nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants were permitted to certify patients to take part in the program in addition to doctors, greatly increasing the number of practitioners potentially authorized to approve new patients for using medical marijuana. Noah Potter, Presentation at the New York State Bar Association, Committee on Cannabis Law: Cannabis Law in New York and in the United States (Jan. 23, 2018).