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Medical Marijuana's NY Journey

WAMC composite image by Dave Lucas

It was a long road to the first legal medical marijuana harvest in New York this week.

Democratic Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, chair of the Assembly Health Committee, first sponsored the medical marijuana bill in 1997. A clause that would have allowed "home production" of the drug was taken out of the measure early on. But the notion of patients obtaining the drug through licensed dispensaries stuck.

By 2010, a Quinnipiac Poll revealed 71 percent of New York voters expressed supportfor legalizing medical marijuana. In July 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the legislature enacted the Compassionate Care Act to provide what was described as "a comprehensive, safe and effective medical marijuana program that meets the needs of New Yorkers."

By the time the state posted final regulations for the state medical marijuana program last April, Gottfried called them "needlessly restrictive and gratuitously cruel."  "I don't know how anyone would get a license to produce and dispense medical marijuana in New York."

Nonetheless, the fledgling program is on track to be fully operational at the beginning of 2016.

Medical marijuana hit two milestones this week:  Governor Cuomo signed legislation to speed up early access to the drug for critically ill people.  The state will work with regulated producers who can provide marijuana to patients as soon as possible. And  New York saw its first legal marijuana harvest in a century. Vireo is one of five companies picked by the state to grow and dispense medical marijuana, reaping its first crop Thursday at its Fulton County plant. Vireo CEO Dr. Kyle Kingsley:    "These plants, as we speak, are being converted to medications, and we're working on the testing regimen with the state of New York to make sure we're on track to get patients medications in January."

The turnover time from seedling to finished product is surprisingly short.   "It's about four to five months, generally speaking. Five to six months is more normal, but we're actually going to accelerate the process in New York to fit the timeline."

Dr. Stephen Dahmer is Vireo's Chief Medical Officer. He says its was common knowledge for centuries that cannabis has medicinal value.   "And I think the hard part, in medicine, a lot of times is sorting risks versus benefits. What we were trying to decide is do the benefits of any type of pharmaceutical herbal medicine, any type of therapy, do the benefits outweigh the risks? And I think there came a time in our history when we really felt the risks outweighed the benefits and that created a huge shift in the tide which made cannabis illegal for years. That was such a strong shift that it's taken a lot of momentum to overcome that. And a large part of that shift was labeling cannabis as a schedule one. And so that limits the amount of studying and the amount of investigation that can be done to try to prove any possible benefit it might have."

Some believe that legalizing marijuana for recreational use is a possible next step. Kinsgley disagrees.  "Using cannabis recreationally is something very different than what we're doing. We're making precisely formulated medications that you know, they're only liquids, oils and capsules, but very different than just smoking the undifferentiated plant material."

There are some concerns about non-smokable forms of cannabis that will be addressed;  questions that will be answered in the weeks to come. Those include the cost of the drug, which may be out of reach for seniors, social services recipients and those subsisting on low-paying jobs. Dahmer suggests checking the numbers from other states.   "As of right now, it seems that the state is going to have a major role in determining that cost, so we don't know."

The Health Cost Helper website, last updated in 2012, says cannabis concentrates are typically sold in half-gram and gram quantities and generally cost $20-$60 per gram.

Other sites suggest that when taxes, regulatory and processing fees are added in, patients can expect to pay much more than the so-called "street value" of any particular quantity of marijuana.

The New York State Health Department will have final say on pricing.  Medical Marijuana Program administrators did not respond to a request for comment in time for broadcast.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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