Week in Review: New York’s MMJ changes, RI committee finally meets & advocacy group forms

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By John Schroyer and Omar Sacirbey

New York tweaks its medical marijuana program, a Rhode Island MMJ committee meets eight years after its formation, and a new cannabis advocacy group is born.

Here’s a closer look at some notable developments in the marijuana industry over the past week.

Not enough change?

New York’s medical marijuana program implemented two major reforms in recent weeks: Chronic pain is now a qualifying condition, and physician assistants are permitted to certify patients for MMJ.

While that should help make the state’s five licensed MMJ producers more viable business models, further changes are needed if the entire program is to be sustainable, New York industry attorney Lauren Rudick said.

“I do not think it’s going to be enough,” Rudick said. “We still have those THC limits on strains here in New York, which is really unusual. THC is capped at 10%, so the black market is still a very viable option for people who are in a tremendous amount of pain.”

New York MMJ companies have been struggling with low patient counts, a lack of repeat business and high production costs, all of which make long-term business sustainability difficult.

Rudick believes MMJ home delivery would benefit companies, given that many patients live in remote parts of the state without easy access to storefront dispensaries.

But what’s really needed, she said, is a further expansion of the qualifying condition list, more companies (which are likely on the way), increased patient advocacy and physician buy-in.

“There’s just a lot of systemic problems we need to solve,” Rudick said, before adding, “Any progress is progress.”

Rediscovered regulators

A legislative commission established in 2009 to oversee Rhode Island’s medical marijuana program, only to be forgotten for years, announced it will meet for the first time Tuesday.

The Legislative Oversight Commission of the Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act includes patients, politicians, health-care professionals, a retired police chief and a caregiver.

It doesn’t include a representative from the state’s three dispensaries.

Legislators who crafted Rhode Island’s 2009 MMJ law left the cannabis industry off the list of stakeholders they believed belonged on the commission. Because there was no state cannabis industry then – Rhode Island’s first dispensaries didn’t open until 2013 – there was nobody to speak up for industry interests.

But state cannabis businesses needn’t worry, said Chris Reilly, a spokesman for a dispensary, the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center.

He noted that two commission members, Sen. Joshua Miller and Rep. Scott Slater, are strong MMJ advocates and have introduced bills to legalize recreational cannabis.

In fact, the committee and the dispensary Reilly represents are named after Rep. Slater’s father, a former state representative and a fervent MMJ backer.

“Those two individuals are ardent supporters of patient access,” Reilly said, “and I’m sure they’ll lead the group with that in mind.”

The commission is charged with exploring five issues:

  • Patient access.
  • Compassion efficacy.
  • Physician participation.
  • Conditions.
  • Research into the health effects of medical marijuana.

What would the dispensaries like to see the commission consider?

The No. 1 issue, Reilly said, is a 7% sales tax that hurts patients and a 4% gross receipts tax that dispensaries pay monthly.

“We try to make our medicine affordable,” Reilly said, “but when you lop on these taxes, you could be making the medicine cost-prohibitive for some people and forcing them to go to the black market.”

AAA: Another advocacy acronym

The cannabis industry gained another ally in Washington DC with the formation of the New Federalism Fund (NFF).

But with five other national MJ advocacy groups already in existence (and vying for financial donations) – Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Americans for Safe Access (ASA), National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) – some may wonder why there’s a need for a sixth.

For example, there appears to be overlap between the New Federalism Fund and National Cannabis Industry Association: Dixie Brands, an NFF founding member, also has a major presence in NCIA with company CEO Tripp Keber on the group’s board of directors.

New Federalism Fund spokesman Neal Levine – also an NCIA board member and former MPP employee – said the fledgling group plans to push Congress to support states’ rights and tax reform. That mission stands in contrast to broader marijuana-related policy goals, such as removing cannabis from the list of federally controlled substances.

“We’re collaborative with every organization that shares our mission,” Levine said. “We’re seeking simple results: a fair tax and regulatory environment that respects the power of individual states. This is a value add. This is not competitive in any way.”

Levine said the New Federalism Fund has “a different focus, but we have aligned goals” with the other five groups, adding that the NFF “invited advocacy organizations to strategy meetings as we were setting this up.”

NCIA Executive Director Aaron Smith said his group began coordinating with the NFF in January and noted the organizations are “working in synergy.” He also said NFF donations are helping pay for NCIA lobbying efforts.

Asked if he sees a specific need for the New Federalism Fund, Smith said, “… clearly the founders thought that there was, and that’s their prerogative. And I’m glad that we’re continuing to work with them.”

Other organizations, however, seemed at a loss to categorize their relationships with NFF.

Mason Tvert, the Marijuana Policy Project’s communications director, wrote in an email that he doesn’t know much about NFF, but added, “MPP welcomes the opportunity to work with any responsible and effective entity that shares our mission of replacing marijuana prohibition policies with a more sensible, evidence-based approach.”

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said that “generally, we see this as a positive development.” He did not elaborate.

John Schroyer can be reached at johns@mjbizdaily.com

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at omars@mjbizdaily.com