On Tuesday, April 12th, dozens of advocates gathered in Albany to urge legislators to support a slate of bills that would amend the Compassionate Care Act, New York's medical marijuana law. The law, which was passed in June of 2014, took eighteen months to implement and has been criticized for being one of the most restrictive and burdensome programs in the country. Launched in January of this year, to date, only 514 of the state's 79,000 physicians have agreed to participate and only 2,494 patients have been certified by their doctors to enroll in the program. This lackluster start is likely due to a number of barriers and restrictions in the program that make it both difficult and unappealing for physicians and patients to participate. Legislators have introduced eight bills to try address some of the deficiencies with the program.
What: Press conference with patients and caregivers calling for passage of bills to fix New York's medical marijuana program
When: Tuesday, April 12th at 1:30 pm
Where: Outside the Senate Chamber in the NYS Capitol, Albany, NY
Who: Scheduled to attend: New Yorkers living with epilepsy, cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS and other serious medical conditions and their caregivers from around the state.
The current law only allows ten qualifying medical conditions for which medical marijuana can be recommended, even though medical marijuana can benefit a number of other conditions. Bill A9562 (Gottfried) /S6999 (Savino) would expand the program by adding the following medical conditions: Alzheimer's disease, traumatic brain injury, dystonia, muscular dystrophy, wasting syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Bill A9514 (Gottfried) would add severe chronic pain as a qualifying condition.
Under the law, only five producers are licensed to grow medical marijuana in New York, and each can only operate 4 dispensaries. This means that for a state of almost 20 million people and 54,000 square miles, there are only 20 dispensaries allowed of which only 17 dispensaries have opened, to date. Patients, many of whom are very sick and disabled, must travel hours in some cases to get to a dispensary. Bills introduced in Albany would increase the number of producers and dispensaries making it easier for patients to get medicine.
"There are only two dispensaries open in all of New York City right now," said Reginald Brown of VOCAL-NY, a person living with HIV/AIDS. "There is no dispensary in Brooklyn where I live. It's absurd to think that two or three dispensaries can serve a city of more than eight million people. I urge the legislature to add more options and to lift these other needless restrictions that are making it hard for people like me to get the medicine we need."
Perhaps the biggest problem facing New York's nascent program is affordability. With the burdensome regulations and the restrictions on who can participate, prices have been high, ranging from $150 to $2000 a month, depending on the product and the condition being treated. Prices for similar products in New York are up to ten times higher than those in Colorado according to some reports.
"I live on a fixed income through social security disability," said Nancy Rivera of Troy, four-time cancer survivor. "I can't imagine how I would ever be able to afford medical marijuana at these prices. It's blatantly unfair that relief is out of reach for so many patients just because they aren't wealthy."
While none of the proposed bills address cost directly, adding medical conditions would expand the market and likely drive prices down, and easing up on the forms of medical marijuana available, should allow for lower cost products to come to market.
"New York can do better," said Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Right now we have an overly restrictive program that is leaving too many people behind - people who can't travel long distances, people with painful conditions that aren't currently covered, people who can't find a doctor to help them, and people who aren't wealthy enough to afford the exorbitant costs of the medication. We applaud Assemblyman Gottfried and Senators Savino and Rivera for taking the lead on trying to remedy these problems and urge their colleagues in Albany to move quickly to pass these bills."