New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) took marijuana reform supporters by pleasant surprise when he endorsed legalization last year after previously calling cannabis a “gateway drug” that should remain prohibited. But for advocates, there was at least one major disappointment in store when he got around to revealing the details of his plan: the proposal, unveiled as part of his budget last month, would ultimately include a ban on home cultivation of recreational marijuana.
Home growing—seen by many as a commonsense policy that ensures access to cannabis for individuals who can’t afford retail prices, live too far from a dispensary or just want to flex their green thumbs—has been a feature of almost all legal adult-use marijuana systems operating in the U.S., with the exception of Washington State’s. So what’s behind the New York governor’s opposition to letting adults cultivate their own crops?
It could be that Cuomo took a page from the commercial cannabis industry. Literally.
Roughly a month before the governor announced the details of his legalization proposal, a New York-based marijuana business association—led by the executives of the state’s major licensed medical cannabis providers—sent a policy statement to Cuomo’s office in the interest of offering “some thoughts on various issues associated with a transition from medical to adult-use.”
One of those thoughts centered on the businesses’ desire to prevent consumers from growing their own marijuana.
Politico first reported the existence of the document, created by New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association (NYMCIA), in December. This month, Marijuana Moment obtained the full 29-page memo through a state freedom of information law request.
There are some broad recommendations that most legalization supporters would take no issue with, such as encouraging individuals from communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition to participate in the legal industry and leveraging partnerships to expand research into medical cannabis.
But a chapter titled “The Fallacy of Home Grow” makes very specific—and, in the eyes of advocates, misleading—arguments against allowing marijuana cultivation for personal use.
The group recognized that people want home cultivation because of “currently high prices of medical marijuana” or because they see it as an “individual civil liberty.” But according to NYMCIA, home cultivation “creates a significant public safety and black market risk.”
The industry organization listed five claims to support that argument:
1. Home grow will make it impossible for the state to eliminate the black market.
2. Home grow will make it impossible for law enforcement to distinguish between legal and illegal products, thus frustrating enforcement efforts.
3. Home grow will undermine the state’s harm reduction goal of ensuring that cannabis sold in New York State is grown without noxious pesticides or other contaminants.
4. Home grow will undermine the state’s public health interest in ensuring that cannabis sold in New York State is tested, packaged, and and labeled correctly.
5. Home grow will cost the state tax revenue, thus hindering the state’s ability to fund priorities such as drug abuse treatment and community investment.
Per that last point, it’s entirely reasonable to assume that New York state would miss out on some sales tax revenue if residents decided to grow their own plants. But the other side of that dilemma is that it’d likely mean missed profits for cannabis businesses, including those affiliated with NYMCIA.
“From our perspective, it’s really hard to see any real reason—other than individual and corporate greed—to be against home cultivation at this point,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “There’s not a lot of rational concerns when it comes to allowing a limited amount of plants for an individual to grow at home.”
Melissa Moore, New York deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, also pushed back against NYMCIA’s claim that a home grow option would make eliminating the illicit market “impossible.”
It’s the “fallacy of ‘The Fallacy of Home Grow,'” as she put it. It would make more sense to attribute difficulties reducing illicit market sales to state tax rates on retail cannabis, she said in a phone interview.
“It’s really disingenuous to try to say that it would not be possible to eliminate the illicit market if we allow for home grow. That certainly hasn’t been the experience of other states that allow home grow.”
Moreover, NYMCIA’s position is not consistent with that of other marijuana industry groups such as the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), which argues that allowing home growing can actually benefit businesses.
“NCIA does not oppose limited home cultivation,” Morgan Fox, media relations director at the group, said in an email. “In fact, it can act as an incubator for people to develop skills which can be used in the legal cannabis industry, which benefits businesses as well as individuals looking to enter the market. Much like home brewing has helped spur interest the craft beer market, limited home cannabis cultivation can do the same in legal states.”
Who is involved in NYMCIA and why do they want to ban home cultivation?
Marijuana companies Columbia Care, Etain, PharmaCann, The Botanist and Acreage NY, Vireo Health and MedMen were all listed as members of NYMCIA in the memo to Cuomo’s office. (MedMen later acquired PharmaCann, and more recently, NYMCIA urged MedMen to leave the association amid a controversy over racist remarks allegedly made by the company’s executives).
(A separate controversy previously enveloped Columbia Care, which owns dispensaries and grow facilities in multiple states, after its Massachusetts-based subsidiary, Patriot Care, was discovered to be advocating against letting certain people with past drug convictions work in the legal cannabis industry).
Acreage Holdings, a cannabis firm that Republican former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner joined as a board member, declined to comment for this story through a public relations firm that represents the company.
A MedMen spokesperson said in a statement to Marijuana Moment that it “respects the right of those who choose to cultivate cannabis for their personal use,” but did not respond to specific questions about the company’s involvement in drafting the policy statement that urged New York officials to continue prohibiting such activity.
Jeremy Unruh, director of public and regulatory affairs at PharmaCann, told Marijuana Moment that the document “was our industry association’s first go at formulating some broad policy positions” prior to meeting with the governor’s office and that the company’s “position on home grow is far more nuanced than a simple approve/oppose.”
“Those policy points you have are sound, but our positions have evolved (and will continue to do so) as we’ve had a chance to socialize these concepts” with other stakeholders, Unruh said. He argued that New York has superior quality control standards in place for medical cannabis and that while the company recognizes “the nature and value of civil liberty” of home cultivation, allowing it would pose public health risks.
But ultimately, “Our position is this: We support the governor’s homegrow proposal,” he wrote in an email.
While recommending that lawmakers ban personal cultivation of recreational marijuana, Cuomo did include a home grow option for medical cannabis patients in his budget plan.
(Full disclosure: Several members of the companies involved in NYMCIA support Marijuana Moment through monthly Patreon pledges, or have in the past.)
Cannabis reform advocates aren’t buying NYMCIA’s claims.
It is quite obvious that NYMCIA’s affiliates have a financial stake in the shape of whatever marijuana law eventually emerges from the New York legislature. And their opposition to a home grow option is a point of concern for advocacy groups.
“[T]o advocate against home cultivation given all we know about how it works in practice from the industry side really just is kind of despicable and illustrates their greed, that they’re willing to sacrifice individual freedoms for the slightest increase in their profits,” NORML’s Altieri said.
The association’s recommendation also runs counter to what Marijuana Moment was previously told by the vice president of corporate communications for Vireo Health, Albe Zakes.
Asked about the memo following the initial Politico report that only vaguely described the document, Zakes wrote in an email that “our CEO and COO assured me that we’ve never lobbied against home grow and in fact support home grow as part of larger legislation, as long as it is regulated and controlled in a responsible manner, the same way medical or recreational markets would be, in order to protect consumers.”
(Vireo CEO Aaron Hoffnung signed an Internal Revenue Service financial disclosure form for NYMCIA last year as one of the association’s directors.)
Marijuana Moment sent a follow-up request for comment after obtaining the policy statement through the public records request, but Zakes said the he was unable to reach the company’s executives and so Vireo would have to decline the opportunity for further comment.
Advocates question whether NYMCIA leveraged its influence for the right reasons.
Is the worry really that a home cultivation policy would sustain an illicit market or complicate law enforcement activities in New York? Are concerns about the public health impact genuine? Or is it that cannabis businesses want the entire market to themselves?
“We need to make sure that we have a check on the potential greed of the industry that we can already see in these early stages based on this advocacy document,” Altieri said. “We need to make sure that the market in New York not only begins to address all the harms caused by the war on cannabis but also is oriented toward the consumer and not large industry interests.”
“Banning home cultivation benefits no one but corporations and large industry groups.”
Despite Cuomo including the home grow ban in his proposal, it seems that advocates may get more time to voice their concerns about the policy. Some leading lawmakers such as Senate President Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) are increasingly doubtful that marijuana reform will make it into the final state budget, meaning that negotiations on separate legalization legislation could end up resulting in a law that allows consumers to grow their own cannabis.
Marijuana Moment reached out to NYMCIA itself, Cuomo’s office, Etain and Columbia Care for comment, but representatives did not respond to multiple inquiries by the time of publication.
Read the full NYMCIA policy statement, including the section on home cultivation, below:
New York Medical Cannabis I… by on Scribd
Illinois Stores Sold Nearly $36 Million Worth Of Recreational Marijuana In March, Despite Coronavirus
Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, Illinois marijuana shops sold almost $36 million in cannabis products in March, according to a report from the state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation released on Thursday.
More than 812,000 adult-use marijuana products were sold in the 31-day period. While the majority of those sales ($27 million) came from in-state buyers, out-of-state visitors accounted for about $8.8 million.
By comparison, Illinois sold about $35 million worth of cannabis in February and nearly $40 million during its first month of sales in January.
“Three straight months of consistent adult use cannabis sales show there is—and will continue to be—strong support and demand from consumers,” Toi Hutchinson, the state’s cannabis czar, said in a press release.
The notice also talks about marijuana policies during the COVID-19 outbreak, which has shuttered non-essential businesses across Illinois and the country. Gov. J. B. Pritzker (D) signed an order deeming dispensaries and cultivation facilities essential services, and medical cannabis patients can obtain their products via curbside pickup, though that service is not available to recreational consumers.
Hutchinson said curbside pickup will continue to be available for patients through April 30.
As in past releases about monthly sales data, the new notice emphasizes that a portion of tax revenue generated through cannabis sales will go toward social equity and restorative justice programs.
The governor also signed an executive order that extends the deadline for applications to become a licensed cannabis infuser, craft grower or transporter. While the deadline was originally set for March 30, it’s been moved to April 30.
The information about out-of-state sales raises an interesting point—one that Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) touched on during a recent press conference. Baker defended his decision to shut down recreational shops (but not medical dispensaries) because he argued that it would encourage non-residents to travel into the state to get their cannabis, potentially spreading the virus.
Advocates have pushed back, however, arguing that shuttering those facilities means people will engage in similarly risky behavior by purchasing marijuana on the illicit market.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
Washington Governor Signs Bill To Diversify State’s Marijuana Industry
In an effort to ensure the spoils of marijuana legalization are available to everyone, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed a bill on Tuesday to allow state regulators to funnel unused marijuana business licenses to people from communities that have been negatively impacted by the drug war.
The legislation came at the request of state cannabis regulators, who have pointed out that Washington’s legalization law, which voters approved in 2012, failed to include any provisions aimed at addressing past prohibition harms.
The new law signed by Inslee aims to diversify the industry by issuing more business licenses to people negatively affected by drug law enforcement and providing them with technical assistance to get their companies off the ground. It creates a state Marijuana Equity Task Force and allows the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) to grant forfeited, canceled, revoked or otherwise unissued marijuana business licenses to qualified equity applicants.
“HB 2870 creates a new social equity program that provides business opportunities to people from disproportionately-harmed communities so they can benefit economically from the cannabis industry and become a cannabis retailer,” Inslee said in a statement that his office shared with Marijuana Moment.
According to the ACLU, black people in Washington State were roughly four times more likely to be arrested on cannabis charges prior to legalization than were white people, despite similar rates of use. That disparity is similar to those in other states, such as New York. And while legalization itself has reduced the number of people arrested on marijuana charges, racial disparities in arrests remain.
Since legalization, Washington’s marijuana industry has also been overwhelmingly white. The state Commission on African American Affairs, using statistics from the LCB, recently estimated that just one percent of cannabis production and processing licenses have been issued to African Americans, who also have majority ownership of only three percent of the state’s marijuana retail licenses.
“Initiative 502 missed an opportunity to incorporate a focus on social equity,” LCB Director Rick Garza told lawmakers earlier this year. “The history of cannabis prohibition shows abundant evidence there was disproportionate harm in communities of color, and that those harmful effects remain with us today.”
To qualify for the new program, an applicant must be from a “disproportionately impacted area,” defined as a census tract that has high poverty and unemployment rates, a high rate of participation in income-based government programs and high rates of arrest or punishment of cannabis-related crimes. The applicant must also submit a “social equity plan” showing how their business would help achieve equity-related goals.
According to the bill’s text, the changes are intended “to reduce barriers to entry to the cannabis industry for individuals and communities most adversely impacted by the enforcement of cannabis-related laws” and establish a state cannabis industry that “is equitable and accessible” to those hit hardest by anti-drug laws.
Equity advocates applauded the change, noting that legalization alone isn’t enough to address past drug war harms.
“Washington State was ahead of the curve with adult use, which has advanced the cause of ending the war on black and brown communities tremendously,” Jason Ortiz, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA), told Marijuana Moment. “It is inspiring but not surprising to see Washington leaders like Rick Garza and Governor Inslee continuing to lead by example by admitting the mistake of not including equity before, by doing it now.”
Equity efforts have become increasingly mainstream in the years since Washington and Colorado first approved legal marijuana. A number of other states that legalized more recently, including Massachusetts, Illinois and Michigan, have already adopted equity measures, though the details of those programs vary greatly from state to state.
In December, MCBA held a conference aimed at ensuring that states that are considering legalization, such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, include measures to promote social equity and empower communities that have been harmed the most by prohibition enforcement.
“Equity programs strengthen our industry while empowering our communities,” Ortiz said, “and will be a vital part of any successful legalization campaign moving forward.”
Coronavirus Crisis Shows Marijuana Is ‘Essential’ And Mainstream
Never has it been more clear than during the current COVID-19 pandemic that marijuana has arrived at the forefront of mainstream American society.
In state after state, governors and public health officials are deeming cannabis businesses “essential” operations that can stay open amid coronavirus-related forced closures and stay-at-home mandates. People might not be able to go bowling or see a movie in theaters, but they can still stock up on marijuana.
It wasn’t long ago that anyone growing and selling marijuana faced the risk of being arrested, prosecuted and jailed. But now, in the era of expanding legalization, cannabis providers in many states are held up as vital members of the community who are providing a valuable service on par with picking up prescription drugs at a pharmacy or filling up your car at a gas station.
Advocacy groups have pushed governors and state officials to ensure that medical marijuana patients in particular can maintain access to the cannabis they need. But because many people who use marijuana for therapeutic purposes don’t necessarily jump through the hoops needed in order to become officially certified as patients, recreational businesses are also seen as crucial access points that need to stay open.
“Most of the American public and an increasing number of government leaders stopped buying into the demonization of cannabis years ago,” Karen O’Keefe, state policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said. “Now, not only have two-thirds of states recognized that medical cannabis should be legal—with 11 legalizing adult-use—many are recognizing that safe access to cannabis is essential.”
NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said it is “encouraging to see our nation’s public policy in practice is finally catching up to where the vast majority of Americans have been for years.”
“The recognition by our government officials that cannabis is indeed not just here to stay, but an essential part of life for millions of Americans—particularly in the patient community—is a welcome move in the right direction,” he said. “It is also a move that could not have come at a better moment for those who still require access to maintain quality of life during these trying and troubled times.”
In some states, officials have enacted new temporary policies such as expanded delivery services or curbside pickup that make it easier for consumers to get their hands on marijuana while respecting social distancing measures. Others are allowing doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations via telemedicine instead of requiring that they conduct in-person examinations.
Here’s a look at how states that are taking steps to maintain legal marijuana access during the COVID-19 outbreak:
Regulators deemed cannabis retail outlets to be essential businesses that can stay open amid a broader stay-at-home order. Localities, including Los Angeles County and San Francisco, have also said that certain cannabis businesses are essential providers that can continue operations.
Gov. Jared Polis (D) issued an executive order allowing marijuana businesses to provide curbside pickup services and letting doctors issue medical cannabis recommendations via telemedicine without in-person examinations. A subsequent order from the governor says that marijuana businesses are critical retail operations, but only for the sale of medical cannabis or curbside delivery. Regulators also issued emergency rules temporarily loosening requirements for fingerprinting of marijuana business owners, modification of premises and transfer of cannabis product samples for testing.
Regulators deemed medical cannabis businesses to be essential and thus exempt from a general mandate to suspend in-person operations.
The state surgeon general issued an order allowing physicians to issue medical cannabis recertifications to existing patients—but not new ones—via telemedicine.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s (D) stay-at-home order declares marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities to be essential businesses that can stay open. Dispensaries are also being allowed to do curbside sales of medical cannabis—but not recreational marijuana—products.
Medical cannabis growers, processors and dispensaries. are exempt from an order Gov. Larry Hogan (R) issued to close non-essential businesses. Regulators are also allowing dispensaries to deliver medical marijuana to patients in parking lots.
Gov. Charlie Baker (R) issued a stay-at-home order deeming medical cannabis businesses—but not recreational marijuana ones—to be essential and exempt from a general shutdown. Regulators also encouraged medical cannabis delivery services to promote and expand their offerings, and are allowing doctors to remotely recommend marijuana to patients through the use of telehealth waivers.
Marijuana businesses will be able to continue curbside sales and home deliveries but cannot perform in-person transactions in stores under a stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). Regulators previously sent a bulletin allowing curbside pickup and encouraging delivery services, and another bulletin extending the period of prequalification status for marijuana business license applicants that may experience building delays.
Regulators are allowing medical cannabis patients to do curbside pickup at dispensaries and are letting doctors issue recommendations via telemedicine.
Gov. Phil Murphy (D) exempted medical cannabis dispensaries from a stay-at-home order. Regulators moved to allow patients pick up medical marijuana at dispensaries’ curbsides and to reduce caregiver registration fees.
Regulators ruled that medical cannabis businesses are essential and can stay open. They also allowed curbside pickup services, extended expiring patient and caregiver cards for 90 days and suspended background checks for new industry employees.
The state Department of Health deemed that medical cannabis providers are essential businesses not subject to a general closure order. Those that are authorized to carry out home delivery are temporarily allowed to expand those services without written approval.
Gov. Mike DeWine’s (R) stay-at-home order exempts medical cannabis businesses from a broader business shutdown. The State Medical Board also moved to allow doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations via telemedicine without meeting patients in person. Additionally, regulators are letting patients phone in orders ahead of their arrival at dispensaries to reduce time spent inside.
Regulators approved rules to allow curbside delivery of marijuana at licensed retail locations and to increase medical cannabis sales limits. They also moved to make it easier to obtain cannabis worker permits.
Regulators deemed medical cannabis providers as “life-sustaining” operations that are exempt from Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) order to close businesses in general. They also took other steps, including allowing patients to have marijuana brought to their cars outside of dispensaries and letting caregivers make deliveries to an unlimited number of patients.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s (D) stay-at-home order exempts marijuana businesses as essential, allowing them to stay open. And regulators are allowing marijuana dispensaries to carry out curbside service for medical cannabis patients.
Despite the significant number of states deeming cannabis businesses to be essential and issuing rulings temporarily expanding their services, that is not the case in every legal marijuana market.
And despite the accommodations, many regulators are also directing businesses to implement social distancing measures such as limits on the number of customers who can enter a retail operation at a given time or guidance on physical space between those who are standing in line—changes that can slow down operations and reduce revenue.
Still, many industry leaders seems to understand the public health necessity of such moves, and cannabis law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP, for example, issued a set of suggested voluntary guidelines for marijuana businesses to consider.
For now, industry trackers have indicated that sales are strong as consumers stock up in preparation to hunker down at home for several weeks.
Nonetheless, the industry has called on Congress to give it equal access to disaster relief funds—a request necessitated by the fact that ongoing federal prohibition means that their operations are still illegal and not generally eligible for such aid.
Legalization opponents, meanwhile, are not pleased with moves by a growing number of states to keep cannabis stores in business despite the steps intended to foster social distancing at such locations.
“We have seen numerous reports of marijuana stores with long lines of people stocking up on the drug and have additionally seen states move to keep these stores open,” Kevin Sabet, president of prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said. “Quite frankly, this presents a unique harm to public health and safety. Across the country, states are doing everything in their power to limit the gathering of people in one location. Long lines outside of establishments engaged in the distribution of marijuana should be a tremendous cause for concern.”
When it comes to consumers, while advocates have cautioned them to consider refraining from smoking or vaping for the time being due to the risk of agitating lungs amid the respiratory effects of the novel coronavirus, they have also pointed out that there are other ways to use cannabis, such as edibles.
For now, the coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted the disconnect between federal and state policies: Under one set of laws cannabis is a banned drug, and under the other it’s a medicine deemed just as essential as any other.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.