Medical marijuana dispensaries in Riverhead and Lake Success set up shop early this year in light of the 2014 Compassionate Care Act, which made the drug prescribable in New York State beginning on Jan. 7, 2016 after an 18-month implementation process.
However, the business is still subject to restrictions as it is gradually introduced to New York, the 23rd state to legalize medical marijuana.
As of April 5, 2016, 514 physicians are registered to prescribe the substance, and 2,494 patients have been certified by their doctors to receive the drug, according to the State Department of Health.
To put that into perspective, there are currently 79,512 primary and specialist physicians in New York and only 0.6 percent have the keys to access medical marijuana.
The Lake Success dispensary is located in a large opaque building right off of Marcus Avenue, sharing offices with multiple other medical companies such as Quest Diagnostics and Premier Cardiology Consultants. No clear signs are present on the exterior of the building, and 12 people interviewed in a shopping plaza across the street said they were unaware of the nearby dispensary.
The Riverhead dispensary building, which also has an unrevealing facade, is the only location in Suffolk County and is open by appointment only, according to its website. Columbia Care, the company that runs the dispensary, has locations in New York City, Plattsburgh and Rochester as well.
There are currently five organizations registered to manufacture and dispense medical marijuana products in the state with five facilities each, according to the State Department of Health. They are only allowed to sell liquid or oil forms of marijuana.
The current set of regulations restricts public access to a list of certified physicians. They must contact their primary care physicians, who have access to the list for New York State.
Dale Deutsch, a professor currently leading a Stony Brook research group that has conducted basic research regarding THC, said that in the country, most of the studies regarding medical marijuana have been informal studies conducted by clinics.
“The bottom line is they’re not doing much research. Most of the time the only research is anecdotal,” Deutsch said. “In California, they give a guy this marijuana and they may ask the patients how it affected them. That’s the research.”
The state medical marijuana program only covers ten severe or life-threatening medical conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS and epilepsy, which must also be accompanied by an associated or complicating condition such as chronic pain or seizures in order for a patient to be fully eligible, according to the State Department of Health.
Patients with Alzheimer’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder currently do not have access to medical marijuana in New York. Other medical conditions that do not yet allow for medical marijuana treatment include traumatic brain injury, dystonia, muscular dystrophy, wasting syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
However, a bill introduced in both the State Assembly and the Senate is set to fill that gap in the near future. Another bill adds severe chronic pain to the list of covered conditions instead of as an associated condition.
“It’s a new program, [politicians] are very cautious and they are scared of their constituents,” Deutsch said.
“The laws have more to do with politics than with the science,” said Matthew Elms, a biochemist who works with Deutsch. “The science is pretty clear that there are definitely benefits.”
“The plant might have other things beneficial,” Deutsch said, explaining that the full potential of the plant is still very much unknown because the government doesn’t allow funding of the research. He said that he is optimistic that they’ll soon change their stance.
“Technically, it’s harder to get marijuana than it is to get cocaine for research,” Elms said, referring to the government’s Schedule I drug status on cannabis. “In terms of medical marijuana, the pros far outway the cons.”