New Yorkers with cancer, AIDS, Parkinson's disease or other qualifying conditions will be able to obtain medical marijuana as early as Thursday, 18 months after lawmakers passed what is considered one of the strictest medical cannabis programs in the nation.
The program is off to a slow start: Only 150 physicians have completed the required registration with the state, and only eight of 20 dispensaries expect to open on Thursday. The remaining 12 dispensaries are expected to open by month's end.
"Our pharmacists are ready," said Nicholas Vita, CEO of Columbia Care NY, which intends to open its first dispensary this week near Manhattan's Union Square, followed by other locations in Suffolk, Clinton and Monroe counties. "Our product is ready. It's been tested by the state and validated."
To receive medical cannabis a person must have one of several qualifying conditions, obtain certification from a physician registered with the program and apply for a registry identification card from the state's Department of Health. The drugs will come in the forms of capsules and oils and tinctures that can be vaporized or used in inhalers.
The names of the physicians able to authorize the drug are being withheld by the state. The Department of Health announced Tuesday it would soon post a list of those physicians willing to be publicly identified.
The state's cautious approach was intended to address concerns about the risk that marijuana would be diverted for recreational uses.
"Our program ensures the availability of pharmaceutical-grade medical marijuana products for certified patients and establishes strict regulatory controls to protect public health and safety," state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said Tuesday.
Many patients and advocates of medical marijuana have expressed frustration not only with the 18-month implementation period but also with restrictions on the number of dispensaries and types of qualifying conditions. Julie Netherland, deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said her organization also is concerned that many patients may have to wait longer for medication because of the delay in opening all 20 dispensaries.
"Even with 20 dispensaries there were going to be problems with patient access," she said. "I'm sure every state program has a period of working out the kinks. But for us this just reveals some of the problems with the program. The larger question here is are patients going to have access to medicine. The program cannot be declared a success until that happens."
The state's Department of Health has asked the five companies selected to produce and dispense the medication to develop a delivery option to get it to patients who cannot travel to one of the open dispensaries.
Four dispensaries are planned for New York City, with four more slated for the suburbs and the remaining 12 scattered upstate.
Twenty-three states now have medical marijuana programs.