Patients struggle to get medical marijuana in New York

Thousands of critically ill New Yorkers have struggled to access medical marijuana, and some doctors are saying state Department of Health failures are keeping the potentially life-saving drug out of reach.

The state agency mishandled regulations on how doctors certify marijuana patients, including thousands in the Lower Hudson Valley suffering from serious illnesses such as epilepsy and cancer, an investigation by The Journal News/lohud has found.

Questions about conflicts, inaccurate statements and botched dispensary openings have also mounted.

One of the potential patients is 5-year-old Vincent Piperato of Thiells, who has Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy.

His mother, Dr. Amy Piperato, has been counting the days since New York enacted its medical marijuana law in 2014. She also tallies seizures that rack her son’s body, at 25 last year.

Even though New York launched its medical marijuana program last month, Piperato, an internist, hasn't found a doctor to certify Vincent. The state Health Department is refusing to release marijuana doctors' names, and legal gaps discourage health professionals from referrals.

Piperato's most likely recourse is to sever ties with her son's lifelong physicians in favor of doctors willing to endanger their medical practice to recommend cannabis-based drugs.

“It’s frustrating that we can’t find a practitioner, especially while knowing that children in different states have full access to this medicine,” she said. "The way (New York's) law is written there are so many barriers to access, from the doctor certification to the number of dispensaries."

Meanwhile, New York has certified 1,174 marijuana patients out of a pool estimated at more than 200,000, based on the number of people suffering from eligible illnesses. And 421 doctors in the state, out of 90,000, have registered for the program as concerns mount about its legality.

Although 22 other states allow doctors to certify marijuana patients, an apparent flaw in New York’s program has some in the medical community concerned about federal legal troubles.

Dr. Sheryl Haut, a top neurologist at Montefiore Medical Center, cited the legal ambiguity surrounding New York’s marijuana program as a major reason she refuses to certify patients. She fears that participating in the program would endanger her ability to prescribe other drugs.

“This just became an option in New York and, honestly, most of the epilepsy doctors I know are trying to understand what this means,” Haut said.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., weighed in on the high-stakes bet New York physicians are taking in certifying marijuana patients.

“They are putting themselves at risk,” Gillibrand said.

In New York, doctors are instructed by Health Department training and policy to recommend dosing as part of patient certification. By contrast, other states don’t allow doctors to address dosing, leaving it up to the dispensaries where patients buy the drug.

The dosing issue is important because New York doctors may face federal penalties, such as losing their U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration registration necessary to handle many prescription drugs.

DEA officials would not discuss how the agency will address the situation, citing the fact that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. It is designated alongside drugs without medicinal uses, including heroin.

“The (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has not approved marijuana as a medicine and has repeatedly concluded that smoked marijuana has a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medical use in the U.S. and lacks an acceptable level of safety for use,” said James Hunt, DEA special agent in charge of New York.

Gillibrand and some New York doctors disagreed with the DEA chief’s stance. She has proposed federal reforms to decriminalize marijuana for medicinal uses, which would resolve some of the concerns affecting New York’s law.

While pointing to systemic problems unique to New York, Gillibrand also blamed federal government inaction for the situation.

“The only delay is that too many people still put politics before people,” she said. “There is an old line of attack against marijuana left over from the '60s that it has no medicinal use, and it’s just a hippie drug and it can be a gateway drug.”