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Marijuana dispensary is opening up shop in Riverhead Friday

01/27/2016 3:45 PM |

Columbia care

More than 18 months after New York legislators approved the use of medical marijuana, Suffolk County’s only dispensary distributing the drug is slated to open Friday morning in Riverhead.

As of Jan. 26, 292 physicians across the state had registered for the medical marijuana program and 409 patients had been certified to receive it.

Dr. Souhel Najjar, executive director of the neurology service line at Northwell Health and a professor of neurology at Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine, said he was one of the first doctors in New York to sign up for a four-hour state course to become certified to prescribe medical marijuana.

Whether he ends up doing so anytime soon remains to be seen. Dr. Najjar said he would like to see physicians across “multiple disciplines in the health system develop guidelines and best practices” before regularly prescribing the drug.

“Those guidelines will enhance the physical comfort level and their knowledge regarding the use of medical marijuana,” he said.

A list of physicians who have taken the course isn’t publicly available. Patients who believe medical marijuana may help their condition are asked to speak with their own physicians, who have access to the list.

Dr. Najjar said he hopes more agreed-upon standards regarding medical marijuana can be developed within the next couple of months.

But to some, the program is already taking too long for the state to roll out.

New York became the 23rd state in the country to allow the prescription of marijuana for medical purposes in 2014. The idea was to make it available by the beginning of 2016, giving the state a year and a half to devise a plan and pick growers and distributors.

All 20 of the state’s dispensaries — which will offer the drug to patients with 10 illnesses at this point, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy — are scheduled to open before the end of the month.

“Patients are frustrated they can’t get access to it,” said Kassandra Frederique, director of the Drug Policy Alliance of New York. According to its website, the organization “envisions a just society in which the use and regulation of drugs are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.”

Medical marijuana first became legal in the United States 20 years ago, she noted, leaving the state plenty of time to get its program up and running by the first of the year.

Ms. Frederique added that low doctor enrollment has been a “huge problem,” as patients without certified doctors cannot sign up for the medical marijuana program.

But the numbers are increasing: Between Jan. 21 and Jan. 26, the number of physicians who had signed up increased from 265 to 292, while the number of enrolled patients jumped from 295 to 409.

And the interest from doctors to sign up for the program is there, said Dr. Najjal.

“There has not been that much publicity, to be honest,” he said. “But there is a lot of interest in proceeding with the department of health’s program. We just need to make sure they develop best practices that ensure proper patient selection.”

As a certified medical marijuana physician, Dr. Najjal said that, as with any drug, he would take things on a case-by-case basis for now and prescribe it when necessary until more finely tuned titration methods are specified.

The state’s health commissioner, meanwhile, is considering adding other illnesses to the treatment list, including post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.

Columbia Care, the company opening Suffolk County’s only medical marijuana dispensary at 1333 East Main St. in Riverhead, had planned to finish construction by mid-December, but ran into roadblocks on the local level when officials suggested a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries anywhere in town. Much pushback came in response to Columbia Care’s original proposed location: the former Blockbuster Video on Route 58, which is situated between Riverhead High School and Bishop McGann-Mercy High School.

That idea was eventually scrapped and a new location for the dispensary was agreed upon in late October — nearly three months after the company had planned to have local zoning approval.

Friday’s opening will come after a media walkthrough from 8 to 10 a.m. and a ribbon cutting scheduled for 11 a.m.

The facility will open to patients once the ribbon is cut.

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