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The New York state Capitol in Albany

ALBANY — Influential lawmakers are urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to approve an expansion of the state's medical marijuana program so that patients don't end up buying weed on the black market.

Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, D-Manhattan, the chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, said the Cuomo administration has been "moving much too slowly" in addressing needed improvements to New York's 7-year-old medical marijuana program.

The regulatory changes being proposed by Gottfried; Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, the chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee; and Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, do not require further legislative action and could be implemented by state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, a Cuomo appointee.

The legislators contend patients authorized by doctors for participation in the medical marijuana program should be able to acquire pot in whole flower form. The medical dispensaries set up in various locations across the state have been approved for stocking marijuana products that can be ingested or used in a tincture, though they need state approval before they can offer pot in a form that can be smoked.

The non-smokeable products "remain cost-prohibitive and out of reach — particularly for lower-income members of minority communities, who might otherwise be eligible for the program," the lawmakers said in a letter to Cuomo.

The lawmakers also want Cuomo to allow physicians "more clinical discretion in certifying patients for medical cannabis," according to their letter.

"As New Yorkers continue to deal with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, there will be thousands of residents who need pain relief and treatment for a variety of conditions, illnesses and diseases," they wrote.

Finally, while recent legislation allows certified marijuana patients to get a 60-day supply of cannabis, up from a 30-day limit, the regulations needed to allow for the increased supply have not been put into effect, they noted.

Cuomo press aides did not respond to a request for comment on the lawmakers' plea for the governor to take action.

On a related front, Gottfried, in an interview, said he is concerned the state has yet to install leadership at the new Office of Cannabis Management and the Cannabis Control Board.

With New Yorkers now able to possess up to three ounces of marijuana legally, Gottfried said he is concerned the illicit weed market could gather steam, ultimately making it more difficult for licensed purveyors of marijuana to operate successfully.

But it is likely that it will be at least another year before licensed shops offering adult-use pot open in New York, said Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, a co-sponsor of the new marijuana legislation.

"The fact that the regulatory bodies have not yet been fully empaneled I don't think will push back the clock" on putting those dispensaries into operation, Cahill said.

Existing staffers in the administration will be able to initiate the groundwork for building the oversight bureaucracy and will hand off their work to the new appointees when they are installed, the assemblyman said.

The state's Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, signed into law March 31, gives local governments until Dec. 31 to take themselves out of the mix of communities where marijuana shops would be opened.

Some municipalities have already signaled that they will allow retail cannabis shops, though many are expected to declare their communities off-limits.

Cuomo said in March that allowing the sale of recreational marijuana in New York was one of his top priorities this year.

"I'm proud these comprehensive reforms address and balance the social equity, safety and economic impacts of legal adult-use cannabis," said Cuomo.

The governor had opposed legalizing cannabis as recently as 2017, branding marijuana a "gateway drug."

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhinews.com.

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