ALBANY — When the state of New York approved the use of medical marijuana in 2014, the applicants to dispense the drug were vetted and reviewed by a panel of experts said to have deep backgrounds in several fields.
The identities of the panel’s members had been a mystery since. By July 2015, the panel had chosen five companies that would receive exclusive statewide medical marijuana licenses, a potentially lucrative award in a state with nearly 20 million residents and hundreds of thousands of potential patients.
A September 2015 Freedom of Information request by The New York Times, seeking the names of the panel’s members, was delayed nine times. On Friday, the request was effectively denied, as the department said that it did not “maintain records” or contact information for the panel.
On Monday, however, the department reversed course and disclosed the names of the panel’s 17 evaluators: all state employees, most with little or no prior professional experience in medical marijuana.
They included a number of Health Department scientists and administrators as well as three architects, an accountant and an auditor. They were chosen for their specialties — including chemistry, internal medicine, and pharmaceutical drugs, according to the department — to create a “multidisciplinary team.”
The state’s program has been criticized for a cumbersome and often opaque rollout, in part because of restrictions placed on the drug’s medical use — for example, it cannot be smoked and must be used in forms like tinctures and oils. Critics have also faulted the state for seemingly opting to create a model from scratch, despite more than 20 other states having medical marijuana programs, an assertion that the Health Department disputes, saying its panel — despite its lack of expertise in the field — drew from other states’ experiences.
The identity and methodology of the panel has taken on new import in recent months as the Health Department has moved to use their 2015 evaluations as a basis for awarding licenses to as many as five additional companies, part of a broader effort to expand access to the drug.
Critics, and even some supporters, of the program have said that the small number of dispensaries — 20 approved statewide — and the high cost of medical marijuana has made it difficult for some patients to get the drug, particularly in remote or rural areas.
Companies running the dispensaries have said that they have yet to make a profit; a trade association representing the five current licensees filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Albany seeking to halt the expansion.
The suit claims that the Health Department unilaterally decided to grant more licenses even after a two-year report issued in August offered evidence that the program had been struggling to take hold with doctors and patients. The plaintiffs suggest that an expansion “will result in irreparable harm” to individual companies and threaten the existence of the whole program.
“Flooding the supply market when there is insufficient patient demand will undermine the viability of the entire program,” the lawsuit says, adding that more dispensaries could also make it difficult for companies to raise more capital.
State Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, who was a champion of the 2014 legislation that created the program, said she warned health officials that a lawsuit was possible after they had announced the expansion this year.
“These guys are on the hook for tens of millions of dollars each,” she said. “So the expansion of these licenses would only serve to harm them even further. So I’m certainly not surprised.”
Savino added that she personally did not think that the program needed additional organizations to grow and produce marijuana as medicine, but she does suggest additional dispensaries. “They could just issue dispensary-only licenses,” she said.
Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, another of the program’s legislative sponsors, said the law allowed for the authorization of additional organizations, but he echoed Savino’s call for more dispensaries, saying that “it would help existing producers.”
Despite a long lobbying campaign by patients and caregivers, the program did not make an immediate impact. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo demanded strict regulations in exchange for his support for legalizing the drug for medical use. Critics blame the restrictive regulations for the program’s initial struggles to attract and certify patients and doctors.
Facing complaints, the Health Department announced a series of changes to the program in late 2016, including adding chronic pain as a treatable condition and allowing nurse practitioners to certify patients. Those changes have shown that the Cuomo administration seems to have “definitely turned a corner in its attitude toward the program,” Gottfried said.
On Wednesday, Cuomo said that his administration is considering more ailments — including PTSD — as possible treatable conditions, and needs more doctors to become “knowledgeable and comfortable with prescribing marijuana.”
“The program just started so — doctors are being trained, patients are being trained — and we’re still in the phase-in process, I think,” the governor said in remarks to reporters, adding that he didn’t believe that “the program is fully effective yet, because its still transitioning.”
All told, about 17,600 patients — and nearly 1,000 medical professionals — have been approved for the program, whose first dispensaries opened in January 2016. Still, advocates for the drug say that problems with the program still exist, including the difficulty in finding physicians and other medical professionals certified to recommend the treatment.
“As someone who has been working on medical cannabis for three years now in this state, I have yet to know one patient that feels the program is serving their needs entirely,” said Kate Hintz, state director of Compassionate Care NY, a group that lobbies for medical marijuana, citing a limited and inconsistent product selection. “The product they buy one month is not the same strength the next month — a huge red flag for medical patients.”
Jill Montag, a spokeswoman for the Health Department, said that the state still intended to issue five additional licenses in the first half of 2017, and that such an expansion will address many of the concerns voiced by Hintz and others, including geographic diversity, affordability and variety of products.
As for the once unknown panelists who chose the organizations, Montag did not comment directly on the lack of experience of the panel, but said that members “were carefully selected for their expertise in specific disciplines” and called the process of ranking applicants “extensive, thorough and entirely transparent.”