The state Health Department announced Thursday that chronic pain patients will now qualify for medical marijuana, joining a list of 10 other qualifying conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.
“Medical marijuana is already helping thousands of patients across New York State, and adding chronic pain as a qualifying condition will help more patients and further strengthen the program,” Health Commissioner Howard A. Zucker said in a news release.
The change is one of two significant steps expanding the program — which was signed into law two years ago — and follows Wednesday’s authorization of nurse practitioners to certify patients for medical marijuana. Proposed rulemaking was also submitted for physician assistants to join the program.
Advocates and local officials applauded this week’s developments, saying the changes were long awaited and will improve patient access to the program.
“I think we’re seeing more progress than we did in the first six months since the program’s rollout,” said Kate Hintz, a patient advocate at Compassionate Care New York. “Do I think it could move faster? Absolutely. But so far they [Health Department] do seem to be following through on each step they’ve laid out.”
Assemb. Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) said in a news release that the addition of chronic pain would help “thousands of New Yorkers ease their suffering with an alternative to opioid drugs, which are dangerous, addictive and have serious side effects.”
The Health Department will soon publish a proposed regulatory amendment, which will define the chronic pain conditions that qualify for the program.
Medford resident Donna Schwier, who has chronic pain related to fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by fatigue, widespread muscle and joint pain and other symptoms, said medical marijuana offers a more effective and safer option to opiates, which she said have “horrible” side effects.
“I hate taking these opiates. I know there is a big addiction problem,” said Schwier, 59. “What’s the side effect [with medical marijuana]? I laugh, I giggle and then go to sleep? I might eat something?”
As of Tuesday, there were 10,730 certified patients and 750 physicians registered with the program. To date, 19 of 20 planned dispensaries have opened. Half of the dispensaries are clustered in southern New York, with nine across New York City and Long Island, in Lake Success and Riverhead.
In August, the Health Department laid out a list of 12 recommendations to expand the program, including facilitating home delivery, creating a public list of registered practitioners and doubling the number of dispensaries.
State Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), a sponsor of the medical marijuana bill, said it seemed that the Health Department was taking a “wait-and-see approach.” This week’s changes were ones they could implement immediately, Savino added.
Longtime advocate and Atlantic Beach resident Missy Miller, who has a 16-year-old son with epilepsy, said she is hopeful the state will continue to listen to patients’ needs. Miller (R-Long Beach) was recently elected to the state Assembly.
The Health Department stripped 2014’s original bill of its provisions to include nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and chronic pain as a condition, Miller said.
“Now they have a starting point,” she added.