Senator Diane Savino has represented the New York State Senate’s 23rd District since 2005. She is a New York City native, hailing from Queens, and is a staunch advocate for medical cannabis access. She sat down with The Emerald Magazine on a rainy Wednesday in Manhattan, at the MedMen Medical Cannabis dispensary on 5th Avenue, down the street from Bryant Park. MedMen’s surroundings are sleek, fully equipped with iPads to guide patients, and offering a full staff to answer any questions. MedMen’s goal is to provide a wide variety of options for patients in a welcoming environment. The staff was accommodating but maintained a protective and respectful boundary for patients while we conducted the interview and photo session. Senator Savino arrived and was greeted warmly by the staff, as she has good relationships with MedMen and many other dispensaries. She understands the importance of dispensaries being both knowledgeable and approachable. She sat down with us to talk more about her district, New York regulations, and how you can get involved in your local political processes.
Where is the 23rd District?
It’s the southernmost part of New York City—Staten Island, parts of South Brooklyn, including the iconic community of Coney Island. You may not know Staten Island, but everybody knows Coney Island! Also some Brighton Beach—basically all the beach communities of New York.
And you’ve represented that district since 2005, so they must love you there.
I think so—I hope so!
You’re originally from Queens—from Astoria. So, what was it like growing up there, and how did you get involved in politics?
Well, I got involved in politics kind of accidentally. I think most women do—they don’t start out thinking, “I’m going to run for office.” Men know that—they know in kindergarten that they want to be president. Women usually wind up in politics because they’re actively involved in a cause or an issue that propels them. So, I got involved first in the labor movement. I worked for the City of New York, I was a caseworker in child welfare. As a city employee, first of all, you’re unionized, and secondly, you’re at the whim of the budget cycle every other year. We were very engaged and active in lobbying the city for funding of social justice programs, child welfare, shelters, etcetera. I became very active in the union as well, because I’m a union delegate, a staff member, a vice president. I ran the union’s political program, I took on running campaigns, I went to other states and worked with presidential campaigns, and I worked on local campaigns. The union was one of the founding members of the New York State Working Families Party. I sat on the executive board, so I was involved in politics on that level.
Who inspired you growing up?
Loads of people! Growing up in Astoria, Geraldine Ferraro was our councilwoman. She was a congresswoman, and she was the first woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket. She was someone you’d see in the neighborhood. She was a definite influence, not just on me but on young women. She was what you call an “outer-borough ethnic”—that’s what they call us. You know, everyone thinks of New York, and they think of Manhattan. Here we are (sitting for this interview) on Fifth Avenue, but this is just a tiny portion of New York City. There are these labels they place on the rest of us that were born in the other boroughs, and she was one of those people that no one expected to achieve anything, and there she was, running for vice president.
We’re here at MedMen, which is a medical cannabis dispensary in Manhattan. What’s your take on the future of the cannabis industry in New York?
Hopefully, what I see for the future of the medical industry is that we can expand it so that we can meet patient demand, and at the same time we continue down the path of increasing patient access, because that will bring down the price. This is an expensive product for a lot of patients, and if they can manage to get to a dispensary, the out-of-pocket costs can be prohibitive for some people. That’s a real problem, because far too many people are depending on addictive drugs like opioids to deal with chronic pain and other conditions they have, because their insurance covers that. So, we have two paths in New York. One is that we are looking at the possibility of a legal adult-use market, and I think that’s going to take another year or two to flush out. It’s important that we do a legal regulated market with tight controls and that we don’t over-tax the product. We have to make sure that it’s not palatable to go into the black market and purchase drugs—we want to eliminate that possibility. So, we have to be careful how we do this. The beauty of New York moving forward on this now is that we can see how other states have done it. I’m hearing really good things about the Nevada market. They manage to do adult use and medical, and one market is not killing the other, as opposed to Washington State, where the adult-use market is killing their medical industry, and we have to be careful not to do that here.
So, you believe the future and focus should be expanding the medical industry to make it more accessible to patients?
Yes. This is supposed to be about Public Health Policy. Re-socializing the way people think about cannabis helps. That’s why a store like this dispensary is so important, because its not hidden away in a corner somewhere—it looks like a place that people want to come in and maybe even just have a conversation with the people that work here. That’s the kind of environment we want to create.
Do you have any advice for how young people can get involved in politics, specifically for cannabis advocacy, and generally getting involved in local politics?
That’s the key—to start local. Everyone wants to get involved in congressional campaigns, but you can also get involved in local races, state legislative races and town councils. Get involved in those, or join a club in your community. Also, a bit of advice for young people who want to get involved: Don’t walk in and assume you know everything. You might want to learn something from people who have done this for a while. Take some time, get involved, do the grunt work. Learn the issues of your community, and volunteer when you can.
When we left, Senator Savino was buying MedMen merchandise for her staff. She is up for re-election in the September 13th primary.
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