Here’s Why New York’s Medical Marijuana Rules Are About to Change

· by Mary Harris

If you want to know why New York is set to change its rules and regulations around medical marijuana, all you have to do is show up at a local dispensary and start talking to patients. But first, be prepared for security.

At Manhattan’s first dispensary, located at the foot of the L train at Third Avenue and 14th street, the door is locked and security guards are so wary of attention they tried to keep me from recording on the sidewalk. Eventually I managed to speak with one patient, a 73-year-old cancer survivor named Michael.

“I’m making up my mind about whether the whole thing makes sense,” he said as he walked up for an appointment. “I had been recreationally using marijuana and I knew that it was beneficial for my appetite. And I thought what about doing it legally?”

Just because pot is legal, doesn’t mean it is easily obtained. Michael said it wasn’t simple finding someone to give him a medical marijuana card: His usual internist couldn’t, so he had to track down a doctor on the Internet, a doctor who insisted on being paid in cash. When Michael showed up at the dispensary, he had to learn to use pot all over again, because in New York, you have to ingest marijuana as pills, oil or vape; you can’t smoke it and you can’t eat it, either. Then there was the cost: hundreds of dollars a month, not covered by insurance.

The proposal to change New York State’s marijuana rules won’t address all these issues, but it might improve life for marijuana users like Michael.

The new rules, for example, could make it easier for doctors to prescribe the drug and might increase the number of products for sale in dispensaries. And that security out front might loosen up, too. Right now, it’s against regulations to enter a dispensary without a medical marijuana card.

Reaction to the proposal from prescribers and New York’s medical marijuana industry has been mostly positive. But Dr. Orrin Devinsky, the director of New York University’s Epilepsy Center, raised the issue of efficacy. Dr. Devinsky said he has treated at least 500 patients, mostly children and their parents, with medical marijuana over the last few years, keeping meticulous notes. He said that he has yet to see sustained benefits from any one product.

Part of the problem, he said, is that once he gives patients a medical marijuana card, he has no control over what they buy. “The person in the dispensary can tell them, ‘You should get this and blow it up a child’s nose if they’re having a seizure,’” he said. “You know anything can be said to anybody.”

Dr. Devinsky said that he found one product that seems to work: a pharmaceutical grade cannabanoid that his research showed could reduce seizures by half in some youngsters with epilepsy. But that drug is still awaiting federal Food and Drug Administration approval, while New York’s medical marijuana program moves ahead.

Dispensary operators standby their offerings. Hillary Peckham, the chief operating officer of Etain, which just opened a dispensary in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood this summer, said strict regulation is one reason why she is able to offer a “very high quality product.”

“We’re responsible for every single part of the operation, from cultivating the plants, making it into oils, and running all the dispensaries and doing all the security and transport between it,” she said.

Etain is a family business: Peckham’s mother, Amy, is the chief executive officer, and her sister, Keeley, is the chief horticultural officer. Peckham said her team is anticipating the regulatory changes and is already researching new ways in which to make marijuana available: lotions, lozenges, even powdered versions of the plant. She said that she hopes lifting restrictions on who can enter a dispensary will make finding new customers a little easier.

In the coming weeks, the New York State Department of Health is encouraging citizens to weigh in on the proposed regulatory changesbefore they go into effect. You can find more information on the state’s website.