New Yorkers with chronic pain will soon be able to treat it with medical marijuana

December 6, 2016

Published on Crain’s New York Business By

Adding chronic pain to the list of health conditions approved for cannabis treatment could help the state’s nascent industry and offer an alternative to opioids

New Yorkers suffering from chronic pain will soon be able to treat it with medical marijuana, the state Health Department announced Thursday.

Adding chronic pain to the list of health conditions approved for cannabis treatment in New York could expand the market here, as it has in several other states. But just how much the nascent industry will benefit depends on how the state defines the condition.

Officials are still working on the specific regulations, which will be published for public comment shortly, the Health Department said.

Meanwhile, both patient advocates and cannabis executives are celebrating the decision.

“We know a lot of people have been waiting for this,” said Chris Alexander, the policy coordinator for the New York Drug Policy Alliance, which has lobbied to improve patient access to cannabis.

Along with other changes the state recently announced to improve access to medical marijuana, this move indicates health officials have been listening to people’s concerns, Alexander said. “Really, it just shows that there’s still a commitment to making this thing work.”

The move may put the state’s financially shaky cannabis companies on better footing.

Vireo Health, a company that has cannabis licenses in New York and Minnesota, has yet to turn a profit in either state. But it saw its customer base triple in Minnesota when chronic-pain patients in that state became eligible to purchase the drug in August, said Dr. Kyle Kingsley, the company’s chief executive.

Kingsley said he expects the increase in patient volume in New York to be even greater because the program, which has enrolled 10,730 people since launching in January, has caught on more quickly here than in Minnesota.

Kingsley said he hopes that greater patient volume will also allow him to reduce the price of cannabis in both states, but that hasn’t been the case yet in Minnesota.

“The general rule of thumb is a company should be profitable before prices come down,” said Kingsley.

Most medical marijuana states that include chronic pain as an eligible condition both enroll more patients and see the average patient spend more on cannabis each month than the other medical marijuana states, according to an analysis by research firm Greenwave Advisors. If permitting doctors to prescribe marijuana for chronic pain has a similar impact here as it did in Colorado, New York could enroll an additional 350,000 to 450,000 cannabis patients, said Matt Karnes, managing partner of the firm. But, he added, it will likely take several years to see that growth.

“By the time everything ramps up, we’ll have a recreational market anyway,” Karnes predicted, suggesting New York and other states in the region will approve recreational use, as Massachusetts voters did in November.

Cannabis executives in New York are hoping that the move will also help promote cannabis as an alternative to opioids.

“The main reason a lot of our team of professionals and physicians stepped into this realm was to fight the war on opioids, and the inclusion of chronic pain allows us to directly fight opioids in New York,” said Kingsley.

Nicholas Vita, chief executive of the cannabis company Columbia Care, said he hopes to establish a coordinated effort between the licensed companies in New York to study the effects of marijuana on chronic pain and opioid use. Anecdotally, Vita said the company has observed that many of its customers in other states it operates in where chronic pain is listed as a qualifying condition have stopped using opioids.

A 2015 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that states where medical marijuana is legal have seen a greater reduction in opioid addiction and overdose deaths compared with states where it’s not legal.

With the addition of chronic pain, a total of 11 health conditions are now eligible for treatment with medical marijuana in New York, including HIV/AIDS, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. The state has considered adding other health conditions to the list, including muscular dystrophy, dystonia, post-traumatic stress disorder and rheumatoid arthritis, but has yet to find enough scientific evidence to do so, the state Health Department said.