New York's Medical Marijuana Participants Scramble For Big Day

With Gov. Andrew Cuomo expected to announce this week the official start date for New York’s medical marijuana program, manufacturers, physicians and patients are ready — mostly.

The start comes 18 months after the signing of the Compassionate Care Act, which identified the start date as Jan. 5, or when the state health commissioner and superintendent of State Police feel ready to implement the program in accordance with public health and safety interests.

A flurry of activity has taken place in recent weeks, including the launch Dec. 23 of an online registration process by the New York State Department of Health for patients who have been certified by a specially trained physician as eligible to apply for a registry identification card. Those ID cards will be required when purchasing medical marijuana at one of the 20 dispensing facilities slated to open this month.

The state issued licenses to five companies across the state to grow marijuana, which will then be manufactured into capsules, oils or vapors. The law prohibits medical marijuana in New York that could be smoked. Those products will only be permitted to be distributed at the 20 dispensaries, including four by New York City-based Columbia Care — one of which is in Manhattan — and three others in Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan.

 

Teddy Scott, owner of PharmaCann, told our sister publication, Buffalo Business First during a phone call Monday morning he expects his dispensary in Getzville to be ready to open later this week.

“Everybody has had a tremendous amount of things to get done in a short period of time, but it’s done and the location in Amherst is on schedule,” he said.

The companies selected as the initial participants in the state’s program had just over five months to finalize manufacturing operations, begin growing and manufacturing their products and have four dispensary sites apiece up and running.

On the other side were patients and physicians, who were kept waiting with little information until recent months. Patients began registering in late December, while physicians were unable to receive training nor register to participate in the program until late October. Many physicians have opted out of participating at all because marijuana remains a federal Schedule One drug, which cannot be transported across state lines nor be studied for research and testing.

Even among doctors who have expressed an interest in the program, certifications are not a sure thing. That includes Dr. Christopher Kerr, chief medical officer at Hospice Buffalo, who has not completed the certification process and who said he is unaware if any of the agency’s patients or caregivers have completed the online registration.

 

One who has registered is Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, medical director of Dent Neurologic Institute and chief of neuro-oncology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. He sees patients at Dent and Roswell with nearly all of the 10 medical indications identified by the state, but not one has yet asked for the certification required to registered online.

“Every day a patient asks me but it’s not happened yet,” he said.

Though some patients are simply ineligible, many of those who do qualify have been put off by the process or the cost: The online registration costs $50, while a monthly supply of legal medical marijuana is expected to cost $300-$1,000 out-of-pocket, and is not covered by private nor government insurance. Some of those patients have chosen instead to take their chances by smoking non-medical marijuana purchased illegally.

Though he’s ultimately supportive of the program as a way to help ease his patients’ pain and symptoms, Mechtler questions accessibility and whether the dispensaries will have enough product, as well as the willingness of physicians to prescribe a drug about which there’s been little to no research.

“I think it’s going to work out, but these are what we call growing pains,” he said.

Those aspects leave manufacturers to only guess at how much volume they’ll see when dispensaries open their doors.

“It’s pure speculation,” said Scott, PharmaCann owner. "If you look at the way it works in most states, typically the number of patients starts relatively low and gradually builds. The patient certification site here just went live around the holidays. I have no idea how many patients have submitted.”

PharmaCann also operates two manufacturing facilities and four dispensaries in the Chicago area, which opened in November. Scott said the company has learned a few lessons there he hopes to apply in New York.

“Be ready for anything,” he said. “This is so complex. I know patients have deserved or wanted this for a long time, but everybody has been working so hard and doing so many things, not just us but all the licensees the state has put in place in such a short period of time.”

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