First Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Open In Albany, Kingston And New York City

Jan 7, 2016

New York's medical marijuana program began today, 18 months after lawmakers passed the Compassionate Care Act. WAMC's Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas was in North Albany for the opening of the Capital City's dispensary.

Eight dispensaries were set to open Thursday around the state, which has some of the strictest rules among the more than 20 states that allow medical marijuana.

New Yorkers with cancer, AIDS, Parkinson's disease or other qualifying conditions will now be able to obtain medical marijuana.

Etain CEO Hillary Peckham says the business was a labor of love.  "We felt that it was a natural medicine, something that can help actually with the side effects that you're having on other medications. A lot of patients who are on 20 medications can come off and come back to three if they start taking medical marijuana. My grandmother was an example of that. She had Lou Gehrig's disease, so she was on 20 medications and really would have benefited from this. "

Etain has opened just two of four planned dispensaries, in Albany and Ulster counties. The other two, in Onondoga and Westchester counties, are slated to open in a few weeks when construction is finished.  There was curiosity around the Ulster site in Kingston, though no patients showed up to avail themselves of the drug. Turnout was reportedly sparse in New York City at Columbia Care NY's first dispensary on 14th Street, near Manhattan's Union Square.

Additional business license winners include PharmaCannis and Bloomfield Industries (each will have a dispensary opening in Onondaga and Erie counties).  Vireo will one open in Westchester County. 

In many cases,  patients will have to wait to get access. To date 150 doctors have registered in the state of New York to provide medical marijuana.  The Drug Policy Alliance says the state Department of Health didn’t launch the system to register and train physicians until last October -  and patient registration just opened near the end of December.

Pricing is another concern - patients can expect to spend anywhere from $300 to $1200 a month on the product, which is not covered by Medicaid or private insurance.

New York State Assemblyman John McDonald of Cohoes, who helped get Medical Marijuana legislation passed, is also a practicing pharmacist.  "I only got on this bill after I sat down with the sponsor to really understand how tightly regulated and controlled it needed to be.  And the reality is, this is as tightly controlled as you can get for dispensing a prescription product, albeit illegally. Illegally, Federally it's an illegal product."

In all, twenty-three states now have medical marijuana programs.  New York's is considered one of the strictest, as only non-smokable forms of the drug will be allowed.  McDonald doesn't believe medical marijuana will be offered at traditional pharmacies.   "I don't see this permeating into community pharmacies. I think some would like to do it. I think some are probably able to do it, but I don't see the state legislature at this time allowing that to happen. Check back in 5 years and see what happens."

Under New York law, to receive medical cannabis, a patient must have one of several qualifying conditions, a certification from a physician who is registered with the program, and possess a state-issued ID card.