By Ryan Lepore
If you know, you know... like many things in New York, it’s medical marijuana (cannabis) program is not widely known, nor utilized based on its population size and registered patient count. It’s had some overdue updates over the past year or so - but we all know it can still expand. The question is, what does it look like, to actually have an expansive medical cannabis program in 2020?
New York’s “Empire State” Medical Cannabis Program in 2020
Let’s start with this perspective - New York passed the “Compassionate Care Act” in 2014 and anticipated roll out of it’s first Five Registered Organizations (ROs) and each of their four dispensing facilities to be open by 2016 - resulting in a total of twenty dispensary locations across the state. Of course, in 2016 there were only a handful of locations open for business and it was notoriously difficult to get a medical card due to the restrictive list of qualifying conditions and lack of recommending physicians. Additionally, the program had no “flower” with a limited selection of cannabis products - only based on CBD:THC ratios. Nowadays we actually have thirty-eight dispensaries open (among the now ten RO’s), with expanded qualifying conditions (Chronic Pain, PTSD, etc.), less “mysticism” amongst recommending physicians to divvy out medical cards, and the allowance for more product forms - including “ground flower” (basically popcorn nugs/shake).
As of June 30th, 2020 the program boasts a whopping 117,478 patients after its four years of being “in business” - though the last state-issued study in 2018 noted there were about 61,198 “Active Patients” out of the 98,101 total certified patients in the state at the time. This translates to 62% of the NYS patients in 2018 were actually “shopping” out of the total amount of patients that were licensed to “shop”. Anywho - we may think, aye that’s not bad New York, we gotta start somewhere - and progress is progress.
Oklahoma’s “Sooner State” Medical Cannabis Program in 2020
Let’s talk Oklahoma (yeah Joe Exotic Oklahoma - who by the way, was a huge cannabis advocate), and their Medical Program to really show how the grass is greener. You’d think Oklahoma would be scared shitless about cannabis use - actually, they are considered the least strict medical program in the country - and at times less restrictive than most adult-use programs. There are no license caps on the number of dispensaries or cannabis businesses that can operate in the state, no product restrictions, and no set list of qualifying conditions (basically leaving it up to the doctors’ medical discretion like California - though even California still has qualifying conditions). Of course, these things are subject to change - but what does this all actually mean?
In July of 2018, Oklahoma passed their medical program and opened its first dispensaries in November 2018 (yes in four months). As of July 1st, 2020, Oklahoma has 9,545 active business licenses - 5,970 grower licenses, 1,407 processor licenses, 2,113 dispensary licenses, 24 transportation licenses, 10 waste disposal licenses, and 21 laboratories. To add, it only costs $2,500 dollars to apply for one of these license types. Whereas in New York the cost was $200,000 and a non-refundable cost (if you don’t win the opportunity to spend $200k on a license) of $10,000. These are just the application costs - MarketWatch in 2016 estimated a Medical Marijuana Business in New York requires around 30 million to effectively set up shop and satisfy your responsibilities as a Registered Organization based on the state guidelines.
Patience, Patience….let’s get to the patients. As you guessed it - Oklahoma has more active Medical Marijuana patients than New York, and this was accomplished within the first two years of operating over New York’s program’s four-year existence. As of July 1st, 2020, the state had 313,638 active patients. According to the 2019 Decennial Census Estimate, the population of Oklahoma was 3,956,971 (basically 4 million) - which sums up to be around 8% of all Oklahomans having a medical card. New York on the other hand - has a total population of around 19,453,561, meaning .006% of New Yorkers have a medical card.
Well it’s all about the money, right? Within the fiscal year of 2019, New York generated $3,867,287 in tax revenue through its medical program - whereas, in 2019, Oklahoma generated $54,751,171 (excise and sales taxes). For more perspective - Oklahoma made $35,631,720 between August 2018 and August 2019 from just patient application fees and business licensing applications with $7,871,477 coming directly from tax revenue (not to mention ancillary benefits of new businesses and jobs). Oklahoma for 2020 has already generated $57,023,293 in tax revenue (state fees and sales tax) from January through June (following record trends across other states). Now for patients, it’s definitely favorable to not have to pay an added state application fee for your medical marijuana card, and currently NYS is waiving its application fees. One big difference is recommendations/medical cards in Oklahoma are good for two years - whereas New York is good for a year (or less depending on the physician you see).
To stimulate our imagination - let’s say NYS had 8% of its total population with a medical card - (it was also suspected that 8.5% of New Yorkers are cannabis users according to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health study in 2015). 8% would equate to 1,556,285 New Yorkers - and with the same application fee as Oklahoma ($100 dollars) per patient, generates roughly $155,628,500 in tax revenue from patient applications alone (disregarding discounts for veterans, seniors, medicaid, etc).
There are many reasons (good and bad) why NYS has not expanded its medical program which is better explained for another time, but an important consideration is Oklahoma is seemingly doubling down on its “Medical Only” program for the time being - whereas New York is focused on legalizing an adult-use cannabis program. Still, the current restrictions upon the medical program could easily find a middle ground that is up with the times, considering many adult-use programs in the country have already had an efficiently running medical program/infrastructure set in place beforehand that allowed for a smooth transition (debatable of course) into adult use.
Again with the arbitrary numbers, if the NYS program added 500 medical licenses to our current ten, we would still have about 1,500 less dispensing licenses issued than in Oklahoma. Though considering that RO’s have four locations apiece, this would result in around the same dispensary count as Oklahoma (well technically still less) - but for a population size of nineteen million, not four million (Oklahoma) and for the larger geographical area that is New York. The added business competition would also theoretically decrease the cost of the currently expensive product currently sold in NY - offsetting the cost a patient pays for an application fee. For a thought, we could also slip in a substantial amount of equity licenses as part of a robust medical expansion for a trial run for our future adult-use program.
To be fair, the times have changed politically, from 2014 when NYS passed their medical laws and 2018 when Oklahoma passed their own. We still have some time to see what truly ends up happening in Oklahoma with its “free market” model - many anticipate businesses shutting down and massive health complications due to the lack of regulation. Of course many on the ground have not seen either within the past two years (I do anticipate businesses closing/not renewing licenses - but likely in a post-federal legalization environment, at least to the scale everyone speculates). The positives for real estate to have reinvestment for businesses, new jobs, and increased tax revenue are only ancillary towards New York’s medical program actually accomplishing its mission. Which is medically satisfying it’s population’s demand for providing a medical alternative, inaccurately providing accessibility suited for its population size and geographical area. Since 2020 has been quite the year already - I say the “Sooner” the better.
About The Author
Ryan Lepore is a former legislative staffer for the NY Assembly, currently serving as NYC NORML’s Deputy Director, Board Member for Empire State NORML, Business Operations Manager for PrestoDoctor, and assists with Budsfeed’s Community Management