By Mark Levine

August 18, 2015

As New York prepares to implement its new Compassionate Care Act, the state has named five companies that will be allowed to set up the first dispensaries for medical marijuana. At one time, this might have been considered a radical move. In fact, we are just playing catch-up to the nearly two dozen states that already allow chronically ill patients to access this critical treatment.

Nonetheless, for New Yorkers suffering from cancer, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses, this is welcome news.

But will all New Yorkers really have access to the scientifically proven relief provided by medical marijuana?

Only two dispensaries are set to open in Manhattan when the program goes live in January. One company, Columbia Care, has already announced its site will be on East 14th Street. The second, Bloomfield, has yet to announce its location. In the interest of fairness, this second site should be located in northern Manhattan.

As it stands, even with the passage of the Compassionate Care Act, low-income New Yorkers already face significant barriers to accessing medical marijuana. No health insurance plan in the state covers this treatment. The law, as currently written, will require most patients to buy an expensive vaporizer to inhale a marijuana-based extract or oil, since the far cheaper delivery method of smoking is not allowed.

Will people of modest means also face the barrier of distance?

Northern Manhattan isn’t just home to the biggest concentration of low-income residents in the borough – it is also home to some of the highest rates of the very diseases that medical marijuana is most successful at treating. And these conditions often make it difficult for patients to travel long distances to procure medication.

But fair siting of the second dispensary faces a big hurdle: an absurd rule in the Compassionate Care Act requiring that all medical marijuana facilities be at least 1,000 feet from a school or house of worship. By comparison, the minimum distance for liquor stores is only 200 feet, and pharmacies – which distribute controlled substances far more addictive and dangerous than medical marijuana – can be right next door to a school or house of worship (and, in fact, many are).

The “1,000-foot rule” blocks out much of northern Manhattan, but is far less of a hurdle in commercial areas of midtown and other parts of the borough with fewer schools and houses of worship. Uptown is chock-full with both, giving us reason to fear that Bloomfield will not locate its dispensary here.

That would be a tremendous loss for the thousands of northern Manhattan patients who are so desperate for relief. And it would reinforce an existing, pernicious pattern in which low-income people and communities of color have limited access to quality health care.

New York has waited a long time for the availability of medical marijuana. It is critical that we roll out the program in the fairest, most effective way possible. That means making sure relief is readily available on both ends of the island of Manhattan.

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