ALBANY — The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, passed in March, went beyond the legalization of adult-use cannabis to update the existing medical program, adding new eligible conditions and leaving it to a practitioner’s discretion to prescribe marijuana products for any reason, including conditions such as insomnia or anxiety.
The law, known as the MRTA, had many provisions that went into effect immediately, including legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. It also authorized medical dispensaries to sell the popular whole cannabis flower, among other changes.
But the state Department of Health is getting pushback for its interpretation of the new law, which department officials said would delay many of the additions until after a regulatory board is formed, including physicians’ ability to prescribe medical marijuana for the benefit of any condition. The department’s interpretation contradicts the intention of the legislators who approved the law, however.
“Changes to the medical cannabis program are subject to the issuance of new regulations that will be undertaken following the creation of the new Cannabis Control Board and Office of Cannabis Management,” Department of Health spokeswoman Jill Montag said in a statement.
A state-issued pamphlet describing the medical changes in the MRTA warned that they “are not immediately effective. Regulations and changes to administrative infrastructure will need to be developed before these changes can take effect.”
“I don’t agree,” said Sen. Liz Krueger, the Senate’s chief sponsor and champion of the bill. She said she’s discussed the delay with Sen. Diane Savino, who was a main architect of the 2014 medical marijuana law, and they are considering addressing the governor’s office directly. Though the new recreational industry will need to wait for regulators, she said, some of the medical cannabis changes are just a matter of adjusting paperwork.
“It should not be a problem to expand the category of illnesses covered by medical marijuana, because that has been done from the beginning by the Department of Health without rules or regs,” Krueger said. She added that though she’s not personally a big proponent of using smokable products like whole flower for medical purposes, it is an aspect of the bill that patients have been calling for to reduce costs and ease use, and it shouldn’t require new regulation.
Industry leaders who followed the adoption of the new bill are similarly surprised by the slow pace of changes to existing structures, like the expansion of the list of eligible conditions.
“Those changes in the MRTA were written by legislators with the intent that they would take effect immediately,” said Ngiste Abebe, president of the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association and director of public policy at medical cannabis provider Columbia Care. “There’s so many things that we know have to get rolled out. And this is one thing that could be done now and in a straightforward way.”
Jeremy Unruh, chief compliance officer at PharmaCann, another certified provider, had also expected the medical changes to be effective immediately. He said that though many of the additions require only small tweaks, they “would expand the program and expand patient access to cannabis” in a significant way.
Allan Gandelman, who started using medical cannabis while fighting the symptoms of Lyme disease several years ago, said that he had been frustrated as a patient by the lack of flower sales and high prices in New York’s medical program. But now, as an upstate farmer and president of the New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Association, he worries that allowing the 10 large companies in the medical program to expand their business before the state rolls out its initiatives focused on small enterprises could have unintended consequences.
“To keep giving them more and more, when we’re about to legalize adult-use and provide licenses for social equity applicants and democratize the cannabis industry – you know, we have to be careful here. It’s just kind of a precarious time,” Gandelman said.
Patients currently eligible to receive certification for the medical cannabis program at the recommendation of a licensed practitioner include those who suffer from epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, and cancer, among other conditions. The new additions outlined in the MRTA are Alzheimer’s disease, muscular dystrophy, dystonia, rheumatoid arthritis, autism, and “any other condition certified by the certifying health care practitioner.”
Multiple clinicians who are authorized to certify for medical cannabis told the Times Union that they had not been directly notified by the Department of Health about these additions or the timeline for their implementation, and the changes weren’t yet included in the online form that practitioners must fill out for each patient.
Dr. Kenneth R. Weinberg, who specializes in certifying patients for medical cannabis use and founded Cannabis Doctors of New York, is excited about the changes.
“I love that they’re leaving it to the doctor’s discretion,” he said, noting that the science moves fast and this way, practitioners won’t have to wait for the law to catch up. As for the sale of whole flower, he said he sees a medical benefit from that as well: “you want the whole flower, you want as many of the cannabinoids and terpenes as possible, because then you really get those benefits.”
He is hoping patients can take advantage of the additions soon.