Medical Marijuana Program in New York Continues to Face Criticism

By: Timothy Bidon

New York State’s medical marijuana program officially took effect in January to a chorus of mixed reviews. While many activists have praised New York’s passage of a medical marijuana bill in an unlikely political climate, a growing group of patients and other advocates say the program is actually leaving patients behind. It’s no secret that New York state has one of the most stringent qualifying ailments lists of any states with medical marijuana programs. Furthermore, New York has less dispensaries per capita based on population when compared to other states. But these aren’t the only obstacles standing in the way of a burgeoning medical marijuana program that patients in New York and beyond so desperately want to see.

For a variety of reasons, namely the strict list of qualifying ailments, enrollment in the state’s medical marijuana program has been startlingly low. As of this writing, a mere 2,875 have been certified by their physician to be treated with medical marijuana in New York. Even more troubling, of those 2,875, only half of these eligible patients have actually received medical marijuana. Many attribute this startling statistic to a provision in New York’s Compassionate Care act that allows for a maximum of 20 dispensaries statewide, leaving New York residents in certain areas of the state significantly underserved.

But the barriers don’t stop there. Other patients have drawn attention to the fact that, on average, medical marijuana in New York ends up costing a much higher amount than medical marijuana in a state like Colorado, to name one example. Buc Williams, a parent of a child eligible for medical marijuana under the Compassionate Care Act, writes at length about these obstacles in an op-ed for the Buffalo News. Mr. Williams’ testimony is troubling for a number of reasons. He and his son,Tommy, who needs a specific marijuana strain high in CBD, quickly realized that neither of the two dispensaries near their home had that specific strain in supply. This resulted in Tommy’s mother having to drive over 400 miles to the nearest dispensary carrying the strain they needed. As if that weren’t enough, because the Williams’ insurance plan and medicaid do not offer coverage for medical marijuana, his medication would end up costing upwards of $2,000 a month. Prices like these are simply exorbitant in a state where the average household income is $30,948.

The Compassionate Care Act’s issues aren’t squarely in the realm of patients, either. In fact, one of the largest barriers remaining is New York’s dismal physician enrollment in the medical marijuana program. Of an estimated 79,000 total physicians practicing in the state of New York, a mere 539 are certified under the state’s medical marijuana program. This could be, in large part, due to the fact that physicians in New York wishing to become certified are required to pay a fee and complete a mandatory four-hour training course.

This isn’t all to say we shouldn’t commend New York for taking steps in the right direction. Indeed, even two years ago a medical marijuana program in the state seemed virtually impossible. Clearly, the times have changed. However, until New York’s government officials take meaningful actions to lower the barriers facing patients and physicians, it appears patients will continue to be underserved.