Advocates for expanded access to medical marijuana are pushing a slate of bills that would give more patients access to the drug, reduce the cost of prescriptions and create more dispensaries across the state.
It’s been nearly two years since Gov. Andrew Cuomo passed the Compassionate Care Act. As of April, New York State’s website says 526 physicians have registered for the program, and 2,675 patients have been certified by their doctors to use medical marijuana.
Those numbers don’t look very high in a state with nearly 20 million residents and more than 79,000 doctors. There are currently 20 marijuana dispensaries operating, compared to 5,400 pharmacies.
Advocates argue that medical marijuana is a viable alternative to opioids, pain medication that have caused an addiction epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 18,893 people died from opioid overdose in 2014, more than the combined overdose deaths from cocaine and heroin.
“What could be better than actually being able to prescribe something that is not as addictive as an opioid, is not addictive at all, and have the same effects as far as pain management or even better results,” said Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, during a recent event in Albany where advocates spoke in favor of expanded medical marijuana.
Jason Pinsky spoke passionately about the issue, as a patient who was addicted to opiates since a back operation in 2000 that left him with two vertebrae pressing against each other. In 2014, he gained access to Colorado’s legal medical marijuana, and recently celebrated his 550th day free of opioids.
As it stands now, a patient in New York state cannot gain access to legalized cannabis by citing severe chronic pain alone. This is just one of the restrictions that the group Compassionate Care NY and their allies are trying to remove.
Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, chair of the Health Committee, voted for the bill in 2014, despite his issues with it, because he thought it was a good start. Two years later, he’s trying to push a slate of bills that would expand the state’s medical marijuana program.
“We have a program that is tied up in restrictions that don’t make any economic, clinical or public safety sense,” Gottfried said. “We treat medical marijuana with restrictions that nobody would tolerate if we tried to apply them to any of the other controlled substances that are a whole lot more dangerous than anyone thinks marijuana is.”
Gottfried sponsors Assembly bill A.9510, which would allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to prescribe marijuana in addition to doctors. He said the low number of physicians enrolled in the program makes it difficult for patients to get access. That bill is sponsored in the Senate (S.6998) by Diane Savino, D-Staten Island.
Gottfried also sponsors bill A.9562, which would add new qualifying medical conditions absent from the current law, including alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain. It would also raise the dosage limits on legalized cannabis. That Senate bill is also sponsored by Savino.
Under the current law, patients can only receive marijuana in tinctures and oils, not as the plant itself. Nancy Rivera, a four-time cancer survivor from Troy, said this makes the price of medical marijuana higher in New York than any other state, with a 30-day prescription ranging from $200 to $2,000.
The problem becomes worse when patients realize they cannot have their health insurance pay for the medication, as federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule-1 controlled substance, along with other hard drugs such as heroin and LSD.
Gottfried has an answer for this problem as well with bill A.09517, which would allow patients to gain access to smokable marijuana for treatments. That Senate bill is sponsored by Rivera.
The current law authorizes five companies statewide to sell medical marijuana, and each can operate a maximum of four dispensaries. Advocates say that isn’t enough.
“New York State is 54,000 square miles,” said Susan Rusinko of Compassionate Care NY. “We have 20 dispensaries, and only 17 are open. The cost to patients has become astronomical as they have to travel hundreds of miles to get to a dispensary”
Bill A.09747, sponsored by Gottfried, would permit more cannabis manufacturers in New York, bringing the number of dispensaries up to 60.