Howard A. Zucker, MD, JD, Commissioner, New York State Department...

Howard A. Zucker, MD, JD, Commissioner, New York State Department of Health is seen on Sept. 12, 2016. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

The state Health Department announced Thursday that it will lift several restrictions on the medical marijuana program and allow wholesaling and the creation of additional products.

The new policies are intended to “improve patient access, streamline production, increase choice and help lead to reduced costs,” according to a news release.

“These are major steps forward for New York’s Medical Marijuana program and the thousands of patients who are benefiting from it every day,” Health Commissioner Howard A. Zucker said in a news release.

Patients and advocates have said that the range of products across the state’s 19 dispensaries is inconsistent and incomplete, leading some severely ill patients to travel long distances for the medicine they need. Under the department’s new policy, registered organizations will be allowed to manufacture and dispense more than the current five brands. They will also be permitted to sell and distribute approved products and extracts to other registered organizations.

Scott Giannotti, founder of the Cannabis and Hemp Association, a Manhattan-based trade association, said it appeared that the state was “laying the foundation” to expand its list of 11 qualifying conditions.

“The more products you have, the more conditions you can treat,” Giannotti said, adding that registered organizations could now specialize in specific products or conditions.

This lifting of brand restriction will help “ensure access for patients with rare or complex conditions,” Assemb. Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) said in a news release.

Columbia Care LLC, one of the state’s five registered organizations, will apply for wholesaling and manufacturing additional brands, said CEO Nicholas Vita. Columbia Care operates a dispensary in Riverhead, which is one of Long Island’s two dispensaries. The other is in Lake Success and is run by Bloomfield Industries. Columbia Care currently offers three products — a sublingual tincture, vaporization oil and oral capsules, in three formulations for each product — and probably will next introduce an oral solution.

Vita said he was hopeful that expanding the program’s product range will draw more patients. As of Nov. 29, 10,730 patients had registered with the program.

“It’s a patient driven market,” Vita said. “Because it’s out-of- pocket and it’s a private pay system, we have to be very mindful of what the consumers demand.”

The Health Department also recently proposed amendments to help hospital patients or caregivers administer medical marijuana. On Dec. 21, regulations will be published in the New York State Register and be subject to a 45-day comment period.

These steps follow the Health Department’s decision last week to authorize nurse practitioners to certify medical marijuana and to add chronic pain to the list of qualifying conditions. Proposed rule-making was also submitted for physician assistants to join the program.

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