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Albany Times-Union: State to add chronic pain to list of conditions medical marijuana can treat

By Matthew Hamilton, December 1

New Yorkers suffering from certain chronic pain will be able to use medical marijuana to alleviate their symptoms, the state Department of Health announced on Thursday.

That addition to the strict list of conditions treatable by medical marijuana products is one of the most significant strides the state has taken to expand the program to date.

It’s not yet clear exactly what kind of chronic pain will be treatable under the program’s rules. The department will develop a regulatory amendment, which will specify the chronic pain conditions that will qualify patients for the program. That amendment is to be published for public comment soon, the department said.

Already on the list of 10 treatable conditions are cancer, HIV infection or AIDS and epilepsy, among others.

The addition follows a lengthy review by the department and comes as it also moves to allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to certify patients for the state-run program, which is among the nation’s most strict.

“After conducting a thorough review of the scientific literature, it became clear that there may be certain benefits in the use of medical marijuana by patients suffering from chronic pain,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said in a statement. “Medical marijuana is already helping thousands of patients across New York State, and adding chronic pain as a qualifying condition will help more patients and further strengthen the program.”

Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat who led the charge to legalize medical marijuana in New York, lauded the latest moves to expand the program.

“Allowing physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs) to certify patients for medical marijuana will help thousands of New Yorkers who use PAs or NPs as their health care providers and who could benefit from medical use or marijuana,” he said. “It appropriately reflects their long-recognized scope of practice. Expanding the list of eligible conditions to include chronic pain will help thousands of New Yorkers ease their suffering with an alternative to opioid drugs, which are dangerous, addictive, and have serious side effects.”

As of Tuesday, 10,730 patients have been certified by 750 registered physicians to use medical marijuana products to treat their ailments. Adding chronic pain could be a serious boon to the number of patients.

That in turn could be a major boost for the five companies authorized to grow the drug and sell non-smokeable products. Those companies have struggled to become profitable among low patient numbers and high prices that have driven away some who are eligible to take part in the program.

The addition of chronic pain and the ability for nurse practitioners and physician assistants to certify patients are two reforms likely more welcome to the current companies than the possible addition of more registered organizations, which the department continues to study.

“We applaud the Department of Health’s decision and are ready to serve patients with chronic pain,” said Dr. Stephen Dahmer, Chief Medical Officer of Vireo Health, parent company of Vireo Health of New York, one of the current companies. “We will continue to advocate for measures that improve patient access to dependable and safe medical cannabis and improve the quality of life for New Yorkers suffering from life-threatening and debilitating diseases.”

Vireo Health of New York CEO Ari Hoffnung said the company hopes that medical marijuana can be used to help address “one of the biggest public health challenges facing our State – the opioid crisis.”