A technician helps make medical marijuana products in 2019 at...

A technician helps make medical marijuana products in 2019 at a medical cannabis cultivation and processing facility in upstate Ravena. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

Medical cannabis can change lives. As a pharmacist with over three decades of experience — both in traditional pharmaceuticals and now medical cannabis — I’ve seen the remarkable impact this medicine has on people.

But New York’s medical cannabis program is at a crossroads — one that, in the eyes of myself and my peers, was entirely preventable and born of excessive constraints that prioritize bureaucracy over patients.

This problem has nothing to do with the 2021 legalization of recreational marijuana and ongoing controversies over granting adult-use licenses and siting retail stores — except that in both instances state regulators need to get their act together.

On medical cannabis, regulators must be flexible and collaborate with industry operators to ensure patients have seamless access to essential medications amid the ongoing shortage of cannabis pharmacists, which is leaving our health care system in a precarious state. This starts with allowing cannabis dispensary pharmacists to engage with patients online rather than mandating in-person consultations — a simple but important policy that would prevent service disruptions and even closures that operators across the state have experienced due to the ongoing labor shortage.

Throughout the pandemic, the state Office of Cannabis Management recognized the pivotal role pharmacists play and established clear, adaptable guidelines that prioritized patient access to regulated medical cannabis. Rather than build on that, the state ignored what worked and rolled back flexibilities as the pandemic eased, refusing to continue to allow virtual consultations. This has left patients across the state vulnerable to dispensary closures when pharmacists needed to take time off for well-earned vacations or unexpected emergencies and an in-person, short-term replacement could not be found.

The OCM’s decision to revoke COVID-era protocols has resulted in the temporary closures of medical cannabis dispensaries in Queens, Rochester and Wallkill, leaving patients and workers in the lurch. To avoid even more closures, pharmacists have had to cancel vacations and travel long distances to ensure continuity of care.

There are just under 40 medical dispensaries operating statewide, with roughly 3,163 patients for every location. Already, tens of thousands of New Yorkers live in a medical cannabis desert. Restricting access to medication is the last thing our regulators should be doing.

But with much of the state’s focus on adult recreational use, I fear that patients and community pharmacists like me are being ignored.

Our primary goal as pharmacists is to provide relief to patients battling various health conditions. Regrettably, the OCM’s rigidity has hampered patient access to this vital care. Along with the shortage of trained cannabis pharmacists, this is indicative of a larger issue in New York State: The medical program is being left behind.

As a veteran cannabis pharmacist, I can say with certainty that the current landscape is far from ideal for the 123,000 patients currently enrolled. The discontinuation of flexible pharmacy options, the ongoing labor shortages, and the proliferation of illicit cannabis dispensaries that sell potentially contaminated, untaxed, and unregulated products across Long Island and the state have had a detrimental impact on the medical program.

As New York continues its transition to a full-scale recreational cannabis program, the medical program and the patients it serves need protection and support. Patient access to rigorously tested medical products and pharmacy experts must remain at the forefront. Without swift change, dispensaries will continue to experience temporary closure, and patients will be deprived of access to their medication. The OCM owes it to patients and the dedicated staff that serve them to be responsive and adaptable.


n THIS GUEST ESSAY reflects the views of John Burns, lead pharmacist at The Botanist in Farmingdale.

This guest essay reflects the views of John Burns, lead pharmacist at The Botanist in Farmingdale.

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