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Two months in, medical marijuana users increasing at ‘fairly rapid rate’

04/01/2016 6:00 AM |

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It’s been just over two months since Suffolk County’s first and only medical marijuana dispensary opened its doors on East Main Street in Riverhead.

And while it’s too early to draw firm conclusions about use of the prescription drug, a few things are certain: Police say there have been no burglary attempts at the Riverhead dispensary; more than 2,000 patients statewide have been certified to receive medical marijuana since the program started Jan. 1; and the drug is now helping many who had advocated for its use as a medical remedy.

“By and large, it is almost always patients with chronic pain who may require surgery, but elected not to [have it] because of the effects,” said Dr. John George Veliath of East End Urgent & Primary Care on East Main Street.

The clinic — which also has an office in Wading River — claims to be the “first Compassionate Care service provider on Long Island,” according to its website. New York’s Compassionate Care Act, passed by the Legislature in mid-2014, made New York the 23rd state to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. Per state law, however no list of providers is public.

TinctureIn New York, which is stricter than most states, medical cannabis is available only in edible form. Five companies were chosen to distribute and manufacture the product statewide. Each company is allowed to operate five dispensaries in different counties throughout the state.

Columbia Care New York — a subsidiary of Columbia Care, which offers medical marijuana in four other states and Washington, D.C. — runs the Riverhead dispensary.

The dispensary sees about 20 to 40 patients per day, more than Columbia Care CEO Nicholas Vita had expected by this point, and that number, he said, is “increasing by a fairly rapid rate” as word continues to get out.

The company does little advertising — in fact, another medical marijuana provider in New York had its ad blocked by Google, according to the Albany Business Journal. Instead, Mr. Vita said, Columbia Care is attempting to partner with academic and medical centers to promote its programs.

“Typically it takes a little bit longer — there is more of a learning curve,” Mr. Vita said. “But it ends up being a much more fruitful discussion.”

Columbia Care has been able to bring what it learned from operating in other jurisdictions to New York, although strict state laws have meant that many expected products are not available here. Technicians are working at Columbia Care’s Monroe County facility to improve and expand its products, Mr. Vita said.

“Each successive jurisdiction, we’ve been able to learn from the prior one,” he said. “The biggest step New York took was one few others considered, which was taking simply from the plant.”

Since Columbia Care opened in Riverhead, the number of enrolled physicians who are authorized to prescribe marijuana has increased from 292 to 471. The number of patients eligible to receive it has jumped from 409 to 2,039.

Dr. Veliath said “every so often” he’s encountered someone who is clearly not eligible for medical cannabis — for which there is a list of about a dozen illnesses. For the most part, though, he’s found that patients are very well-informed about how it can improve their quality of life.

“Patients tell me they feel good that it doesn’t take away from their symptoms or kill them — but it’s easier to deal with the symptoms in a way that’s functional,” he said.

Photo: Columbia Care assistant general manager Christian Shilling demonstrating how a tincture bottle measures a dose of medicine. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch); A tincture bottle Columbia Care offers its clients (Photo courtesy Columbia Care)

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