When you think of the cannabis industry, the first places you think of are probably California, Colorado and maybe Oregon and Washington as 3 of these states have already implemented recreational cannabis laws with California gearing up to do the same in 2018. If you noticed, none of those states are even remotely close the east coast with Colorado being the closest at 1,661 miles away from Pennsylvania. Why is this? If you’re familiar with the history of cannabis, the west coast has had a relationship with cannabis dating all the way back to the 1960’s when California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana. Along with this, California is known for the cannabis growers hidden throughout the Emerald Triangle, which is made up of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity county as there are numerous documentaries diving into the culture and history of this area. These factors, along with others, contribute to cannabis being tied to the west coast for so long. With Oregon, Washington Colorado (even though Colorado isn’t technically “west coast”, in terms of geography it’s much closer than it is to the east coast), and just recently Nevada implementing recreational cannabis laws, this has only increased the relationship between the west coast and cannabis. So what is happening on the east coast? Slowly but surely states on the east coast are beginning to get on board with cannabis, whether medically or recreationally. Below are updates on 5 east coast states (going from north to south) that have either implemented laws or are working to implement:
Massachusetts – Known for being the home of the first Thanksgiving, Massachusetts took the giant leap towards the end of 2016 as becoming the first east coast state to legalize recreational cannabis. The voting was close, but in the end it passed allowing individuals 21 and over to legally purchase cannabis along with allowing residents to grow up to six plants in their home.
However, earlier this year the bill was amended that raised the tax on retail cannabis from 12% to 20%, established strict requirements for labeling and packaging of products and provided directions on how towns and cities can go about restricting cannabis in their jurisdiction. Even with the revisions, this is a great achievement and one that will hopefully motivate neighboring northern states to implement their own cannabis laws.
New York – You’ve probably heard New York referred to as “The City of Dreams”, and right now patients who need to access cannabis are dreaming that New York improves their Medical Marijuana Program. Passed by lawmakers in 2014 and officially signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2015, the law didn’t go into effect until the beginning of 2016. The issue is that when New York set up their program, they made it too restrictive by only permitting it for individuals with debilitating or life threatening conditions and only allowing 5 companies to open 20 dispensaries in the entire state which, according to Vice News, breaks down to one dispensary every 2,700 square miles. Luckily for the patients of New York, changes have been made to try and ramp up the program by doubling the number of dispensaries in the state, allowing sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain access to the program, and making access to cannabis easier by allowing home deliveries and publishing a certified list of registered practitioners in the city. Now, the program has more than 25,000 certified patients and over 1,100 certified practitioners and continues to try to improve its program.
New Jersey – When you hear “New Jersey” your first thoughts are most likely Atlantic City, the Jersey Shore or the current Governor Chris Christie given his recent stint in the news. What you probably don’t think of is its Medical Marijuana Program, which was passed back in 2010 and got underway in 2012. You would think that for a program that has been operating for 5 years they would have worked out all of the kinks and have an effective program in place. Unfortunately that is not the case as the aforementioned Governor Christie could not be more opposed to the program and cannabis in general (which couldn’t be more ironic since President Trump named him to lead the Opiate Epidemic Team but that’s a whole different story), which has hindered the program’s effectiveness. Currently New Jersey has 12,514 patients and 1,030 caregivers registered with the program as of December 31, 2016. The issues of the program lie in the restrictiveness of who qualifies, the high cost of the medicine for patients as New Jersey has one of (if not the most) expensive price per ounce, and only allowing 5 dispensaries (recently approved a sixth) in the entire state.
However, there is good news on the horizon! With Governor Christie leaving office at the end of the year, the Democratic Candidate Philip Murphy announced his full support for recreational legalization in New Jersey. If Murphy is elected, Democratic State Senator Nicholas Scutari (who introduced the bill) said “Given his support and the leadership of the house, I think we have obviously a legitimate opportunity to do this in the first 100 days of the Murphy administration for outright cannabis law done legislatively”. With Murphy, who currently holds a 25% lead over the republican opposition Kim Guadagno and with the current expectation being Murphy winning come election time, you may very well see New Jersey joining the list of states implementing laws for the use of recreational cannabis.
Pennsylvania – Known more as a conservative state, Governor Tom Wolf signed the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Act on April 17, 2016. This program will allow patients who suffer from 18 different conditions to access medical marijuana starting in 2018. Towards the end of June of this year, 27 dispensary license winners and 12 cultivation license winners were announced with the caveat that each dispensary winner has the option of opening up to three dispensaries meaning that there will be at most 81 dispensaries to start. Each business has 6 months from the announcement to get their business operational and the goal is for the program to be fully operational in the beginning of 2018. After one year, the program will be evaluated and there will be the opportunity for more dispensary and cultivation facility licenses to be granted. For a known conservative state to take this step is a great achievement and one that hopefully will garner the attention of other similar states.
Florida – The southernmost state on the east coast, Florida is known more for its warm weather and beautiful beaches than it is for its current Medical Marijuana Program. That is because when the program was initially passed in 2014 it was extremely restrictive by only allowing access for 4 qualifying conditions and only offering low-THC and non-smokable products. That is until over 70% of Florida residents voted for Amendment 2 at the end of last year, which expands what ailments qualify patients for the program along with allowing higher-THC products to be prescribed. This sounds great right? It would be IF Florida’s Office of Medical Marijuana was able to keep up with the increased demand that came from the expanded program. Currently the office only employs 12 individuals, with 9 being part-time, for a program that now has over 31,000 certified patients. If you break this down, that means that one employee would be responsible for handling and issuing 2,583 patient cards and this isn’t even accounting for the need to also set up training, certifying physicians, and the new patients continuing to sign up! Florida needs to figure out how to best keep up with the demand of new patients and physicians and make the process of obtaining a medical card for patients and required training for physicians more accessible or individuals will continue to suffer.
As you can see, progress is being made on the east coast and that is a very encouraging sign. It shows the stigma surrounding cannabis is beginning to fade away and the medicinal benefits that cannabis can provide are beginning to be recognized. As the programs in these states continue to develop, the hope is that some of the issues facing them will be worked out to make these programs operate as efficiently and effectively as possible while also ensuring the safety of everyone involved. Will the east coast ever truly catch up to the west coast in terms of cannabis acceptance? Maybe not. But as long as the states on the east coast continue to learn from those states on the west coast, understand the benefits that cannabis possesses, and continue granting access to those in need then that is all that we, and most importantly the patients in need, can ask for.