It’s been nearly eighteen months since Governor Cuomo signed legislation to legalize medical marijuana, and with only a few weeks left before the Compassionate Care Act is due to take effect, the five companies licensed to grow and sell cannabis are rushing to meet the deadline.
The legislation, which has been derided as too restrictive, allows for five growers to stock twenty dispensaries throughout the state’s 55,000 square miles. Under the law, a dispensary can carry up to five different “brands,” or strains of cannabis.
The five companies — Columbia Care, Bloomfield Industries, Etain LLC, PharmaCann LLC, and Vireo Health of New York — have had about four months since being awarded their licenses, on July 31, to set up grow facilities, plant seeds, and harvest their crop. It takes roughly that same amount of time for a cannabis plant to reach maturity.
“I think it’s definitely an ambitious timeline, but one we’ve been able to keep to,” says Hillary Peckham of Etain LLC. She says her company is on schedule, planning to open all four of its dispensaries — in Albany, Ulster, Westchester, and Onondaga — on a rolling basis from the beginning to the end of January. Etain’s final products, grown out of a 12,000-square-foot greenhouse north of Saratoga Springs in Warren County, are ready for distribution and awaiting approval from the Department of Health, Peckham says.
The law mandates that each dispensary carry at least two specific brands of cannabis: one with a high ratio of CBD to THC, such as 20-to-1, says Peckham, the other with a 1-1 ratio. THC is the chemical compound — or cannabinoid — that bears most of a marijuana plant’s psychotropic properties, whereas CBD, while also a cannabinoid, has a wide range of medical uses as well and doesn’t cause a user to feel high.
Etain is expecting to carry one additional brand in addition to the two mandated, all of which will come in different forms for consumption, says Peckham. “We’ve been manufacturing vaporizing pens, tinctures, sprays, and pills,” she says. “We’ll roll more out as the program develops and we have more patients and can expand what we can offer.”
Because some strains take longer to grow than others, Peckham says, Etain began by focusing on those with shorter life cycles in order to meet the January deadline. “You have to guarantee that you’ll grow those strains or produce those brands for one year,” she explains. “We always expected it to be a small program. To start small and build, that’s what I expect to happen in the next year. This is uncharted territory — we planned for that.”
Meanwhile, Vireo Health is also on schedule to open its first dispensary in White Plains by the beginning of January. “We’re firing on all five cylinders, doing our best to get [the dispensaries] open as soon as possible,” says Stephen Dahmer, the company’s chief medical officer. “We’re going to plan on lower numbers and just focus our efforts on educating physicians and in the long run increasing numbers and access.”
Future expansion of the law will be a joint effort, says Dahmer. “Much of the effort has been grassroots, patients pushing for legislation. In the future, it will be a combination of grassroots efforts continuing and…more physicians coming out in favor of medical cannabis, moving the industry forward.”
The company is in the process of testing its products through the New York State Department of Health while also training staff members to make sure they’re able to answer patient questions once the dispensaries open for business.
Nicholas Vita, CEO of Columbia Care, has also confirmed that the company’s first dispensary will open by January 5 in Union Square. Columbia Care’s Rochester and Plattsburgh “pharmacies,” as Vita calls them, will open in mid-January; a Riverhead location will open at the end of that month.
Bloomfield Industries and PharmaCann LLC did not respond to requests for comment.
State officials have predicted that patients who qualify for medical marijuana will likely spend between $300 and $1,000 per month for treatment. Roughly 500,000 patients around the state qualify under the ten conditions covered by the Compassionate Care Act, including cancer, epilepsy, and AIDS. The Department of Health has yet to release the number of those actually registered with the program. The Voice reached out to the department and will update this story if they respond. Cannabis medicine will be priced by the Department of Health and will not be covered by insurance.
New York is on the cusp of welcoming a brand-new, unprecedented industry to the state, says Diane Savino, the state senate sponsor of the Compassionate Care Act. “We need to examine the real size of the program. We’re creating an industry where we restrict not only where you can operate but who you can sell to,” she says. “If you’re a license holder now, you carry the entire risk of this experiment in New York State.”