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Gannett: Medical marijuana on track in NY, but questions remain

By Joseph Spector, 12/11

ALBANY – New York health officials and the manufacturers say they are on track to start providing medical marijuana to critically ill patients next month.

Questions remain, however, over whether doctors and patients will be enrolled in the system quickly enough to make the drug available by the Jan. 5 target date.

“There’s no sign of a system in place yet for patients. That’s a major concern,” said Julie Netherland, deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group. “We get calls from patients every day wanting to sign up, and we have to tell them we don’t know yet.”

The state Health Department has yet to announce the certification process for patients to get access to medical marijuana in nonsmokeable forms — which is the only legal form in New York after the law was passed in 2014.

But before the state can do that, the Health Department needs to certify physicians to prescribe the drug. And that process is still ongoing, the department said, and no list of doctors who are approved has been released.

All of that is expected to happen over the next several weeks. Doctors need to take a four-hour online course to be certified.

“Patient certification will begin shortly,” the Health Department said in a statement. “Practitioner education is an ongoing process with doctors continually signing up for and receiving training, which is available via an online, four-hour, DOH-approved course.”

On July 31, the Health Department announced that five companies were selected to manufacture medical marijuana and distribute it at 20 dispensaries.

The five manufacturing facilities are in Queens; Rochester; Fulton County near Amsterdam; Warren County in the North Country; and Orange County in the Hudson Valley.

Dispensing sites will include ones in Yonkers and White Plains in Westchester County; one in Rochester; one in Kingston; and one in Johnson City, Broome County.

Some may open in early January, while others may open throughout the month, the companies said.

“We are laser focused on getting these open as soon as possible for patients,” said Kyle Kingsley, CEO of Vireo Health of New York, which is growing marijuana in Fulton County and distributing it in sites that include White Plains and Johnson City.

Kingsley said patients should temper their expectations as the program starts. The system will grow over time as more patients are enrolled and as more doctors get certified.

“There are going to be very few patients early on in New York,” he explained, noting that’s what the company saw after it launched earlier this year in Minnesota. “It’s going to take time for patients and physicians to get enrolled. It’s going to be a very slow start, and that’s totally normal, and it’s going to rev up with time.”

The manufacturers are either finished with growing and harvesting their marijuana plants or close to it. The next step is getting final sign off from the state for their product and packaging.

Limited illnesses

Nicholas Vita, CEO of Columbia Care, which is based in Rochester, said the company has already sent its drugs to the state Health Department for final approval. The company will also have a dispensary near its manufacturing site at the Eastman Business Park.

“We’re going through a very rigorous process with the state to affirm all the steps in the packing process and the manufacturing process before we actually begin to bring product to our facilities,” Vita said.

Severely ill patients with a “progressive or degenerative” condition will be able to obtain a special state certification allowing them access to medical marijuana. They have to pay $50 for a registry card, or it can be waived if financial hardship is proved.

The illnesses, prescribed in the state law known as the Compassionate Care Act, include: cancer, HIV infection or AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury with spasticity, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathy, and Huntington’s disease.

Advocates have pointed to children with severe forms of epilepsy as patients who could particularly benefit from medical marijuana.

The state Legislature passed an emergency law in June that allows medical marijuana to be shipped in from other states if the program isn’t running soon.

“I know the Health Department is working hard to get the medical marijuana law up and running on schedule, but glitches happen,” Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan and the bill’s sponsor, said last month. “This emergency access law is designed to get medicine to the neediest patients, including young children, as quickly as possible.”

But the state and the growers said that won’t be necessary.

“All registered organizations are on track to manufacture and dispense in January,” the Health Department said.

Questions remain

Still, the fact that patients have yet to be notified about how they can apply for state certification — and get the card that goes with it — has raised concerns.

The state said it expects to soon release data on enrolled physicians, and then the process for patient certification would commence.

There’s also the question of price. Some companies have estimated a cost of $250 to $500 a month for the medical marijuana, and insurance doesn’t cover it.

Advocacy groups want the state to find a way to help subsidize the cost for poor patients.

“The last thing we want to see — after going through all of this time and effort to get the program operational — is there’s a two-tiered system where only affluent people can access medical cannabis,” Netherland said.

Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, who has advocated for medical marijuana, said she would like more information from the Health Department on the timeline of the rollout. She said more details would help patients and doctors.

“The bigger problem is you can make a product, but if you don’t have any customers, what difference does it make?” Savino said. “That’s the real challenge right now: The patient certification.”

Follow Joseph Spector on Twitter @gannettalbany.

Highlights of medical marijuana law

•Patients will pay $50 to apply for a registry card, which is necessary to buy the drug. State regulators can waive the fee in cases of financial hardship.

•Organizations growing medical marijuana will be allowed to sell as much as five brands of the drug. They are banned from selling the unprocessed whole flower, which some patient groups say reduces the number of potential medicines.

•Smoking the drug is also banned in New York. Instead, patients are allowed to use cannabis-based oils, liquids and pills to ingest the drug, either orally or via vapors. Edibles — think pot brownies — are also prohibited in New York. Debate has hinged on controlling dosage of the drug in edibles.

•Security requirements at growing operations and dispensaries include several different alarm systems. For example, motion detectors, video cameras, panic alarms and perimeter alarms are required. All marijuana products must also be stored in safes or vaults approved by state regulators.

— The Journal News