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Journal-News: Medical marijuana dispensary to open in Yonkers

By David Robinson, 3/30

Etain LLC is poised to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Yonkers, and Mayor Mike Spano said the city differed from other communities that tried to block access to the controversial business.

“Many communities in New York state, and I think we all know this, have worked to keep dispensaries out and we did not; we worked to bring this dispensary here,” Spano said.

He spoke Wednesday during a media tour hosted by Etain, which plans to start selling marijuana-based drugs Friday in the city’s downtown business district at 55 Main St., a couple of blocks from the Hudson River. It would become the second dispensary to open in Westchester County since New York became the 23rd state to allow medical marijuana.

The other dispensary is in downtown White Plains and operated by Vireo Health of New York. There are 20 total dispensary sites across New York where patients will be allowed to buy the drug under the state marijuana program, which launched in

Etain and Vireo are among five companies licensed to grow and sell marijuana-based drugs. Severely ill patients suffering from a list of eligible diseases, including cancer and epilepsy, are allowed to purchase non-smokeable forms of the drug, such as oils and pills, under state law.

As concerns about limited patient access mounted, Etain and other companies, including Vireo, failed to open several dispensary sites by a state-imposed January deadline. One of the failed openings was in Yonkers, where The Journal News/ found inaccurate statements in Etain’s original plan for a Nepperhan Avenue dispensary. Etain submitted paperwork to state regulators claiming to have a building permit for the site, but Yonkers city officials said no such permit existed.

Hillary Peckham, chief operating officer of Etain, said Wednesday that the company abandoned the Nepperhan Avenue site because it required extensive renovations, which would have further delayed the opening. She also noted the Main Street site, a second-story office space above Zuppa restaurant, is closer to the train station.

“We chose this location because Metro-North is right near by, so it will allow patients access from the five boroughs, and also north, so I think this is really the perfect spot,” she said.

Peckham and Spano told reporters that Etain worked with city officials to open the dispensary, which is in the former lobby of the Yonkers Chamber of Commerce. The chamber continues to use space in the building where Peckham displayed models of Etain’s marijuana-based drugs, including a mint-flavored oral spray intended for pediatric patients.

Etain and other companies faced a tight timetable to being New York’s fledgling marijuana industry. The state Health Department gave the companies eight months to grow the plant and extract oils used for the medicine, all the while handling the dispensary openings.

“While some people might say it might have taken a while, I think that we couldn’t have gone any faster,” Peckham said.

Meanwhile, many doctors have been reluctant to participate in the program because marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Several physicians have told The Journal News/lohud they fear losing their license to prescribe other drugs, along with other legal troubles. In New York, 471 doctors, out of 90,000, have registered to participate in the program to date.

The looming threat of Drug Enforcement Administration agents punishing marijuana doctors has prompted some politicians, including U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to push for reforms to federal laws to legalize medicinal marijuana. Gillibrand has said the current risk to doctors, patients and companies is unfair and rooted in outdated misconceptions about the lack of medicinal uses for marijuana.

Still, thousands of critically ill New Yorkers are struggling to get marijuana-based drugs. Participating doctors, dispensaries and clinics have been overwhelmed by the flood of phone calls and emails from potential patients. About 2,000 patients, or 1 percent of the 200,000 eligible for the program, have been certified to buy marijuana, the most recent Health Department figures show.

Etain officials said they have about 200 patients, but they expect the new Yonkers dispensary will serve hundreds more. They noted cost, however, remains a barrier because the drug isn’t covered by health insurance. Etain’s drugs cost patients $300 to $1,000 per month, depending on the specific illness.

A series of new bills would make significant changes to New York’s medical marijuana program. The bills would allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to certify patients that can use the drug, while adding Alzheimer’s and a handful of other conditions to the list of those eligible for treatment.

The legislation was introduced by Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, according to a USA TODAY Network report.

“The program — as restricted in the legislation and restricted even more by (Department of Health) regulations — I think is almost guaranteed to not work very well, and I think that’s what we’re seeing,” Gottfried said.

If approved, the number of medical marijuana dispensaries would be doubled to 40 from 20. Another bill would create a 15-member advisory committee to help decide appeals from marijuana-seeking patients who have been denied.

“These bills would basically bring the medical marijuana program more in line with the rules governing other controlled substances, including drugs that are highly dangerous, which medical marijuana is not,” Gottfried said.

Internet and social media companies have also weighed in on the battle over medical marijuana’s legality.

Vireo is urging Google, the online search engine, to start accepting online advertisements for medical marijuana. Google has cited policies banning ads for recreational drugs and other illegal activities in rejecting Vireo’s ads. Facebook, the social media giant, has taken a similar stance against marijuana companies.

Etain, which is based in Westchester, is owned by members of the Peckham family, which has links to Peckham Industries, a politically active road-construction business in White Plains.