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Why New York's Medical Marijuana Program Will Give Patients Headaches

Medical marijuana is legal in New York as of Jan. 7, joining 22 other states that have legalized cannabis for medicinal use. But activists aren't happy about it. Many are fuming over how legislators have handled the marijuana program.

Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Al Jazeera America: "It's among the most restrictive medical marijuana laws in the country. Unfortunately, it seemed like the priority was to make it as limited as possible, instead of focusing on what is best for patients."

So what's wrong with the program? For starters, residents will have trouble finding a dispensary. Only 20 have been approved for the state with a population around 20 million people. In contrast, Arizona - a state with nearly eight million residents - has certified more than 100 medicinal marijuana dispensaries.

Only one dispensary is open in New York City

And not all of New York's dispensaries were ready for business on Day 1: only eight opened Jan. 7. The other 13 will begin operation at unspecified dates. Of those eight, only one is in New York City, so patients in the Big Apple will likely need to take something to treat headaches while trying to get their medicine. (You can find a list of all 20 locations and the eight that are currently open here.)

Of course, not all 20 million residents of the Empire State will be medical marijuana patients. Nick Vita, CEO of the dispensary Manhattan's Columbia Care, estimates that approximately 400,000 patients could qualify for the program. However, that number still leaves the licensed dispensaries spread thin.

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The state is also short on producers: only five corporations are licensed to grow, process and then distribute cannabis for the entire state's medical market. In contrast, the Canadian province of Ontario has 15 licensed growers and manufacturers. The limited supply fuels worry that the costs of medicine may be high. Moreover, since the five licensed growers and manufacturers also own the state's 20 dispensaries, the state's medical market borders on being a monopoly.

It's difficult to get into the program

Right now, the limited dispensaries won't have trouble supplying customers because only 51 of the estimated 400,000 clients are registered patients in the state.

The low number might be due to the hassle that patients have to go through to get registered. Here's how the process works: first, patients have to meet with a qualified physician to get a prescription. Unlike in many other states, patients can't see their family doctors to get prescriptions. They have to go through a doctor with a state-issued license to prescribe cannabis. The Department of Health says there are approximately 150 licensed doctors statewide, but they haven't told the public who those doctors are and where they're located yet.

Once they've received their prescription, patients have to register for the Department of Health's Medical Marijuana program and pay a $50 application fee. If they're approved, they have to wait for an identification card to arrive in the mail before they can schedule an appointment with a pharmacist to get their medicine.

But Vita says the limitations and restrictions are a good thing.

"This is a medication. This is a serious opportunity to treat patients who haven't necessarily found the treatment they need," he said, adding that the new program, "is going to be a game-changer for the industry...because nobody's going to let anything slip through the cracks."

Except the patients, some activists would argue. Others say that the restrictions will help keep illegal traffickers in business. Todd Mitchem, founder of the cannabis social network High There!, told The International Business Times that the regulations, "create a bottleneck." He added, "when the demand is no pun intended - high, that will be filled by the black market."

h/t New York Times, International Business Times, Al Jazeera America, The Province


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