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N.Y. continues tweaking medical marijuana program to grow market

By Claire Hughes | Published: November 10, 2016

New York's medical marijuana companies will be allowed to sell their products wholesale to each other, in the state's latest effort to increase the likelihood of the program's success as companies finish their first year selling medicines to the public with operating losses.

In a list of efforts to expand the market for medical marijuana, the state Health Department Thursday said it is also lifting its restriction on the number of medical marijuana formulations a company can sell. It defined "chronic pain" as a condition for obtaining marijuana, after announcing earlier this month that chronic pain would become the 11th condition qualifying a New Yorker to buy cannabis. And it made moves to add physician assistants to the list of medical providers who can certify patients to receive medical marijuana, after recently authorizing nurse practitioners to do so.

"All of these regulations are regulations that we strongly support as common-sense, patient-friendly regulations," said Ari Hoffnung, chief executive of Vireo Health, which has a growing facility in Fulton County and a retail outlet in Albany.

Michael Chrzanowski, a 42-year-old East Greenbush resident who uses medical marijuana to deal with a spinal cord injury from a car accident, said he hopes the changes will result in more competition for more patients, which will drive the prices down. He now pays $220 for a weekly supply of medical marijuana, but cannot afford it on a regular basis so he uses it as a supplement to other treatment.

The state is still considering another change that the current five companies do not like, however the possibility of doubling the number of companies from five to 10. According to the Health Department, it would use a phased-in approach to ensure a smooth integration of the new companies into the industry. The timing of new entries into the market, as well as the locations of their retail outlets, would be carefully considered, according to a department statement.

Medical marijuana companies already in operation would rather see the Health Department halt its consideration of registering more companies until the market grows enough to justify letting them in, Hoffnung said.

"We are currently operating in a micro market," Hoffnung said. "The current size of the markets is not sufficient to sustain even one registered organization."

Patients may not obtain the drug without certification from a doctor. About 750 doctors have registered for the medical marijuana program, certifying more than 11,000 patients.

Lots of patients still have trouble getting certified, however, due to a lack of participation from doctors, Hoffnung said. The number registered represent about 1 percent of physicians statewide.

The state's medical marijuana program was launched with legislation signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in mid-2014. In a program considered one of the most restrictive in the country, five companies were chosen in a competitive process to grow the plants, extract the oils, make the medicines and sell them. The state initially designated 10 conditions for which New Yorkers could use medical marijuana.

Following a two-year report of the program issued this summer, as well as complaints about the program's sluggish launch, the state has made a number of modifications, including those announced Thursday.

The state's definition of "chronic pain" as a qualifying condition is expected to be published Dec. 21 in the State Register. It will be limited to severe, debilitating pain that has lasted or is expected to last at least three months and has been deemed by a medical professional to degrade patients' health or reduce their ability to function and has not been successfully treated with other remedies. The rule will be subject to a 45-day public comment period once published.

Last week, the Health Department also proposed that hospitals be allowed to create policies that permit patients to self-administer medical marijuana while hospitalized or have registered caregivers administer it.

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