Since New York opened up their medical marijuana program at the start of this year it has received a lot of criticism for being one of the most – if not the most – restrictive program(s) in any of the 23 states and D.C. to have legalized marijuana for medicinal use.
The program only allows patients suffering from 10 conditions, even though the number of known conditions that can benefit far exceeds that – and they also have too few doctors and dispensaries for the number of people in the state. Not to mention it’s also likely the most expensive program in the country as well.
With all that negativity surrounding it, it comes as no surprise that the number of patients who are benefiting from this program is extremely low. There are as few as 2,675 registered patients as of this past Monday (4/11/16) – with a state as populated as New York that number should be much, much higher.
The main issues surrounding the lack of patient participation is the difficulty in finding a doctor, being unable to travel to a dispensary and/or no dispensaries having the type of medication they need and the extremely high price tag that insurance won’t come near, which can range from $150-2,000 per month.
On Monday, the Assembly health committee was greeted by dozens of medical marijuana patients and activists (and this is not the first time they’ve shown up waiting for them) when on their way to discuss bills which would expand the program. The patients are only asking that the program be opened up to more conditions and make it easier and more affordable for them to participate in.
“I’ve been looking for a doctor to help me access the program since January,” said Donna Romano of Syracuse, a veteran and grandmother who has multiple sclerosis. “I fought tooth and nail for this program, and now I can’t even participate because there isn’t a doctor nearby willing to assist me. Adding nurse practitioners and physician assistants would help patients like me get access.”
Of the many problems being addressed, one is the lack of physicians who have paid for and taken the 4 hour course to certify them to prescribe medical marijuana. With around 526 doctors currently certified and no list in sight, some patients simply cannot find a doctor to register them in the program at all. One of the bills would allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to take the course and become certified as well, in order to serve more patients.
“I’m living proof that cannabis can help reduce opioid use,” said Jason Pinsky of Brooklyn, New York. “Following spine surgery, I was prescribed over 1000 mg of oxycontin per day. With cannabis, I was able to get off opioids completely, and it changed my life. New York needs add severe chronic pain to the list of qualifying conditions so that other people can get the relief they deserve.”
One of the other bills to be discussed would expand the number of qualifying conditions to include Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury, dystonia, muscular dystrophy, wasting syndrome, PTSD, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. A separate bill would include chronic pain, which we are continually hearing about how cannabis can reduce the use of opiates in pain patients. Even the CDC considered this research when they recommended that doctors stop testing for THC and stop dropping pain management patients for marijuana use.
“There are only two dispensaries open in all of New York City right now,” said Reginald Brown of VOCAL-NY, a person living with HIV/AIDS. “There is no dispensary in Brooklyn where I live. It’s absurd to think that two or three dispensaries can serve a city of more than eight million people. I urge the legislature to add more options and to lift these other needless restrictions that are making it hard for people like me to get the medicine we need.”
The last main issue surrounding the current program is the lack of dispensaries. People who are registered patients must sometimes travel for over a couple of hours just to reach the nearest dispensary – and if that one doesn’t have the particular medicine you need then you might end up traveling another couple hours in another direction. This is not only inconvenient, but difficult both physically and financially for many patients.
A bill that would allow an additional 4 companies (on top of the existing 4 to make a total of 8) to cultivate and dispense marijuana is also being considered. Each distributor can have 5 dispensaries – currently of the 20 licensed shops there are only 17 with their doors open. Another possible bill would also expand the products they are allowed to process and sell, including finally allowing smokable cannabis, which could greatly reduce costs for patients.
Hopefully the needs of these patients were heard loud and clear and these bills will advance and be signed into law without hesitation. If the state of New York wants to revive their medical marijuana program, now is the time to do so.