ALBANY — The state is poised to lift restrictions on medical marijuana growers that currently limit the number of products they can carry and prevent them from selling wholesale products to each other.
The state Department of Health announced this week that it will lift a regulation that limited the state’s five licensed medical marijuana companies to carrying only five products each, a restriction that patient advocates have criticized.
The state agency also said it will begin accepting plans from the companies to sell their products wholesale to other registered organizations, which is expected to increase the variety of products available at dispensaries across the state.
Columbia Care is one of the five companies, and it manufactures products at Eastman Business Park and has a dispensary at the complex.
“My understanding is that if registered organizations are allowed to manufacture and sell to one another, that means a product that Columbia Care manufactures would now be available in an area of New York state where we may not have a dispensary,” said chief executive officer Nicholas Vita.
By the same token, other companies would be able to sell their products in the Rochester area.
“That access is very positive because it’s another reason why a patient would choose to use the medical marijuana program in New York as opposed to relying on less wholesome means to procure the medicine,” Vita said.
Vita said Columbia Care could expand to include oral solutions, sprays or topical formats. Columbia Care offers tinctures, hard capsules and vaporized forms.
The announcement Thursday came a week after the Health Department said it would be expanding the medical marijuana program to include individuals with chronic pain among those eligible to receive medical marijuana.
“These are major steps forward for New York’s Medical Marijuana Program and the thousands of patients who are benefiting from it every day,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said in a statement.
The department has also moved forward with plans to allow nurse practitioners to certify patients for marijuana use. Currently, doctors who have taken a health department training course can recommend patients for medical marijuana.
“We certainly hope this addresses one of the main concerns we’ve heard voiced, which is how a physician is accessible to patients when not as many physicians have signed up as people would have hoped,” Vita said. Another criticism: the state has tightly controlled that list of physicians, making it difficult for patients to find a doctor.
Vita said Columbia Care has 303 patients in Rochester, not enough to have the dispensary open every day. He said growth in the highly regulated industry has been slower than hoped.
On Thursday, the state proposed a definition for “chronic pain,” limiting it to “any severe debilitating pain that the practitioner determines degrades health and functional capability” with a variety of caveats and requirements.
Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, who sponsored the state’s medical-marijuana bill signed by Cuomo in 2013, praised the Health Department’s latest plan.
“Expanding the list of eligible conditions to include chronic pain will help thousands of New Yorkers ease their suffering with an alternative to drugs, such as opioids, which can be dangerous, addictive, and have serious side effects,” Gottfried said in a statement.
Despite the changes, some remain unsure what effect this will have on the five companies producing medical marijuana products in New York.
Each of the five licensed companies are legally allowed to maintain five dispensaries. The state is in the process of expanding the number of companies.
Vita said none of the companies are profitable, which concerns them. Vita said he hoped the expansion of the program would bring more patients and the need for more staff. “Knock on wood, all of these things should come part and parcel with these changes to the program.”
Ari Hoffnung, CEO of medical marijuana company Vireo Health of NY, said he fully embraces the DOH’s “common-sense, patient-friendly regulatory changes.” But it is too early to tell what effect the changes will have for the companies.
“We are probably using about 5 percent of our capacity and have invested millions and millions of dollars to build state-of-the-art facilities to produce these medicines that are safe and (are) produced in accordance with New York state law,” said Ari Hoffnung, CEO of Vireo Health of NY. “There’s really not the issue of supply, there’s really an issue of demand.”
Vireo Health has dispensaries in Queens, White Plains, Albany and Binghamton. The company manufactures oils, vapors and capsules, which are each available for purchase through the program.
The state’s medical-marijuana law allows only non-smokeable forms of the drug.