November 20, 2017
OWEGO, NY (WENY) -- New York's Medical Marijuana Program first became law in 2014 with the Compassionate Care Act, however it's taken years for it to become fully implemented.
Local patients in the Southern Tier still face many challenges when it comes to accessing the new form of medication.
According to a two year program report, as of June 2016, there were 11 registered practitioners in the Southern Tier. That's compared to more than 50 certified patients.
"It's very limited. It's hard to find somebody who's certified and willing to do it and a number of people have said that they've had to wait a long time to get the appointment and that it was frustrating and so forth. So yes, definitely need more doctors," says Dr. Keith Nichols, who is registered under the state program and has a private practice based in Owego, NY.
Dr. Nichols began issuing certifications about a year and a half ago and says he's now approved 107 patients.
"Most of the ones that I've certified for it who've given me feedback it's been very positive. It's helped them reduce their chronic pain, it's helped them with
their Parkinson's, it's reduced their muscle spasms. It works well," Dr. Nichols says.
Under the rules of the state program, a patient must see a registered doctor first, then apply online for a registry ID card, then visit a dispensary to obtain the medication.
In Owego, Dr. Nichols says his patients come from across the Southern Tier and then have to travel, again, to get their medicine.
"Almost all the patients have gone to the dispensary in Johnson City New York, which is run by the company called 'Verio.' I think the next closest dispensary is in Syracuse," he says.
Dr. Nichols explains the benefits of the newer form of medication range from pain and anxiety reduction to reducing tremor and seizures.
Another benefit -- limiting other medicines.
"People that I've certified for the marijuana, the ones that are currently or were using opioids of one type or another, in almost every case they were able to reduce -- and in a couple cases -- eliminate the use of the opioid," Dr. Nichols says.
However, a challenge many patients face which also limits accessibility is insurance coverage.
"Some people, even though they get a great benefit from it, they can't afford it because if they use an opiate, it's covered; if they use marijuana, it's not
covered so they have to pay cash for it. It's somewhat ironic but that's the way it is right now. hopefully that will improve," Dr. Nichols explains.
One parent from the Southern Tier, who wished to remain anonymous, is the mother to a 5-year-old daughter with a genetic mutation called Tuberous Sclerosis Complex, or TBS. That causes benign tumors to grow on vital organs, which, in turn causes seizures.
Those episodes began when she was around 15-months-old.
"After she started having the spasms, I mean it just didn't stop - we tried...I think total we've tried.. I don't even know, like over 15 medications now."
As her daughter's condition began to get worse, mom was looking into the very difficult decision of brain surgery.
During a visit to her daughter's neurologist in Boston, an opportunity came up for her daughter to be a part of a pharmaceutical trial involving Cannabidiol (CBD) oil. CBD is one of the components in many medical marijuana formulas - the other being, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
"March she [had] started it and then in April was her very last tonic-clonic...like up to date, so almost two and a half years now," the mother says.
Obtaining the medicine this parent now critically needs for her daughter remains a challenge.
"I mean, it's not easy. We have to go with a toddler, you know, seven hours up and back every four months just for the medication to pick it up. Right now it can't be shipped to us because it is from a pharmaceutical company so it's not just from a random dispensary - you can't just go pick it up somewhere."
Mom is reserved to transition her daughter to New York's Medical Marijuana Program, mainly because she sees a gray area when it comes to how the medicine is distributed.
"[The company has] scientists, they have a lab, they literally have the exact same formula every single time. We know every single bottle is the same formula, whereas if I went to a dispensary I can't guarantee that," she says.
New York's Medical Marijuana Program continues to expand, most recently on Veteran's Day with Governor Andrew Cuomo adding Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD) to the list of qualifying conditions.
There is, however, still a need for more doctors and dispensaries.
"I'm enthusiastic about it and I wish more doctors would get the certification ability because I see people from Elmira, Horseheads, Ithaca and east of here.
There just aren't that many doctors who are doing it at this point," Dr. Nichols says.
There is a planned dispensary coming to Chemung County, under the company Citivia. WENY News has reached out to the company for additional details multiple times via phone and email and not yet received a response.
For a list of public consenting medical marijuana program practitioners, click here: https://www.health.ny.gov/regulations/medical_marijuana/practitioner/public_list.htm
NEW YORK'S MEDICAL MARIJUANA PROGRAM: 2-YEAR REPORT