Pubdate: Wed, 11 Jan 2017
Source: Journal News, The (NY)
Copyright: 2017 The Gannett Company, Inc.


ALBANY -- State regulators want to double the number of companies growing
and selling medical marijuana in New York to keep pace with patient

The state Department of Health issued a report this week with 12
recommendations to improve the state's medical marijuana program, which
launched in January and has faced criticism from patient advocates who say
there are too many barriers to getting the drug.

Among them were proposals to increase the number of marijuana companies
who can operate in New York from five to 10, which would increase the
number of allowed dispensaries in New York from 20 to 40.

The report also recommends allowing nurse practitioners to certify
patients for medical marijuana, which proponents say would help with
access in rural counties.

Of the state's 62 counties, 20 don't have a single doctor registered in
the program, according to the report.

"Allowing NPs to issue certifications for medical marijuana would allow
them to properly treat patients suffering from severe, debilitating or
life threatening conditions, particularly in many rural counties where
there are fewer physicians available to treat such ailments," according to
the report.

* Cuomo: Medical marijuana program is 'a good law'

The report, which was legally required and issued about two years after
Cuomo signed the medical marijuana bill into law, provided a first glimpse
at the geographic breakdown of the program.

About 57 percent, or 2,883, of the state's 4,998 certified patients and 61
percent, or 366, of the 601 doctors participating in the program hailed
from New York City or Long Island.

In Broome County, three doctors were registered and 41 patients were
certified by mid-June, while Chemung County had four registered doctors
and 11 patients, according to the report. Tompkins County had four
registered doctors and 14 patients.

Currently, the state allows five companies to operate one growing facility
and four dispensaries each. According to the report, 17 of the allowed 20
dispensaries are now open, with the remaining three "opening soon."

The Department of Health recommends doubling that over the next two years,
which the report says will help "meet additional patient demand and
increase access to medical marijuana throughout New York State."

Some of the changes would require the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew
Cuomo to approve tweaks to the state's medical-marijuana law. Proponents
of medical marijuana had lobbied state lawmakers earlier this year to make
significant changes to the program, but the Legislature ended its 2016
session in June without approving any.

The report also recommends making a list of doctors participating in the
program available to the public -- but only with practitioners who consent
to being included on the list. So far, the state has declined to make a
list available, which has been a chief complaint of patient advocates.

As it stands, patients must be certified by a physician who completed a
training course and registered with the state in order to receive the
drug, which is only made available in non-smokeable forms.

Kate Hintz, a North Salem resident whose 5-year-old daughter suffers from
a rare form of epilepsy, said she was encouraged by the recommendations in
the report. Hintz has been a frequent presence at the state Capitol in
recent years to push for access to medical marijuana.

"Overall, I'm pretty pleased, especially with the recommendations set
forth," Hintz said. "The fact that the DOH has finally digested the
information and is officially making these recommendations is a huge step

The proposal to increase the number of marijuana growers is likely to face
opposition from the current licensed growers.

Ari Hoffnung, CEO of Vireo Health, praised the Health Department's report
as "thoughtful" and said his company agrees with the "lion's share" of the
recommendations. Vireo has a growing facility in Fulton County and
dispensaries in White Plains, Johnson City near Binghamton and Queens.

But he expressed concern about increasing the number of licensed medical
marijuana companies and whether the state's current customer base could
support an expansion.

"When you look at the current market of patients, I think it's clear that
a market of this size does not lend itself to create five sustainable
businesses," Hoffnung said. "Therefore, if you were to add registered
organizations before this market grows and matures, it could have a
destabilizing effect on the market."

Under state law, patients must have at least one of 10 debilitating or
life-threatening diseases or conditions to be eligible for the drug,
including cancer, ALS or a sever spinal injury.

About 56 percent of certified patients are 51 or older, according to the
report. About 34 percent of all certified patients suffer from a
neuropathy issue, while about a quarter have cancer.
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