NY's First Medical Marijuana Patient Shares Her Story

Jan 12, 2016

Brittany Barger
Credit Allison Dunne

Now that New York has become the 23rd state to legalize medical marijuana, reporters Tuesday met the woman believed to be the first patient in the state.

Brittany Barger suffers from Stage IV ovarian cancer that has metastasized. The 27-year-old who was diagnosed about a year ago says surgery is not an option and chemotherapy has not worked. She requires some 15 pills just to get out of bed in the morning. After having registered, Barger arrived through the double doors at Vireo Health of New York’s White Plains Dispensary January 7, the day the state’s Medical Marijuana Program launched. She says she is already taking fewer pain meds and had an appetite for the first time in more than a year.

“When you have cancer, you can’t plan when you have good days but with this I’m hoping to have more good days and be able to check some more stuff off my bucket list instead of spending the majority of the time home in bed. I look forward to that,” says Barger.

“Like what?” asks Dunne.

“Just leaving the house going for walks seeing my friends, seeing my family, even just going to a movie, that’s huge for me,” Barger responds.

Credit Allison Dunne

The Medical Marijuana Program comes 18 months after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act. The program provides access to medical marijuana to certified patients suffering from severe, debilitating or life-threatening conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis. Doctors can register patients who then must secure a registry ID card. Barger says registering went fairly smoothly. However, there have been reports that other registrations have not. Ari Hoffnung is CEO of Vireo Health of New York.

“The state’s Medical Marijuana Program under the New York State Compassionate Care Act is not about numbers, it’s about alleviating pain and suffering,” says Hoffnung.

He adds:

“Over the weeks and months to come, we have no doubt that this program will continue to grow,” Hoffnung says. “New Yorkers are clever people. We figure things out even if they’re difficult at first. And it’s our hope that the model of medical cannabis in New York will help inform the way Americans think about medical cannabis and that the state of New York will ultimately emerge as a national if not global leader in the field of medical cannabis.”

Credit Allison Dunne

Vireo Health’s dispensary in White Plains in Westchester County is one of eight currently open in New York. Vireo has plans to open three others in Albany, Binghamton and Queens. The state Department of Health says dispensaries will open on a rolling basis throughout the month. New York’s medical marijuana regulations — which do not permit smoking marijuana — are considered among the strictest in the country. Chief Medical Officer of Vireo Health Dr. Laura Bultman believes this is positive.

“In many ways the regulations are exactly what make this program what it is and that’s a quality program,” says Bultman.

She adds:

“The more and more people who come out like this there’s going to be a different face of what a medical marijuana patient is. These are not stoners. These are not people even trying to get high. These are your neighbors. They’re your moms. They’re your sisters,” Bultman says.”People are ill in the United States and traditional medicine doesn’t always work.”

Again, Barger.

“I think there’s this misconception that people are out there getting high off of this and that’s not the case whatsoever,” says Barger. “I look at it as just another form of medicine that I’m taking.”

Barger says she decided to speak to reporters to get the word out about both ovarian cancer in younger women and the possibility of improving one’s quality of life by using medical marijuana in tandem with other medications and when other treatment options are off the table.

Vireo is one of five companies registered to implement the program. It is served by a cultivation facility in Fulton County.