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Albany Times-Union: Lawmakers seek to expand New York’s fledgling medical marijuana program

By Claire Hughes, 2/22/16

Medical marijuana producers would be allowed to market their medicines directly to doctors, the way Big Pharma companies do, under one of the proposals lawmakers are expected to introduce soon to expand the new state program.

Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, the Senate sponsor of the act that launched New York’s medical marijuana program, said the change is being proposed to enlist the interest of more doctors. A dearth of registered doctors has created an obstacle for New Yorkers seeking to buy medical marijuana and is a factor contributing to the sluggish start of the state’s medical marijuana program.

Legislation signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in mid-2014 paved the way for the medical marijuana program. The state’s first retail dispensaries selling cannabis-based medicines opened early last month, but have seen little business so far.

Under New York’s law, patients can buy medical marijuana only if they are certified by a doctor who has taken an online course and registered with the state. Local patients and statewide advocates have said they are having a hard time finding doctors who are registered.

“You have to look at, where’s the logjam in the program,” Savino said. “Quite frankly, it’s easy to figure out. It’s the doctors.”

There are 393 doctors registered so far, statewide. There is no way for a patient to find out who they are directly. The state maintains a database of the doctors, but it is accessible only to other physicians.

Doctors in the Capital Region told the Times Union earlier this month they haven’t registered for the program due to a lack of demand from patients. But Savino said doctors are sharing different concerns with her office: First, they don’t understand the product. Second, they’re afraid they will be charged with a crime because the federal government classifies the product as illegal.

Savino’s proposal seeks to address the first concern. Doctors are accustomed to representatives from pharmaceutical companies calling at their offices or professional meetings to explain their prescription drugs. They’re more likely to be open to learning about medical marijuana if it is marketed the same way, she said.

The proposal has support in the Assembly, Savino said, and she is seeking support from the state Health Department. Health Commissioner Howard Zucker has already reached out to doctors who treat the serious, debilitating conditions covered by the program, which include cancer and neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease and ALS.

The proposal would not allow cannabis producers to market directly to patients, as pharmaceutical companies do with television ads.

The Senator will also seek to double the number of organizations, currently five, that would be able to produce medical marijuana. That will be important once more patients are certified, so they can easily access the medicine wherever they live in the state, Savino said.

Some patients who have been certified have reported driving hours to get the brand of medical cannabis that is appropriate for their conditions.

Assembly Health Chair Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, who has supported the use of marijuana as medicine since the late 1990s, said he will also propose changes to expand the law’s reach. He would not comment Friday on the proposal to allow producers to market directly to doctors.

He will join Savino in calling for an increase in the number of producers. The assemblyman’s proposals would also add more eligible medical conditions to the current list of 10, and allow the medicinal products to be smoked, something which is currently prohibited.

Gottfried blamed the law’s restrictiveness on changes made to the original legislation by the Cuomo administration.

“The law is simply too narrow, with too few registered organizations serving too few patients who need relief,” Gottfried said.