By: Eileen Konieczny
Few New Yorkers were more grateful than I was when Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature passed the law to allow access for those New Yorkers who could benefit from medical marijuana. As a registered nurse specializing in oncology, I’ve spent my career helping patients and their families through terrible moments in their lives
After researching alternative treatments when my sister’s Stage IV breast cancer spread to her brain, I became a believer in the medicinal value of cannabis plants and then devoted my time to helping pass that law in Albany.
Now that the Compassionate Care Act is in effect, it seems evident that more must be done so that patients can get access to medicines that will help them manage chronic pain and complications from HIV, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Parkinson’s and more.
Thankfully, the New York State Health Departmentand the Cuomo administration are on that path. Late last year, the state smartly added chronic pain to the ailments treatable with medical cannabis, as many other states have done, because it works. That will open the doors to vast numbers of patients who might otherwise use more serious and addictive pharmaceuticals – such as opioids – to manage their pain.
Albany also has allowed nurse practitioners and physician assistants – not just MDs – to certify patients, lifted a restriction on how many products a company can produce and permitted home delivery.
And last but not least, the state plans this year to license five more organizations to manufacture and dispense medical cannabis and double the number of dispensaries to 40 across the state. Those additional manufacturing facilities and dispensaries are clearly needed in a state this size.
These steps are laudatory, smart and patient centered. Adding five new providers and the distribution locations that would come with them will help patients by expanding access to helpful medicines, broadening options for patients with epilepsy and the other conditions covered by the law, reducing patient costs (which aren’t covered by insurance), and aligning New York’s medical marijuana program with market practices in virtually every other state where medical cannabis is legal.
And notwithstanding the assertions of the current medical cannabis licensees, the New York market currently is far from saturated. In fact, the ratio of medical cannabis dispensaries to New York residents is about one per million.
DOH has it right: the way to strengthen care and lower costs for New Yorkers is to expand access to helpful medicines and medicine providers, not to limit access from a small number of providers.
Even with this proposed expansion, New York will remain vastly underserved compared to other states. For example, Maryland – with a population half a million less than that of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan—just authorized 102 dispensaries to serve their 5.9 million residents. Currently, there are only three dispensaries licensed for Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan with 6.4 million people.
When you consider that New York’s law authorized only 20 dispensaries to serve 19.8 million people – or one for every 990,000 New Yorkers – expanding the number of providers is not only reasonable but is crucial to provide patients with the access to this medicine that the law envisioned. Patients should have as much access to medical cannabis as they currently have to other prescription medication. While that won’t happen anytime soon, the need for the program’s expansion is clear.
What’s more, experience around the country proves that with competition in the medical marijuana marketplace, prices fall and better products are produced, all to the benefit of patients in need. News coverage from New Jersey provides great examples, here and here.
New York’s proposed expansion must proceed immediately to best serve patients and families, and make the program a success. Delays in the expansion will only hurt patients who are looking for effective treatment and medical care.
We applaud the Cuomo administration for proceeding without delay to add five more providers to open their doors, as they announced they would – a move that will further improve access to an important medical benefit for patients across the state.
Eileen Konieczny, a 20-year oncology nurse, is director of Patient Services for Valley Agriceuticals. Separately she also serves as President of the American Cannabis Nurses Association.