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Times-Union: NY to Expand Medical Marijuana Program

By Claire Hughes, August 30

Amid ongoing complaints that eligible patients face challenges getting medical marijuana under New York’s fledgling program, the state Health Department on Tuesday announced program expansions intended to increase access.

Key changes include authorizing nurse practitioners as well as doctors to certify patients, allowing for home delivery of medicines, expanding waivers of the $50 registration fee for qualifying patients with financial hardships, and modifying computerized data systems to make them easier for patients and doctors to use.

“We are constantly evaluating the program to make it more effective for patients and practitioners, and we believe that the implementation of these recommendations will do just that,” said state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker.

The announcement came two weeks after the Health Department issued a status report on the program, two years after passage of a law enabling its launch. That report included a dozen recommendations for improvement, some of which the department is acting upon now. Others, including making a list of participating doctors public, remain under review.

Those who have pushed for expansion of the program amid what they characterize as slow growth were pleased with Tuesday’s announcement, but disappointed the state would not act on other recommendations sooner.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a sponsor of the legislation that enabled the medical marijuana program, and patient advocate Kate Hintz both said Health Department officials should already have been reviewing several issues, such as adding chronic pain to the list of medical conditions that qualify patients to use medical marijuana.

“Some things they say they’re starting to look at are things that the Health Department has been telling me for six months or a year or more that they’ve already been doing,” Gottfried said.

Ari Hoffnung, the chief executive of medical marijuana producer Vireo Health of New York, praised the Health Department’s move to expand the program, as businesses like his work to earn returns on significant investments. But he opposed a plan to double the number of organizations, to 10, making and selling medical marijuana in New York. The Health Department boasts that 7,000 patients have been certified to participate in the program, though the figure is statewide. The number of unique monthly patient visits to dispensaries peaked at 1,500 in May.

“Let’s give this market some time to mature,” Hoffnung said.

Sen. Diane Savino, sponsor of the medical marijuana legislation in the Senate, lauded the state’s action Tuesday, saying the other important modifications needed for the program must largely come from the federal government. Marijuana, even for medical purposes, is illegal under federal law, creating challenges in financial backing for companies, insurance coverage of products, research and other issues.

“The things that I would like to see corrected or addressed are issues that only the federal government can do,” Savino said. “The state can only do so much.”