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Politico NY: Countering Cuomo, medical marijuana growers describe bumpy first year

By Addy Baird, 6/23/16

The first six months of the state’s medical marijuana program have been slow going for the five companies that grow and distribute the drug, according to the companies.

They have struggled to attract as many patients as they hoped, their owners say. They feel they have been hampered by strict state regulations that keep too few people from becoming eligible for medical marijuana. Those who are prescribed struggle to obtain the drug if they live too far away from a dispensary.

“If you wanted to use one word [to describe the last year], it would be either challenging or frustrating,” said Steve Stallmer, a spokesperson for Etain, one of the five registered organizations awarded a license in July.

The five registered organizations have formed a lobbying group to champion their cause in Albany. But their pleas have apparently not yet reached Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who on Wednesday said he hasn’t heard of any problems with patient access to medical marijuana.

“You don’t have [a dispensary] on every corner because you don’t have that kind of demand,” he said during an event in Buffalo. “But if you need the drug, you can get the drug.”

Cuomo said he hasn’t heard any complaints about the medical marijuana law at all.

“We’re not legalizing marijuana, we’re making it available for people who have medical conditions,” he said. “I think the law is a good law.”

Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act in 2014, which legalized medical marijuana in the state. Although he initially expressed skepticism about the law, he acquiesced once it became clear the bill would pass the Legislature. The governor demanded a series of changes, including removing a provision that would allow smoking the drug, and allowing extensive oversight from the state over its cultivation and distribution — measures the governor has repeatedly touted as striking the correct balance between medical needs and the potential for abuse. The law also required the drug be grown in New York.

Nearly seven months after it became legal to sell medical marijuana to patients across the state, three of the planned 20 dispensaries remain unopened, a combination of red tape and overly optimistic projections from the companies.

Last summer, five organizations, Vireo, Columbia Care, PharmaCann, Etain, and Bloomfield were awarded licenses to grow and dispense the drug. They could each grow five strains of medical marijuana, and each would be expected to open four dispensaries in January 2016.

The Cuomo administration celebrated the quick turnaround from awarding licenses to opening dispensaries.

“Governor Cuomo gave us an extremely ambitious timeline to get the Medical Marijuana Program up and running,” Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said in a press release at the time. “I am pleased that we have met his goals.”

But some of the registered organizations now say it was too fast.

“It was a tremendous challenge meeting the timeframe to get up and running,” Stallmer said.

Colette Bellefleur, Bloomfield’s chief operating officer, called the expedited timeframe the company’s biggest hurdle.

“You don’t get exactly what you expect [with the plants] in the first 90 days,” Bellefleur said.

She feels that had they had more time, they would’ve been able to develop more strains for more patients.

The program’s success is crucial, says Nicholas Vita, the CEO of Columbia Care, who says that the importance of medical marijuana in the state cannot be overstated.

“The products that we manufacture and provide … help people have a quality of life that we all take for granted, without the consequences of a recreational program,” Vita said.

The program has 600 doctors and 5,066 patients as of June 21, but one of the struggles of the first year has simply been getting people through the door.

Activists also estimate that the number of registered patients actively participating in the program is much lower, as some patients use other drugs to manage their conditions, and others say they are not able to access the drug. For some, it’s just too expensive.

The registered organizations brought the issue of low patient counts to Albany, but they began lobbying late in the legislative session, and had little luck convincing lawmakers to pass a series of bills that would have expanded access to the drug. The companies are turning their focus to the Department of Health, which has authority to regulate the medical marijuana law, expand the number of diseases and disorders that qualify for the drug and relax rules around advertising.

“You’re not allowed to do simple stuff like set up a Facebook page,” Stallmer said.

As private companies, none of the registered organizations will discuss revenue, but so far none of them are threatening to close, and their leaders express optimism that, with help from the Department of Health, year two will be better.

“I think everybody always expects this rush to the facilities, but the reality is that physicians are rightfully conservative,” said Nicholas Vita, Columbia Care’s CEO. “This is all new. … It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

“The operational part of the program has been in place for a year now and the sky has not yet fallen,” said Jeremy Unruh, PharmaCann’s general counsel.

Perhaps more than anything else, the registered organizations think their second year will be stronger if more conditions are added to the list of diseases that are eligible for medical cannabis prescriptions. The list currently stands at 10 conditions — including cancer, HIV or AIDS, ALS, epilepsy, and Parkinson’s Disease — and requires an accompanying associated or complicating condition, such as severe or chronic pain, nausea, or muscle spasms.

“It’s a small universe right now,” Stallmer said. “There’s only going to be so many patients.”

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a Democrat from Manhattan who has championed medical marijuana in Albany since 1997, introduced a suite of bills during the last legislative session that would have expanded the program, including publicizing the list of prescribing physicians, adding conditions to the list of eligible diseases, and allowing nurse practitioners and physician assistants to prescribe the drug.

He also proposed making any strain of medical marijuana developed to help epilepsy exempt from the limit on the number of strains that can be developed, and suggested removing the vertical integration requirement that mandates that each company oversee every step of the process.

Gottfried also supports a delivery program, something the companies think could help grow patient numbers. “Any pharmacy can deliver morphine or hydrocodone, but we treat medical marijuana like a high-grade weapon of war,” Gottfried said.

Many of Gottfried’s proposals are changes the state health department has the authority to enact.

“The Department of Health adopted regulations under the law that drastically restricted things,” Gottfried said, “and as a result the program has barely gotten off the ground. The [registered organizations] themselves are not exactly a major lobbying force. They are, at this point, struggling to survive.”

Ultimately, Gottfried thinks the Legislature is the only place the registered organizations are going to see change, and does not expect the Department of Health will work to expand the program unless Cuomo signaled a change in tone toward the program.

“It’s widely known that he’s not interested in the program expanding for whatever reason,” Gottfried said.

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