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NY Times: First Medical Marijuana Dispensaries in New York Open

By Jesse McKinley and Eli Rosenberg, 1/7/16

ALBANY — New York joined the ranks of nearly half the states on Thursday in allowing the use of medical marijuana with the opening of eight dispensaries statewide, serving a variety of tinctures, concentrates, vapors and other forms of the drug.

How many patients actually received medicine from those dispensaries, however, was uncertain; several locations around the state had customers who entered, but it was not clear if any actually bought the drug, or were qualified to do so under the state’s strict guidelines. On Thursday, officials at the state’s Department of Health said that only 51 patients had been certified for the program thus far, though that process only began on Dec. 23 and requires the approval of a physician who has registered with the state.

Still, several facilities formally marked their openings on Thursday morning, including one on East 14th Street in Manhattan, a sleek space adorned with security cameras, and sandwiched between a health care provider and a falafel establishment. The site, run by a company called Columbia Care, which also operates facilities in Arizona and Washington, D.C., attracted several potential customers, including one man who showed reporters his purple and white New York State medical marijuana card.

“I wanted to find out the pricing, I wanted to find out the availability, I wanted to find out what the deal with it was,” said the man, 53, who declined to give his name for privacy reasons but said he suffered from neuropathy. “I spoke with the pharmacist, spoke with the people. They were as excited about seeing me as I was excited about seeing them.”

A dispensary in White Plains was scheduled to open on Thursday, as well as two in the Buffalo area and two in the Finger Lakes region, including near Syracuse. One company, Etain, opened its doors in Kingston around 8 a.m., and then opened a second dispensary in Albany on Thursday afternoon. Others are also expected to open in coming weeks, as the program ramps up.

Permitted under a 2014 law signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, New York’s entry into the medical marijuana marketplace comes after years of lobbying by lawmakers on behalf of patients, including children, for whom the drug is a palliative to debilitating illnesses. Yet even after the law’s adoption, some supporters of the concept criticized its stringent regulations, including that only a limited number of conditions qualify for medical use of marijuana and that it is sold in only 20 locations statewide. The drug also may not be smoked in New York, a stipulation of Mr. Cuomo’s approval, and must be processed into other forms by the companies that grow it.

All of which left even medical marijuana’s most ardent supporters sounding somewhat bittersweet at the prospect of Thursday’s soft opening.

“I think the glass is three-fourths full, maybe two-thirds full, and that is that it is going to benefit a lot of very seriously ill people,” said Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat, who first introduced a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the mid-1990s. “But I think we can do better.”

A late adopter to a trend that is now 20 years old, New York, in allowing medical marijuana, joins states as varied as conservative Montana and liberal California, which in 1996 became the first state to legalize the drug’s use as medicine. Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia also allow the drug’s recreational use.

Still, because New York is the home of the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, which set a punitive tone regarding drug use and users in the 1970s, even a measured acceptance of marijuana here seemed significant to longtime advocates of relaxing harsh penalties for drug use.

“What makes it important is the prominence of New York City — nationally and internationally — and the significance of opening up legal medical marijuana outlets here,” said Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which lobbies for changes in national drug policy. He said New York had been “a laggard” on medical marijuana.

Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, brokered the deal to allow medical marijuana at the end of the 2014 legislative session, but did so with a decided emphasis on security, asking for a provision that would allow the state to “pull the plug” on it at any time if public health or safety became threatened by the drug, which is still considered illegal by the federal government.

The program allows medical marijuana for certified patients who have cancer, H.I.V./AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, intractable spasticity caused by damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathies and Huntington’s disease.

Also included in the list of approved ailments is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Hillary Peckham, the 24-year-old chief operating officer of Etain, said she opened the business with her mother, Amy, and her sister, Keeley, the company’s horticulturist, after the family’s matriarch, Frances Keeffe, died from A.L.S.

Etain was selected by the state in July as one of five groups to distribute the drug, and was given six months by the state to open. Hillary Peckham said they had put the final touches on one of the sites they opened on Thursday, in an industrial area of north Albany.

The freshly painted dispensary had no signs yet, but offered a clean, sparsely furnished waiting room to obtain the drug. Qualified patients enter a rear area to consult with a physician, who then delivers one of 10 approved brands that include sprays, tinctures and vaporizers similar to e-cigarettes.

Ms. Peckham estimated that an average patient might spend $300 to $1,200 a month on marijuana as medicine. And though the company had yet to make a sale on Thursday afternoon, she said she was excited to start business.

“I always wanted to make an impact on people’s lives,” Ms. Peckham said. “But I never thought it would be this.”