New York medical marijuana program struggles to grow doctors list

ALBANY — New York’s medical marijuana program needs doctors to cure what’s ailing it.

Nearly 16 months after the state launched its tightly controlled medical marijuana program, less than 1,000 medical practitioners have registered with the state to prescribe the drug, according to Health Department figures.

“It’s something I have said a million times, doctors are one of the biggest problems we have with the implementation of this program,” said State Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), who sponsored the 2014 law that legalized medical marijuana in New York.

Savino and other advocates argued the lack of access to registered doctors and medical practitioners is a major reason why the program has struggled to get off the ground. As of Friday, it had only 18,348 certified patients.

Under the state law, only medical practitioners — doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners — that have registered with the state and completed a special online course can certify patients for medical marijuana use.

Making matters worse, the Health Department did not publish the names of registered medical practitioners until Friday, which made it harder for patients to get certified, advocates said.

Gov. Cuomo acknowledged the problem last week when, after being asked whether the program was effective, said “we need to get more doctors knowledgeable and comfortable in prescribing marijuana.”

Doing that, however, will be difficult so long as marijuana remains illegal under federal law, said Dr. Charles Rothberg, president of the Medical Society of the State of New York, which represents doctors.

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The Health Department did not publish the names of registered medical practitioners until Friday, which made it harder for patients to get certified, advocates said.

(Scott Harms/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

“We advise our doctors that the federal law does not permit this and they have to make their own judgment,” Rothberg said, adding that the Trump administration and especially new Attorney General Jeff Sessions have taken a harder stance against marijuana use than the Obama administration.

“Most of us don’t want to run afoul of the law,” Rothberg said.

Rothberg also said a lack of “scientifically validated data” about the benefits of medical marijuana has also made many doctors hesitant.

Savino said the Medical Society was simply “looking for excuses” and she, along with other advocates, put the onus on Cuomo and the state to do more to encourage doctors and other medical practitioners to get involved.

“There is just really no encouragement from the DOH to get more doctors involved,” said Kate Hintz, state director for Compassionate Care New York, a medical marijuana advocacy group.

The Health Department, in a statement, defended its efforts to grow the program, noting, among other things, its recent moves to allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to certify patients.

“Since New York State’s Medical Marijuana Program launched 16 months ago, the program has made great strides including the certification of more than 18,340 patients and the registration of nearly 1,000 practitioners,” the department said. “Recent enhancements such as adding chronic pain as a qualifying condition, allowing registered organizations to wholesale their products to other registered organizations, permitting home delivery, and empowering nurse practitioners and physician assistants to certify patients, will improve access for patients, streamline production, increase choice and help lead to reduced costs.”

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