Questions Linger Around State’s Medical Marijuana Program


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The New York State Department of Health continues to say medical marijuana will be available to patients by this coming January, but families and advocates aren't so sure.

Christine Emerson has been fighting for the medicine for her daughter Julia.

"It takes 3 months to grow and harvest the plants," Emerson said. "So that puts us really toward the end of the year, and we're not even talking about producing the medicine and having it tested."

After multiple failed attempts, the health department finally agreed to answer 2 On Your Side's questions about the program, although only by email.


"[T]he Department anticipates that medical marijuana will be available to patients in January 2016," according to the email. "The application process required each applicant to attach a timeline demonstrating that estimated time from growing marijuana to the production of a final approved product."

However, several companies have expressed skepticism.

In a statement after being awarded one of the licenses, the chief executive of Bloomfield Industries said in a news release that the company's growing operation would be up and running in December. That would not allow enough time to grow the plants.

We talked Wednesday with the CEO of PharmaCannis, which will operate a dispensary in Amherst. Teddy Scott said he will have product grown by late January, but said it's possible -- due to testing and inspections -- that it won't actually be sold until February.


In some states, medical marijuana has cost $500 a month, and that's often out of pocket.

2 On Your Side reached out to the largest insurance providers in Western New York.

Univera said it will not cover medical marijuana, because it is not FDA approved.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of WNY and Independent Health both said they're still reviewing coverage decisions on new medications, and no final decision has been made. However, both companies typically only cover FDA approved drugs as well.

"Although the FDA has not approved medical marijuana for any indications, our Pharmacy & Therapeutics Committee will review this new treatment," said Frank Sava, a spokesperson with Independent Health.

We also reached out to United Healthcare, but our repeated messages were never returned.

Medicare and Medicaid will not cover medical marijuana either. Those program are impacted by the federal government's classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug.

The state health department, which will set the price for medical marijuana, won't review pricing until December.


State law only allows for 20 dispensaries across New York State. Advocates have long pointed out the problems with that limitation, especially since some counties have multiple dispensaries, while other parts of the state have huge gaps.


This map shows where the 20 medical marijuana dispensaries will be located across New York State. (Photo: Michael Wooten / Axis Graphics)

2 On Your Side asked the health department about those concerns, considering some patients may have to drive hours each month just to get the medicine.

"The Department will carefully monitor patient demand as practitioners begin to certify patients to ensure all New Yorkers who meet the requirements of the Compassionate Care Act have access to the program and determine whether approval of delivery services should be granted in the future to registered organizations who seek to offer such services," according to the department's emailed responses.

The health department says dispensary location was only one of several factors in deciding which companies would receive licenses.


As the above map shows, Erie County will have two dispensaries. In addition to the PharmaCannis dispensary at NorthPointe Parkway in Amherst, Bloomfield Industries will have a local dispensary.

Although Bloomfield has not returned our repeated messages, the health department now says that company's Erie County dispensary will be in Williamsville.

Its close proximity to Amherst only further concerns people who believe the dispensaries need to be more spread out.

"[T]he Department will continue to review patient access to ensure that patients can obtain the product in the most controlled but efficient manner," the health department said.

As for the PharmaCannis' dispensary, Scott said he has already filed for the building permits, and once those are granted, work will begin. He admitted, much of the focus for now is on the manufacturing facility, because it must be completed quickly so seeds can be put in the ground.


In its emailed responses, the health department also indicated its practitioner education and practitioner registration programs will be available by October 1. Only those who complete those programs will be able to prescribe the medication.

"[We] will be providing additional information on the medical marijuana program website by the end of August," the department said.

As for patient certification and registration systems, the health department said those are still being developed and will be launched in November and December, respectively.

You can find out more about the medical marijuana program, by looking through the FAQ section on the health department's website.