New York’s Medical Marijuana Program Launches, but Where Are All the Patients?


Medical marijuana is finally here — sort of. Eight out of the state’s twenty dispensaries are now open for business, but patients are hardly beating down the front door. Four dispensaries are planned for New York City, though currently Columbia Care‘s Union Square location is the only facility open for business in Manhattan, and that location is available only to clients who have secured an appointment before even walking in the front door.

Just after the Columbia Care facility opened at 10 a.m. this morning, a lone patient stood along the sidelines of the crowd — mostly a herd of reporters with their cameras and notepads recording the all-too-newsworthy ribbon cutting ceremony. The dispensary, located at 212 E. 14th Street, may not currently have the kind of medical marijuana the patient’s doctor recommended, but the patient, who did not give his name, said he’s very happy the state has finally recognized that cannabis could be very helpful. He set up a consultation for later in the day.

With little else to do, the dispensary staff offered journalists tours of the facility, revealing a pristine, well-appointed clinic resembling an urgent care facility (in fact, there is one next door). Staff include security guards and licensed pharmacists. Customers must present a state-issued patient ID card before getting past the vestibule just inside the main door and into the patient waiting room. Consultation and sales rooms lie further beyond the waiting room. For now the dispensary is cash-only.

The New York State Department of Health reports that to date, only 150 physicians throughout New York state have enrolled in the medical marijuana program, and patients themselves say they are having difficulty finding registered doctors to write them recommendations to use cannabis. The Health Department has, however, announced that they will make public the names of the registered physicians who have agreed to be listed. The state’s medical marijuana program, made possible with the 2014 passage of the Compassionate Care Act, covers only ten “severe, debilitating, or life-threatening” conditions,” and requires physicians who treat those conditions to take a four-hour training course before they can be certified to recommend the state’s approved array of cannabis products. Roughly 500,000 patients are eligible to receive cannabis treatment under the law, but many worry it will be difficult to obtain medicine even if they do qualify.

The state’s much-criticized restrictive approach to its medical marijuana program was designed by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Department of Health to ensure that the program could not be manipulated for recreational purposes. The plan prohibits products that can be smoked or eaten. Instead, medical cannabis will be available in a limited number of strains (which the state calls “brands”) in the form of capsules, tinctures, vaporizable oils, sublingual strips, and adhesive patches.

“Medical marijuana only becomes real in New York when patients have the medicine they need,” says Julie Netherland, New York deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, tells the Voice. “For this program to work, we need to take seriously the concerns that have been raised about patients’ access — low doctor enrollment, geographic accessibility to dispensaries, affordability, and including patients with other serious medical conditions. Too many patients are being left behind and too many have suffered far longer than they should have.”