New York’s Cannabis Growers Lobby for More Medical Patients

(Photo by Nico Escondido)

New York’s medical marijuana program is considered one of the most restrictive in the nation, a ragtag system currently providing fewer than 4,000 patients across the entire state with access to cannabis products. However, in an attempt to prevent the newfound industry from sinking into the depths of impoverishment, the five companies selected by the state to cultivate and distribute this alternative treatment option to people suffering from serious or life threatening conditions have banded together in an effort to persuade lawmakers to support upgrades to the Compassionate Care Act.

Since the program was launched at the beginning of the year, the 20 medical marijuana dispensaries responsible for servicing patients throughout the state have listened to crickets predicting bankruptcy if adjustments are not made, and soon, to provide more people with the freedom to choose weed over the pharmaceutical circus. It is for this reason that, for the sake of longevity, the five companies that make up the market have formed the Medicinal Cannabis Industry Association – a lobby group hoping to convince more members of the NY General Assembly to expand the program before it chokes on its own conservative leash.

“We’re going around giving an update to the program [and] sharing some of our impressions and talking about ways that we think the program can be improved,” Ari Hoffnung, CEO of Vireo Health, one of the five medical marijuana companies, told Politico.

One of the primary obstacles standing in the way of New York operating a truly comprehensive medical marijuana program is not many lawmakers seem to be fighting for the appropriate changes needed to advance it into the next phase of functionality. Right now, Senator Diane Savino and Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, the two lawmakers responsible for the Compassionate Care Act, are the main legislative forces pushing to make even the slightest modifications to the core of the program.

Due to the lack of enthusiasm of many NY physicians to provide patients with a recommendation to participate in the program, the lawmakers are working to get two pieces of legislation pushed through the General Assembly this session – one that, in addition to doctors, would allow nurse practitioners to certify patients to use medical marijuana, and another that would double the number of dispensaries permitted to operate across the state.

However, while the folks behind the Medicinal Cannabis Industry Association are encouraged by the work Savino and Gottfried have done this session, the group believes there is a lot more that needs to happen for the medical marijuana program to expand to the point where it becomes successful for everyone involved. As it stands, there are still only around 600 doctors in the state willing to discuss cannabis medicine as a treatment option, and the latest data from the Department of Health indicates that these physicians have certified just 3,549 patients. That’s hardly enough “customers” to sustain an industry, which is the reason the lobby effort supported by the five medical marijuana companies want to convince additional lawmakers to get behind the concept of allowing more patients to purchase their products.

“It’s headed in the right direction,” Hoffnung said. “But we think that with some legislative changes we can really expand the program more rapidly. Improving patient access is a priority for us. We think that can be done by expanding the qualifying conditions so patients can get it.”

The organization has been pressing the flesh in Albany over the past couple of weeks, trying to get lawmakers to tender their support for a bill recently introduced Senator Savino that would expand the state’s list of qualified conditions to include chronic pain, PTSD, Alzheimer’s and several others. However, with the legislative session set to end for summer recess in a matter of a few weeks, it is not likely the sales skills of the Medicinal Cannabis Industry Association will have the power to swing the majority towards a major expansion. However, even if the group is able to manage such an impressive feat, the final decision on allowing more conditions would come down to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who remains confused about what it really means to support medical marijuana.

Recently, the Cuomo Administration’s leading health official, Dr. Howard Zucker, who has the authority to approve any qualified condition he wants at any time, denied the addition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, muscular dystrophy, dystonia, and rheumatoid arthritis due to a lack of scientific evidence that weed is effective in treating these conditions.

With so much resistance coming from state officials with respect to the expansion of the Compassionate Care Act, perhaps the Medicinal Cannabis Industry Association should consider beginning its lobbying efforts from the top.

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