Crain’s: State Health Department pushes to expand access to medical marijuana

By Jonathan LaMantia, August 11

The state Health Department proposed a slew of fixes to its medical-marijuana program Thursday in order to make it easier for patients and providers to participate.

The department will allow registered companies to sell lotions, ointments, patches, chewable and effervescent tablets, and lozenges. While the new products expand on existing options for consuming marijuana, such as vaporizers and pills, patients still won’t be allowed to smoke it. Those in the industry say the manufactured products allow for precise dosing, while some patient advocates contend that the lack of smokeable marijuana has deterred potential customers from the legal market.

The regulations will ease restrictions on prospective patients interested in going to a dispensary to learn about products or the state program. Currently, patients must already be certified. The state will also shorten a required educational course for providers from four hours to two.

Since late March, when the state added chronic pain as a qualifying condition, the number of certified patients has increased 77%, to about 27,000. The Health Department also began publishing a list of certified practitioners in May. The improvements are positive signs for proponents of the industry who had criticized the Cuomo administration for holding the program back with rules that limited access.

“The administration has clearly turned a corner in its attitude toward the medical-marijuana program in a good way,” Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a Democrat representing Manhattan, said. “It’s a program that ought to be expanded and moved as close as possible to the way we deal with medications generally.”

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said the changes were aimed at “improving the facility experience.” For example, one proposed rule allows people other than caregivers to accompany certified patients to a dispensary.

The 10 registered companies will also get relief in the form of changes to regulations around advertising and manufacturing and security requirements.

“We welcome these regulatory changes and are hopeful they will help enhance patient access,” Ari Hoffnung, chief executive of Vireo Health of New York, said in a statement.

The proposed regulations will be published in the state register on Aug. 23, with a 30-day comment period to follow.