As Dana and Paul Dargan approached the nondescript building housing one of two Long Island medical marijuana dispensaries that opened on Friday, Dana glanced around in both directions and wondered where the protesters were.
The Dargans made the short trip from Hampton Bays to Riverhead, curious to check out the Columbia Care facility and pledge their support. On this dreary morning, there were no signs of opponents. The only people mingling in the parking lot were journalists documenting the historic grand opening and patients making their way inside a neighboring doctor’s office. The dispensary wouldn’t be open for business until 1 p.m.
Anyone looking for marijuana leaf displays indicating the dispensary’s location wouldn’t find that, either. Unlike the ubiquitous green leaves blaring from outside facilities in California and other states beckoning potential customers inside and inviting awkward queries from tourists, the Colombia Care building possesses an unassuming tan façade and eschews eye-popping pot paraphernalia.
The excitement was palpable once people made their way inside, however. The occasion drew Riverhead Town officials welcoming Columbia Care to Suffolk County, medical marijuana activists and residents like the Dargans.
“I believe in compassionate care,” Dana, 62, told the Press, as she waited for the facility’s official ribbon-cutting ceremony. “And this is what it’s all about to me.”
Friday marked the beginning of what many supporters see as the future of healthcare for patients with debilitating diseases who can’t seem to find the comfort they desire. The law covers only a small list of serious conditions, including cancer, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, HIV/Aids, and epilepsy. [FULL LIST BELOW]
Eighteen months since the New York State Legislature approved the Compassionate Care Act, Long Island finally opened the doors to its own dispensaries.
“We think this is a wonderful opportunity for patients and physicians to really examine and take advantage of a new form of healthcare,” Columbia Care CEO Nicholas Vita told the Press inside the facility Friday morning.
Vita offered reporters a tour of the building, though it was a quick one. Patients only have access to a brightly lit waiting room festooned with an oversized photo of a marijuana leaf and a message declaring the facility’s “promise” to patients, and a pharmacy where transactions and consultations occur.
For now, patients can only enter the building by ringing a door bell and displaying a state-issued medical marijuana identification, which is then validated by a member of the staff who swipes the card electronically.
New Yorkers interested in signing up for the program must receive a prescription from a certified physician and then register with the New York State Department of Health. As of Friday, there were 306 physicians and 465 patients certified by the state, the DOH said.
Columbia Care said it was expecting about 15 patients Friday who had signed up for appointments. Over time, the office expects to have normal business hours where patients can walk in without scheduling in advance, Vita said.
The medicinal marijuana offered at the Riverhead facility costs between $100-$300, Vita explained. But, he noted, some patients may be entitled to subsidies of 15-20 percent depending on if they live below the poverty line or are on Medicaid.
“The goal for us is to make sure no one ever comes and leaves empty handed,” Vita said, inside the pharmacy.
“If they want medicine, they should be able to get medicine, and that’s something we have the ability to do.”
The law prohibits smokable marijuana. Columbia Care currently offers medicinal cannabis in liquid form, but Vita said he expects to have the drug available as a vapor and pill form in the near future. Columbia Care has three other facilities in the state, including Rochester, Plattsburgh, and New York City.
When a patient enters the pharmacy they’ll be able to meet with a pharmacist technician for a consolation. Depending on the severity of their condition, the pharmacist can adjust the prescription, Vita said. Since the process is new for everyone, Vita hopes patients take advantage of the time they can spend with staff instead of walking over to the counter and immediately purchasing the medicine and walking out.
“We want to create options,” he said.
The program’s rollout did not come without criticism.
Count Dana Dargan among the list of people unhappy that the law only includes 10 qualified conditions. She listed her husband Paul’s long litany of medical issues and lamented that although he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from serving in the Vietnam War, he won’t be eligible.
“My husband is a Vietnam vet and he’s got a third of a heart, defibrillator, pace maker, five bypasses, nine stints,” she said, rattling off a lengthy list of maladies, which includes a bout with cancer, which he won. “He’s had a lot of health problems.”
“I think from the PTSD from Vietnam that he still suffers from—from back when he was 19 in 1968—I think all veterans should be entitled to it who have PTSD,” she said.
Donna Schwier of Compassionate Care NY, an advocacy group, said she will continue push lawmakers to change the law so it includes additional conditions, such as PTSD.
Still, she firmly believes the list of qualified conditions will only grow as time goes on.
“We don’t expect things to happen overnight, at least I don’t,” she said. “But I am optimistic of things going the right way.”
For now, though, Schwier is ecstatic for patients with life-altering conditions who are now eligible for treatment.
Schwier will also take advantage of the program to help relieve the pain caused by Fibromyalgia, a muscle disorder.
“It’s really going to make a difference in those peoples’ lives,” she told the Press. “You’ve got the people with cancer who have no appetite, they’re suffering severe nausea from the side effects of chemotherapy…you’ve got people with Multiple Sclerosis with severe painful spasticity, and the list goes on.”
Vita of Columbia Care sees benefits in how New York has adopted the program.
“I like the way New York has done this, and the reason why is because patients and physicians will know what the dosing is, they’ll know all of those things they don’t necessarily know in other markets, and if this is supposed to be medicine, those things have to be in place for people to really embrace it,” he said.
“Over time I’m sure the program will expand,” Vita continued. “But what we really want to see is sustainable, long-term partnership with the medical community, that’s driven by the physicians and by science.”
Eligible Nassau County residents won’t have to travel to Riverhead to seek treatment. Bloomfield Industries also opened its doors to patients on Friday in Lake Success.
“Patients suffering from painful and debilitating conditions no longer have to wait for the treatment they so desperately need,” Colette Bellefleur, Bloomfield Industries’ chief operating officer, said in a statement. “Bloomfield is deeply committed to alleviating suffering with safe, cannabis-based medicine distributed in a secure and compassionate environment. We look forward to serving patients in Nassau County and earning a place as a trusted healthcare leader in the community.”
For those who can’t find a physician certified by the state, Vita said the company maintains a list of approved-doctors it can share with prospective patients.
LIST OF QUALIFIED CONDITIONS
Cancer, HIV infection or AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury with spasticity, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathy, and Huntington’s disease.