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Buffalo Business Journal – New York adds chronic pain as qualifier for medical marijuana

By Tracey Drury, 12/1/16

Another major change is coming to New York’s medical marijuana program, one that doctors say could more than double the number of qualified patients.

The state Department of Health announced Thursday it would add chronic pain as a qualifying condition. It joins 10 qualifying conditions initially identified when the state program began: cancer, HIV infection or AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathies and Huntington’s disease. Also covered are individuals with spinal cord injuries tied to spasticity.

Dr. Howard Zucker, state health commissioner, said the decision to add chronic pain followed a review of scientific literature.

“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,” he said.

It won’t happen overnight, however. The DOH must first develop a proposed regulatory amendment including language specifying the chronic pain conditions that would qualify for medical marijuana, which would be followed by a period of public comment.

The change comes one day after another amendment became effective authorizing nurse practitioners to certify patients to receive medical marijuana. Physician assistants are also due to be added to the provider list, but that too will require a comment period of 45 days.

In an interview earlier this week, Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, medical director at Dent Neurologic Institute and chief of neuro-oncology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute talked about the importance of adding chronic pain to the list of qualifying conditions. He pointed to patient numbers in Colorado, which has a population one quarter the size of New York’s and 300,000 patients receiving medical marijuana. Nearly 93 percent of those certified patients use the drug for chronic pain.

“That will dramatically change everything as we know it here,” he said. “If you want to make this program fiscally healthy with some collateral productivity in regard to taxes, then you have to approve it for chronic pain.”

Since New York’s medical marijuana program kicked off last January, 750 physicians have registered to participate across the state, while 10,730 patients have been certified by their doctors to receive it.

Dent Neurologic’s cannabis clinic currently receives more than 50 calls daily from patients who want to become certified to receive the drug. The clinic has treated 350 patients since January at the cannabis clinic at its Amherst facility. Mechtler predicted daily calls would increase by tenfold if chronic pain patients had access to medical marijuana.

“If pain is indicated, the 50-70 calls we get will increase to 500,” he said.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, health committee chairman and a long proponent of medical marijuana, said both steps will help expand access to thousands more New Yorkers. Adding chronic pain should also help address the opioid addiction epidemic, he said.

“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,” he said.

Dan Ryszka is co-founder of Medical Cannabis Connection Inc., a nonprofit that provides information and education for providers, patients and caregivers. He’s also a pharmacist who has two children receiving medical marijuana for severe epileptic seizures.

“I think it’s going to give people a better quality of life and help with narcotics abuse,” he said. “The patients I talk to, they don’t want to feel that grogginess, but they want to have relief for pain, for fibermyalgia — they just want to feel normal again.”

The DOH said it will continue to implement recommendations from a two-year report on the program, created following implementation of the Compassionate Care Act. Those include doubling the number of organizations registered to grow and distribute the drug; authorizing home delivery; and allowing medical research.