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Capital NY: Cuomo announces marijuana licensees with varied resumes

By Dan Goldberg, Josefa Velasquez, and Katie Jennings, July 31

Governor Andrew Cuomo on Friday announced the five applicants that will be awarded two-year licenses to manufacture and distribute medical marijuana in New York, choosing companies with vastly different levels of experience and financial capability.

Bloomfield Industries Inc., Columbia Care NY, Empire State Health Solutions, Etain and PharmaCann scored highest, according to the health department.

“This is the next step in this process and I’m happy,” said State Senator Diane Savino, an Independent Democrat from Staten Island who sponsored the legislation establishing the medical marijuana program and shepherded it through the Senate in 2014. “We set a very aggressive timeline and the state has met every deadline.  We’re that much closer to patients being given an option they don’t currently have.”

The health department, which released a scoring rubric, said it placed a heavy emphasis on ability to manufacture the drug, provide quality assurance and assure adequate levels and quality of staffing.

The applications and scores in each of various categories have not been made public by the administration, so it is impossible to know exactly how the health department reached its conclusions.

Health department officials say they plan to release the applications once proprietary information is redacted, but there is still much that remains unknown, including the price of the drug, and whether there will be any dispensation for low-income New Yorkers because the drug is not covered by health insurance.

What is known is that the Cuomo administration placed a premium on the ability to grow a large quantity of medical marijuana quickly. That’s crucial for the administration, which has promised medical marijuana would be in patients’ hands by the January, 2016—less than six months away.

Colette Bellefleur, chief operating officer of Bloomfield Industries, said the company has an operating plan in place and will begin growing in the next week and a half. She expects to be at full capacity some time next year. They plan to “have the medicine ready to dispense to sick patients by January 2016.”

Being licensed in other states appears to have helped applicants, but was not a determining factor.

Columbia Care is already licensed in five other states, and the company has a deal in place with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, to analyze data it has collected on its thousands of patients. The medical school researchers will study the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana, focusing on H.I.V.-association peripheral neuropathy and cancer-associated anorexia and cachexia. The two institutions have some common ground. Peter May is chairman of the board of trustees of the Mount Sinai Health System. His son, Jonathan May, is chairman of the Columbia Care Corporate Advisory Board.

PharmaCann was recently licensed in Illinois, winning approval for two grow centers and four dispensaries.

Empire State Health Solutions’ sister company, Minnesota Medical Solutions, was awarded one of two licenses to grow and dispense medical marijuana in the state. Minnesota’s medical marijuana plan became fully functional July 1.

Dr. Kyle Kingsley, the founder and C.E.O. of the company, has previously declated that the company are not “cannabis flag wavers.”

At the other end of the experience spectrum are Etain and Bloomfield.

Etain is a family owned company from upstate New York and has no previous experience growing medical marijuana.

The women of Etain, which include daughters Hillary and Keeley, were recently featured in a New York magazine piece that compared them to “characters from a Jenji Kohan script,” the creator and executive producer of the show “Weeds,” which details a suburban family’s entanglement with marijuana distribution.

While the women themselves don’t have experience growing marijuana, they’re relying on a “Green Team” to cultivate the plant: Charles Yurgalevitch, the director of horticultural education at the New York Botanical Garden, Lee Mandell, the founder of Boswyck Farms, a hydroponics farm in Astoria, and Colorado-based marijuana cultivator Michael Leigh.

Hillary Peckham, who will be acting as the chief operations officer, told Capital that employees will be trained through Boswyck Farms.

“They’re going to start training employees in conjunction with our growers from Colorado so that they’re getting appropriate training to this plant and the growers from Colorado are really the ones who are going to start this initial harvest of crop and they’ll be in charge of teaching everyone how to specifically work with this plant,” she said.”

The Colorado-based grower, she said, is scheduled to be in New York Monday to begin the process.

“We should be growing within six weeks,” Hillary said.

Bloomfield executives are also relying on their “diverse team” to make up for a lack of experience in the field.

“One of the most important tenets of Bloomfield industries that we believe put us on top to get a license is we’ve assembled a very diverse team.”

One of the company’s executives, Richard Yost, operates Ideal 420 Soil, which sells soil and other products to marijuana growers, and which sponsored a series of concerts by the Colorado Symphony orchestra last summer featuring pot-friendly music.

New York’s medical marijuana program, which was signed into law last summer, is one of the strictest in the nation. Despite some concerns from legalization advocates that the regulations would be too prohibitive, 43 companies applied for a license, each paying $10,000 to apply, and thousands more on lobbyists to help sort through the maze of state law, negotiate agreements with labor unions and launch campaigns to garner the support within communities.

Many towns, especially those in rural parts of the state, opened their arms, excited for the potential tax revenue and jobs the growers would bring.

While Cuomo’s health department worked to implement this law and select the applicants, which must pay an additional $200,000 for the license, advocates for greater access pushed the governor to create some sort of emergency access pathway for sick children.

Cuomo said he would look in to the matter and, in April, state health commissioner Howard Zucker said a program to help children was “imminent,” though no drug trial, or pathway to expedited access was ever created.

Legislators tried to forge ahead, passing a bill o to expedite access for medical marijuana. The bill remains on Cuomo’s desk, and the governor has not said if he would sign the measure, though doing so now would seem redundant.

The health department on Friday also released the locations of dispensaries, which has been one of the most persistent concerns for medical marijuana advocates who worried 20 locations would not be enough to meet the needs of the entire state.

That concern remains, as do questions about how the state decided where dispensaries would go.

Albany, for example, will have three dispensaries, while Long Island will only have two. Manhattan and Queens will have two, but Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island have zero. The Finger Lakes region will have only one dispensary as well.

“Once you say you’re going to try to serve 20 million people with 20 dispensaries, no arrangement is going to be good,” said Assembly health committee chair Richard Gottfried, who sponsored the medical marijuana bill.  “There are people who know how to figure out what locations maximize transportation accessibility, but I’m not one of them. It may be that the Albany area is a population hub and at a north-south, east-west highway and rail crossroads.”

Savino pointed out that this was only the first iteration of the medical marijuana program and said she could see this governor or the next expanding the program, allowing for more licenses and more dispensaries.

“For those who didn’t make the cut, stick around,” she said. “New York is a very big state.”

Advocates are also hopeful that the Cuomo administration will expand the number of diseases for which medical marijuana can be prescribed.

Bloomfield Industries will grow marijuana in Queens and dispense it in Manhattan, Nassau County and Erie and Onandoga; Columbia Care NY, will grow and operate a dispensary in Monroe County as well as in Manhattan, Suffolk County and Clinton County; Empire State Health Solutions will grow in Fulton County and dispense in Albany County, Broome, Westchester and Queens; Etain will grow in Warren County and dispense in Albany, Ulster, Westchester and Onondaga; and PharmaCann will grow in Orange County and dispense in Erie, Onondaga, Ulster and the Bronx.