Pubdate: Thu, 04 May 2017
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2017 The New York Times Company
Author: Jesse McKinley


ALBANY - When the State of New York approved the use of medical
marijuana in 2014, the applicants to dispense the drug were vetted and
reviewed by a panel of experts said to have deep backgrounds in
several fields.

The identities of the panel's members had been a mystery since. By
July 2015, the panel had chosen five companies that would receive
exclusive statewide medical marijuana licenses, a potentially
lucrative award in a state with nearly 20 million residents and
hundreds of thousands of potential patients.

A September 2015 Freedom of Information request by The New York Times,
seeking the names of the panel's members, was delayed nine times. On
Friday, the request was effectively denied, as the department said
that it did not "maintain records" or contact information for the panel.

On Monday, however, the department reversed course and disclosed the
names of the panel's 17 evaluators: all state employees, most with
little or no prior professional experience in medical marijuana.

They included a number of Health Department scientists as well as
three architects, an accountant and an auditor. They were chosen for
their specialties - including chemistry, internal medicine, and
pharmaceutical drugs, according to the department - to create a
"multidisciplinary team."

The state's program has been criticized for a cumbersome and often
opaque roll-out, in part because of restrictions placed on the drug's
medical use - for example, it cannot be smoked and must be used in
forms like tinctures and oils. Critics have also faulted the state for
seemingly opting to create a model from scratch, despite more than 20
other states having medical marijuana programs, an assertion that the
Health Department disputes, saying its panel - despite its lack of
expertise in the field - drew from other states' experiences.

The identity and methodology of the panel has taken on new import in
recent months as the Health Department has moved to use their 2015
evaluations as a basis for awarding licenses to as many as five
additional companies, part of a broader effort to expand access to the

Critics, and even some supporters, of the program have said that the
small number of dispensaries - 20 approved statewide - and the high
cost of medical marijuana has made it difficult for some patients to
get the drug, particularly in remote or rural areas.

Companies running the dispensaries have said that they have yet to
make a profit; a trade association representing the five current
licensees filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Albany seeking to
halt the expansion.

The suit claims that the Health Department had unilaterally decided to
grant more licenses even after a two-year report issued in August
offered evidence that the program had been struggling to take hold
with doctors and patients. The plaintiffs suggest that an expansion
"will result in irreparable harm" to individual companies and threaten
the existence of the whole program.

"Flooding the supply market when there is insufficient patient demand
will undermine the viability of the entire program," the lawsuit says,
adding that more dispensaries could also make it difficult for
companies to raise more capital.

State Senator Diane Savino, a Democrat from Staten Island who was a
champion of the 2014 legislation that created the program, said she
had warned health officials that a lawsuit was possible after they had
announced the expansion this year.

"These guys are on the hook for tens of millions of dollars each," she
said. "So the expansion of these licenses would only serve to harm
them even further. So I'm certainly not surprised."

Ms. Savino added that she personally did not think that the program
needed additional organizations to grow and produce marijuana as
medicine, but she does suggest additional dispensaries. "They could
just issue dispensary-only licenses," she said.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, another of the program's legislative
sponsors, said the law allowed for the authorization of additional
organizations, but he echoed Ms. Savino's call for more dispensaries,
saying that "it would help existing producers."

Despite a long lobbying campaign by patients and caregivers, the
program did not make an immediate impact. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo
demanded strict regulations in exchange for his support for legalizing
the drug for medical usage. Critics blame the restrictive regulations
for the program's initial struggles to attract and certify patients
and doctors.

Facing complaints, the Health Department announced a series of changes
to the program in late 2016, including adding chronic pain as a
treatable condition and allowing nurse practitioners to certify
patients. Those changes have shown that the Cuomo administration seems
to have "definitely turned a corner in its attitude toward the
program," Mr. Gottfried said.

All told, approximately 17,600 patients - and nearly 1,000 medical
professionals - have been approved for the program, whose first
dispensaries opened in January 2016. Still, advocates for the drug say
that problems with the program still exist, including the difficulty
in finding physicians and other medical professionals certified to
recommend the treatment.

"As someone who has been working on medical cannabis for three years
now in this state, I have yet to know one patient that feels the
program is serving their needs entirely," said Kate Hintz, state
director of Compassionate Care NY, a group that lobbies for medical
marijuana, citing a limited and inconsistent product selection. "The
product they buy one month is not the same strength the next month - a
huge red flag for medical patients."

Jill Montag, a spokeswoman for the Health Department, said that the
state still intended to issue five additional licenses in the first
half of 2017, and that such an expansion will address many of the
concerns voiced by Ms. Hintz and others, including geographic
diversity, affordability and variety of products.

As for the once unknown panelists who chose the organizations, Ms.
Montag did not comment directly on the lack of experience of the
panel, but said that members of the panel "were carefully selected for
their expertise in specific disciplines" and called the process of
ranking applicants "extensive, thorough and entirely transparent."
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