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New York's medical marijuana program is changing, too. What to know


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New York’s medical marijuana companies and patients are poised to reap major benefits from the state’s new law legalizing recreational marijuana.

Tucked inside the new marijuana law approved Wednesday are major changes to the medical marijuana program, which launched in 2016 and has since sold cannabis-based drugs to more than 143,000 patients.

From expanding eligible health conditions to allowing smokable dry marijuana flower, the new law addressed patient advocates' long-standing push to improve access and affordability within the medical cannabis program.

The law also includes key provisions that will allow existing medical marijuana companies, including some of the largest cannabis industry players in the country, to expand into the recreational marketplace.

It unfolded after years of cannabis industry lobbying that targeted New York lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who in 2018 changed course on legalizing marijuana after years of opposition.

The cannabis industry lobbying in New York included more than $3 million that flowed between 2013 and 2018, the year Cuomo launched a recreational marijuana study that kickstarted the legislative debate that culminated this week with the legalization of marijuana for adults 21 and older.

How NY medical marijuana patients benefit

One key change to medical marijuana regulations involves granting doctors and other eligible health professionals, such as nurse practitioners, the ability to use their discretion to certify patients.

Previously, medical marijuana was restricted to patients with a select list of health conditions, such as cancer and epilepsy. The list started small but slowly added conditions in recent years, with the biggest spike in patients coming after regulators added chronic pain in December 2016.

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The new law will also expand the eligibility list to add several new conditions, including autism, which have long been sought by medical marijuana doctors and patients.

The new regulations for the medical marijuana program would take effect in six months at the earliest, according to the law and state officials.

As for the conditions not on the list, other states with similar medical marijuana laws have seen doctors certifying patients for a range of conditions, with anxiety and insomnia among the most common, according to Dr. Stephen Dahmer, chief medical officer for Vireo Health, a medical marijuana company in New York.

“It’s that relationship between a provider and patient that best identifies how to utilize that therapy,” Dahmer said, adding the changes aim to stop those suffering from insomnia, anxiety and other conditions from self-medicating with unregulated black-market marijuana.

Currently, New York’s medical cannabis program is regulated by the state Department of Health, but it will soon fall under the new Office of Cannabis Management being formed as part of the marijuana law to oversee recreational and medical marijuana programs, as well as hemp.

How NY medical marijuana companies benefit

Another key political debate involved allowing the 10 existing medical cannabis companies in New York the ability to grow, distribute and sell recreational marijuana.

New York’s law in part will allow the state’s existing medical marijuana companies to pay a one-time special licensing fee to enter the recreational marijuana industry, with the money going to a social equity fund for marijuana businesses.

The cost of the special fee will be set by the new cannabis management office.

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Each medical marijuana company that pays the fee and completes the licensing process would be allowed to start selling recreational marijuana at up to three medical cannabis dispensaries, though the recreational sales will not begin until April 2022 at the earliest.

Other options for medical marijuana companies include selling their products to other retail dispensaries. They could also obtain a license to distribute, cultivate and process recreational marijuana, but would be limited to distributing their own products.

Meanwhile, other legal weed states have struggled to facilitate marijuana business opportunities for people of color as large medical and recreational cannabis businesses took over much of the marketplace.

Still, lawmakers who championed New York’s new marijuana law asserted it contained enough provisions to avoid a similar fate.

“This effort was years in the making and we have finally achieved what many thought was impossible, a bill that legalizes marijuana while standing up for social equity, enhancing education and protecting public safety,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said in a statement Wednesday.

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David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached at drobinson@gannett.com and followed on Twitter: @DrobinsonLoHud