New York To Launch Medical Marijuana Program Thursday
Advocates: Program Is Only a Success If and When Patients Can Access Medicine
Significant Concerns About the Program – Including Low Physician Enrollment – Remain
The New York State Department of Health (DOH) on Tuesday announced that New York’s medical marijuana program will officially open on Thursday, January 7.
While the state has authorized 20 dispensaries to open statewide, only eight will open on Thursday, with the rest slated to open later in January, leaving huge areas of the state without access to a dispensary.
This marks the first time that patients in New York can legally purchase medical marijuana, but significant concerns about the program remain. Since the law was passed in June 2014, advocates have warned that its narrowness and overly restrictive regulations would impede patient access.
“I’m disappointed that only eight dispensaries will open by the deadline,” said Missy Miller from Atlantic Beach. “There are none opening on Long Island, which leaves my son Oliver, who suffers from life-threatening seizures, out of luck.
"This only highlights concerns we have had all along that the state has licensed way too few producers and dispensaries to serve a state as populous and geographically large as New York," Miller said. "If we can’t access medicine, what good is the program? And what about expedited access for those like my son, who are most in need?
"We’ve not had one word about how to register for that," Miller said. "This has been repeated slaps in the face with no guidance at all and no relief for my son.”
DOH is reporting that only 150 physicians have enrolled in the program so far, and patients are reporting that they are having difficulty finding a registered physician who can certify them to receive the medicine. Under the law, only patients with one of ten medical conditions qualify to apply to the program, and those qualified patients must receive a recommendation from a physician who has completed a 4.5-hour training course and registered with the state.
“I urge my fellow physicians in New York to register for this program so that they can have one more tool to help serve their patients,” said Craig Blinderman, MD, director, Adult Palliative Care Service and associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. “There is solid medical evidence for the efficacy and safety of medicinal cannabis for treating certain conditions.
"Physicians in 22 other states are making this medicine available to their patients who can benefit from it; it’s time for New York doctors to do the same,” Dr. Blinderman said.
On Tuesday, in a positive step, DOH announced that they will make available to the public the names of physicians who have registered as part of the program and agreed to be listed.
“I worked for three years to pass the medical marijuana law, and now I cannot even access the medicine I fought so hard to get because my neurologist won’t participate in the program,” said Susan Rusinko, a patient with multiple sclerosis from Auburn, N.Y. “I’m glad the state has agreed to make a list of registered physicians publicly available, but we need more doctors to get on board with this program and make this medicine – which is far safer than the pharmaceuticals they prescribe – available to people like me who have suffered needlessly for far too long.”
The price of medical marijuana in New York is set by the Health Commissioner and won’t be released until January 7 when some of the dispensaries open. Advocates have expressed concerns about affordability since no provisions to help low-income patients to cover the cost of the medicine have been made, and insurance carriers, including Medicaid, will not cover the costs. DOH has said that some producers may offer reduced pricing options.
“I live on SSDI and have real concerns about whether I and people like me are going to be able to pay for this medicine,” said Nancy Rivera, a four-time cancer survivor from Troy, N.Y. “Insurance won’t cover this, and the last thing I want to see is a program that only the rich can afford.”
Advocates are also concerned about the number of patients left out of the program altogether. The law currently only covers those with cancer, positive status for HIV or AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathies, and Huntington's disease.
“I suffer from PTSD as a result of my service to our country,” said Shawn Majors, a U.S. Navy veteran. “Cannabis can help alleviate the symptoms of my PTSD better than and without the intolerable side effects of the pharmaceuticals I have been prescribed.
"People like me, who are suffering needlessly, should have access to this medicine," Majors said. "I urge the health commissioner to add PTSD to the list of conditions covered by New York’s medical marijuana program.”
The health commissioner must decide by January 7th whether or not to include Alzheimer's disease, muscular dystrophy, dystonia, post-traumatic stress disorder and rheumatoid arthritis in the program. The commissioner also has the ability to add these and other conditions at a future time.
“Medical marijuana only becomes real in New York when patients have the medicine they need,” said Julie Netherland, PhD, of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “For this program to work, we need to take seriously the concerns that have been raised about patients’ access – low doctor enrollment, geographic accessibility to dispensaries, affordability, and including patients with other serious medical conditions.
"Too many patients are being left behind and too many have suffered far longer than they should have,” Netherland said.
Graphic: Herald Tribune