Seeing green

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Cannabis business takes center stage in Manhattan


  • Marijuana-related businesses were on show at the Javits Center last week. Photo: Cannabis World Congress & Business Exposition (CWCBExpo) in New York

New York City certainly isn’t the capital of the burgeoning American cannabis industry — that title likely belongs to Denver or Los Angeles — but it was clear at the fourth annual Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition, held June 14-16 at the Javits Center, that marijuana is already big business in the Big Apple.

A bustling convention floor featured all manner of cannabis-related products and services, from those one might expect — lights and other growing equipment, pipes bearing Grateful Dead insignia — to businesses that might seem novel to conventioneers unfamiliar with the “green rush” economy: financial services companies and investment firms specializing in the cannabis sector, or life-insurance brokers offering coverage for cannabis users at non-smoker rates. The only thing that didn’t seem to be on hand, at least not openly, was actual marijuana.

More than half of all states, including New York, have legalized marijuana for medicinal use. Under New York’s medical cannabis law, which is among the strictest in the country, patients are only eligible for treatment if they suffer from certain specific life-threatening or severely debilitating medical conditions identified by the state, which include ALS, cancer, epilepsy, HIV, chronic pain and multiple sclerosis. Marijuana is not available to patients as dried herb (or “flower,” as it’s colloquially known these days), and must be consumed in smokeless forms such as edibles, vaporizable concentrates, or sublingual oils.

Dr. Kenneth Weinberg practiced emergency medicine at Bellevue and other hospitals in the region for 30 years before founding Cannabis Doctors of New York with two other physicians after New York’s medical marijuana law passed. He now evaluates patients who may qualify for the program at the group’s Madison Avenue office, and met with others familiar with the industry at last week’s conference. “We’re seeing very sick patients, and most of them are maxed out on their medications,” Weinberg said. “A lot of times they come to us not even because they want to take cannabis, but because they know that nothing else works and they’re willing to get beyond all those myths that have been around for 80 years about ‘reefer madness.’”

As of June 14 of this year, 21,760 patients had enrolled in New York’s program since the first dispensaries opened in January 2016 — a fraction, some experts say, of the total number of eligible New Yorkers who might benefit from medical marijuana treatment. Sluggish growth is often attributed to several factors, including high prices, a lack of awareness of the program among physicians, and the small number of dispensaries at which patients can access the drug. Medical marijuana is currently available at 20 dispensaries around the state. Manhattan has just one dispensary, on East 14th Street, and Weinberg said it’s unlikely the local market could support another at this point.

Weinberg says the potential benefits available to patients under the program should be better publicized by the state, so that more doctors become familiar with the treatment. “When you see something that works and has very few side-effects — nobody’s ever died from an overdose in the 4,000 years that we’ve known about cannabis — you want to be able to make it available to as many people as possible,” he said.

Near Weinberg’s booth for Cannabis Doctors of New York, SUNY Empire State College advertised an upcoming interdisciplinary course on medical marijuana that meets online and at the school’s Hudson Street location in Manhattan. “As educators, we have an ethical responsibility to provide credible information on this topic, like we do for many topics that are controversial,” said Joanne Levine, one of the course’s instructors.

Marijuana for recreational use is now permitted in eight states and the District of Columbia, and last week’s conference was, predictably, filled with advocates for full legalization in New York state. The road ahead is unclear (Gov. Andrew Cuomo said earlier this year he is “unconvinced on recreational marijuana”), and supporters advocated for a variety of approaches. One organization, Restrict and Regulate in New York State, called (while also soliciting suggested donations of $4.20) for New Yorkers to vote on November’s ballot in favor of calling a state constitutional convention, during which full legalization could be pursued. Others supported state Senator Liz Krueger’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which would achieve similar goals through more conventional means.

In the meantime, though, many businesses at the expo focused on one sector of the cannabis industry that is currently available for consumption by the general public in New York: products featuring cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis. CBD’s legal status is somewhat unclear and is still being litigated in federal courts; generally speaking, it is a non-controlled substance under federal law, as long as it is produced from non-flowering hemp plants, which contain only trace amounts of psychoactive THC. It is currently sold in various forms in a number vape shops and holistic medicine stores in Manhattan.

Recent research has suggested that CBD may have benefits for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, and brain trauma, and the substance is often anecdotally portrayed as something of a wonder drug. The convention floor was filled with companies selling CBD-based products, as representatives boasted of an array of supposed benefits — vape pen cartridges for pain relief, cosmetic lotions with anti-aging properties, gummy candies to treat anxiety, even CBD dog treats to ease older pets’ joint pain.

Several exhibitors referenced anxiety over a potential federal crackdown on the industry under notoriously anti-pot Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But positivity and enthusiasm seemed to be in greater abundance as conventioneers took not-so-surreptitious drags on vape pens (containing CBD or perhaps something stronger) in the nominally e-smoke-free Javits Center and flocked to speeches by keynote speakers Jesse Ventura and Roger Stone.

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