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NY Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Open Thursday

WAMC composite image by Dave Lucas

The New York State Health Department is launching its much anticipated medical marijuana program today - but not without some pitfalls.

None of the five companies licensed to grow and distribute the drug will have all their dispensaries open on time. 

The state's medical marijuana program begins today, 18 months after The Compassionate Care Act legalized marijuana to treat certain conditions. The state selected five companies to produce the medication, to be distributed through 20 dispensaries set up across the state.

New York restricts medical marijuana offerings to capsules, liquids and oils, prohibiting edible and smokeable products.

Columbia Care NY is opening open its first dispensary on 14th Street, near Manhattan's Union Square. Nicholas Vita, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, is the company's CEO.   "We'd always had a plan in place where we'd begin with our first open day in Manhattan, and then we'd move to Rochester a few days later, Platsburgh a few days after that and Riverhead shortly after that. We wanted to have a very methodical process in place. This is the first time a program like this had ever been launched, and so, as we're learning how to do things the right way with the state, we can improve every time.  And what's interesting is that we've been open in Rochester on the manufacturing sector several months. According to the timeline we've always talked about, we're actually ahead of schedule, not behind schedule."

The dispensary is easily accessible, as nearly every city subway line touches Union Square.   "All we would ever ask is for people to look at this an opportunity to provide a substitute for some of the very powerful pain medications, some of the other medications, that don't necessarily work as well, and frankly, may have even a worse side effect profile, and that's why this is such an exciting moment in time."

Additional business license winners include PharmaCannis and Bloomfield Industries (each will have a dispensary opening in Onondaga and Erie counties).  Vireo will one open in Westchester County.  Etain is opening just two of four planned dispensaries, in Albany and Ulster counties. The other two, in Onondoga and Westchester counties, are slated to open in a few weeks when construction is finished. 

In many cases,  patients will have to wait to get access.  Julie Netherland of the Drug Policy Alliance says the state Department of Health didn’t launch the system to register and train physicians until last October -  and patient registration just opened near the end of December.   "One of the things we're most concerned about right now is the low number of doctors we think have registered for the program. We're hearing from patients that are having trouble locating physicians who are part of the program. And it's only physicians who have enrolled in the program that can certify patients for use of medical marijuana."

Netherland says she hopes to see more doctors sign up for the program. There are other concerns: limited access in terms of geography because there are only 20 dispensaries for the entire state. There are also concerns about affordabilty.   "Will the medicine be price in such a way that low income patients have access? And we also have concerns about the number of patients who are left out of the program entirely, since only 10 medical conditions are currently covered."

The Department of Health responded to request for comment via email, stating "we don’t have anyone available for an interview" opting to instead send a lengthy press release which quotes New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker as saying "Governor Cuomo gave us an extremely ambitious timeline to get the Medical Marijuana Program up and running, and I am pleased that we have met his goals."

New York patients must first be certified by their physician, who must be registered with the Department of Health.  There is a $50 application fee billed to the patient at a later date, unless a waiver for financial hardship has been obtained.

Residents wishing to buy marijuana for medical purposes from one of the licensed producers can apply online to the state's Medical Marijuana Patient Certification and Registration System.

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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