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Will Medical Marijuana in New York Lead to Drug Policy Changes?

By law, New York’s medical marijuana program is due to be up and running for patient prescriptions by early 2016, but what’s the future of the program after that? Will enough patients sign up? Will doctors be willing to issue prescriptions?

For now, state leaders say it’s unclear how many people they expect to qualify for the program.

“I think as we roll out the program, we’re going to get more information so, right now, I anticipate there will be patients who want this therapy and we’ll have more information in the months to come,” said Health Commissioner Howard Zucker.

New York’s medical marijuana program is limiting prescriptions for the drug to the severely ill. It’s a potentially limited pool of people, making the price of a prescription potentially costly.

“Obviously, we want to make sure this is affordable because this is a therapy and it can help people and we’ll see where we go with that, it would be very important that everyone has access to it,” Zucker said.

Marijuana is edging close to widespread acceptance in the United States, but Minnesota’s medical marijuana program, which New York’s is strikingly similar to, remains relatively modest. Insurance carriers, too, have been reluctant to cover it.

“With it being a schedule one drug, in this country, schedule one, saying there’s no health benefit, Medicare, Medicaid patients can’t get it. Veterans can’t get it through their veterans insurance. I think it will be a while before insurance companies follow that path,” said Michelle Larson, Minnesota Office Of Medical Cannabis Director.

Meanwhile, it’s unknown how many health care providers will be willing to prescribe the drug. Zucker says he is reaching out to doctors now, before the program launches for patients.

“I’ve reached out to the pediatricians, family practice physicians, the internal medicine physicians and others,” Zucker said. “My goal there is to also have them reach out to physicians and I will also continue to reach out over the next couple of months.

As for the number of illnesses that qualify for the program, Zucker isn’t ruling out exercising the health department’s authority in adding more afflictions to what can be covered.

“We have the diseases that we’ve listed and as we move forward, as more information comes forward, I will look at that, the team will review it and decide what we want to add on as necessary,” Zucker said.

New York officials will be reacting as the program rolls out and have adjusted in part based on issues arising in other states.

“You also have to remember that every state is different so what New York needs is different than in other parts of the country,” said Zucker.

As for the future, medical marijuana supporters say this isn’t part of a broader effort to spur broader legalization of marijuana.

“There’s a lot of problems with our marijuana policies. Marijuana prohibition has done a lot of harm to a lot of communities, but what we’re talking about here is getting medicine to patients in need,” said Julie Netherland, Drug Policy Alliance deputy state director.

While New York won’t allow programs like Colorado’s recreational marijuana, medical cannabis programs have often come a decade before broader use is allowed.

“I’ll leave that to other people to decide,” said state Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island. “I think if you look at other states that have adopted medical marijuana and then followed up with legalizing it for general adult use – Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, too – it took about 10 or 12 years in between the initial program of medical marijuana to recreationally.

“We should call it general adult use. It’s about a decade. I can’t imagine New York won’t be any different.”

Each state is different when it comes to medical marijuana and marijuana policy in general, but the federal government is pretty clear on the issue: marijuana is a schedule one drug. That means the marijuana program in New York or any state for that matter could be shutdown at any moment. However, advocates insist that won’t be happening.

“It’s possible, but I think unlikely,” Netherland said. “The Obama administration has been very clear in several directives from the Department of Justice that they’re not going to purse medical marijuana programs that are well-regulated. One thing you can say about the New York program is that it’s got a lot of regulation.”

Savino, a key lawmaker who pushed for the medical marijuana law, says it’s up to the presidential candidates to stake out clear positions now on the issue.

“I believe that is incumbent upon on all of the candidates running for president of the United States, regardless of party, to talk about medical marijuana,” Savino said. “You have it in 23 states and other states considering it through ballot options or the legislative process. We are at the tipping point in this country. Anyone who wants to lead this nation cannot pretend medical marijuana isn’t a reality that they have to deal with.

The Department of Health, meanwhile, says the program remains on schedule to launch by January. A spokesman says that, if necessary, the department may authorize additional companies to become registered organizations.

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