ALBANY -- Medical marijuana will soon be available to New Yorkers suffering from chronic pain.
The state Health Department said Thursday it is developing regulations to allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to patients with chronic pain, although it has yet to define what symptoms will qualify as chronic pain.
“Medical marijuana is already helping thousands of patients across New York state, and adding chronic pain as a qualifying condition will help more patients and further strengthen the program," state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said in a statement.
The health department said it developing a proposed regulatory amendment to the law that took effect in January that legalized medical marijuana in New York in non-smokeable forms and for specific medical conditions.
The amendment will be published for public comment "shortly," the agency said.
The state has 10 conditions that qualify for medical marijuana usage: cancer, HIV infection or AIDS; Lou Gehrig's disease; Parkinson’s disease; multiple sclerosis; spinal damage; epilepsy; inflammatory bowel disease; neuropathies; and Huntington’s disease.
The move is the latest loosening of New York's medical marijuana law, which is among the most stringent in the nation and has drawn criticism from patients and advocates for its restrictiveness.
Last month, the health department agreed to let nurse practitioners prescribe the drug, and it's in the process of letting physician assistants do so as well.
To prescribe medical marijuana, medical professionals need to take an online course. Patients then need to get approval from their doctor and enroll online.
New York has five certified companies that grow and sell marijuana, and each has four dispensaries.
The state is also considering expanding the number of companies that can sell and grow medical marijuana -- as well as making public the list of doctors who can prescribe the drug.
About 750 physicians have registered to prescribe medical marijuana, and 10,730 patients have been certified by their doctors, the health department said.
One of the state's leading medical marijuana experts says it's a step in the right direction.
Dr. Laszlo Mechtler's with DENT Neurologic Institute says 100-million people in the U.S. have medically chronic pain, which is defined as pain for more than 15 days a month.
Mechtler says medical marijuana will help get many patients off of prescription opiates.
"I'd rather have individuals on medical marijuana than I do with opiates. There has not been one certified death from overdose of medical marijuana," says Mechtler. "I think this is an exciting time for medical marijuana to step in to decrease the addiction rate, to decrease the overdose, and help our patients and our athletes and our students who have chronic pain."
Since it's a new program in New York, many of our viewers still have questions about medical marijuana, so we took them to Dr. Mechtler.
Joe says he has back issues, but doesn't take anything for pain and is wondering how medical marijuana works.
"There are CB1 receptors in the brain, more CB1 receptors than any other receptor in the body, and the presumption is that medical marijuana through THC and some CBD, which is the two main components of medical marijuana, affect it at the CB1 level," says Mechtler.
But the most common issue viewers brought up was cost. Debbie has had chronic pain since 1991, but can't afford to try medical marijuana.
Dr. Mechtler says he'd like the government to allow more research so insurance companies will start covering medical marijuana for more people.
"There's no insurance company that's going to pay for something because it historically worked. We have to prove it. For that, the federal government will need to switch it from Schedule I to Schedule II," says Mechtler.
"Are you hopeful that in the new administration that's coming in that that will happen?" asked 2 On Your Side’s Kelly Dudzik.
"No, I'm not," said Mechtler.
Dr. Mechtler says he expects chronic pain patients to start seeing him to get medical marijuana prescriptions sometime in January.
For more information about the program, visit: https://www.health.ny.gov/regulations/medical_marijuana/