Suppose you believe you need medical marijuana to deal with an illness and you live in New York State—what are your options? Well, those options are changing. With this Q&A, The Brooklyn Ink explains the rules about medical marijuana now and how they will change in the near future.
What is the situation now?
In order to purchase marijuana for medical purposes today in New York, before the new rules take effect, consumers have options. One, they can purchase the drug from a dealer. Two, they can grow and harvest the plant on their own property. Three, they can travel to a state where it is legal and transport it back to New York.
The problem? The risks include inconsistencies in reliability and worse: criminalization. Each of these options is currently illegal in New York state. Patients in need of medical marijuana are ultimately faced with a choice: whether or not to break the law.
In the eyes of advocates, breaking the law is not something patients should have to grapple with. “There are a lot of patients that don’t want to and shouldn’t have to put themselves at risk to try to alleviate their suffering,” said Julie Netherland, the Director of the Office of Academic Engagement for the Drug Policy Alliance. “There are a lot of folks that won’t do it. Simply aren’t going to break the law.”
What is changing?
On July 5, 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act into law, and last month he announced an emergency medical marijuana program to speed up the process of legalization. According to the Health Department, the mechanisms set it motion by the new law are expected to be fully functional and to launch online very soon—by January 2016.
Under the Compassionate Care Act, patients with ten ailments—cancer, HIV/AIDS, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord damage causing spasticity, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathies, or Huntington’s disease—can qualify. The law allows five manufacturers to produce THE product for 20 sales locations throughout New York. In one twist, the law will not allow smokable cannabis. Suppliers must offer the product other ways, such as via patches, or vaporizers, or in edible forms, as Cannabis Wire reports.
The Act has a series of steps for both doctors and patients. Put simply, doctors can complete a course to grant them the ability to certify patients. Doctors who do so can then certify any patients with one of the 10 conditions. Once certified, patients can register for an ID card ($50), which will give them access to get medical marijuana from an approved dispensary.
Patient advocates have expressed concern about how affordable the program is for patients. At the moment insurance providers are not on board with providing benefits for medical marijuana.
Netherland, who works closely with the advocate group Compassionate Care New York, said she is only partially relieved that the law has passed. The guidelines of the current program are limited, given that there will be so few locations and qualifying disease. As a result, advocate groups are still working to expand it.
What do medical and legal experts say about the new rules?
While the state has obviously come to a decision, some experts are concerned. “It’s a mistake to treat marijuana differently than any other medications,” said Dr. Ryan Vandrey, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins.
“I think you want to take the same approach and you want to follow the same guidelines in terms of determining safety and efficacy and whether or not it is right for one person.”
While Vandrey said he sided with people coming from a compassionate care angle, he said the lack of research behind this debate is troubling. One example of this is dosage: No one can currently tell a patient how much medical marijuana is needed for one condition compared to another, said Vandrey.
Anecdotal reports from users are driving the law in New York. While such reports can be valid, experts say they should not be the only factors. There needs to be balance, said Vandrey.
The push for more research has ultimately been hindered by the lack of funding. Few organizations are willing to provide funds. In states like Colorado, money from medical marijuana licensing and sales are used to fund research, but that is not yet an option for New York.
Dr. Marcel Bonn-Miller, health science specialist for the Center of Excellence in Substance Abuse Treatment and Education said he agrees that the idea of medical marijuana is getting unique treatment. Instead of looking at it like a dubious drug, research is needed. “Let’s also make sure we are understanding the consequences or side effects,” said Bonn-Miller. “Addiction is one. Memory problems and just general cognitive decline is another.”He added, “The cart is definitely before the horse in terms of research and policy.”
What do the patient advocates think?
Ultimately, the controversy surrounding medical marijuana does not change the fact that there are patients that say it helps their medical conditions.
“We get calls every day from people that are really suffering and don’t want to go on the illicit market and don’t like what they are able to get on the illicit market,” said Netherland.
She added, “I often wish that people who are opposed to medical marijuana could spend a day answering the phone here and listen to the folks we are talking about, who are suffering needlessly in my view.”