By Eli McVey
The number of medical cannabis patients in New York has nearly tripled this year, driven by the addition of chronic pain as a qualifying condition and a series of changes aimed at increasing the viability of the state’s medical marijuana program.
Since the end of 2016, patient counts have grown by 20,000 to eclipse the 33,000 mark as of the end of September, which amounts to an increase of 183%.
The addition of chronic pain as a qualifying condition in late March was significant, as it’s typically the top reason patients obtain MMJ in states where it’s allowed. Patient counts spiked in the following months, with MMJ program enrollment in May up 28% over April.
Despite the dramatic increase in patient counts, however, New York’s MMJ market remains relatively small – especially for the fourth-most populous state in the nation.
For example, in Florida – where full-strength MMJ sales began just this year – patient counts are already approaching 40,000.
Steep product prices and a ban on smokable flower have kept many would-be patients away from New York’s legal market. At the same time, many patients are purchasing MMJ from dispensaries only occasionally or not returning after a first visit.
Businesses have taken steps to differentiate themselves from black-market dealers, offering home delivery services and repeat-customer discounts, but there’s no evidence to suggest these efforts have made an appreciable difference.
Program officials are also addressing businesses’ concerns regarding the limited product selection, proposing regulations that will allow dispensaries to sell ointments, lozenges and chewable tablets – in addition to the oils and liquids already on offer.
Additionally, the same set of proposed rules is attempting to boost physician participation in the MMJ program, cutting in half the time it takes for doctors to register as MMJ providers – from four hours to two.
But by a wide margin, the most controversial move the Department of Health has taken to heighten program awareness and increase patient access was to award five new MMJ business licenses, doubling the current number of MMJ companies in the state.
While some believe the new licensees will drive down prices and promote even more patient growth, existing businesses contend that the program suffers from a lack of demand – not a lack of competition – and the addition of five more companies could be ruinous for the entire New York medical marijuana industry.
A lawsuit to prevent the state’s health department from issuing the new licenses is pending.
Looking forward, it’s likely that patient counts in New York will continue to rise. But it’s too soon to tell how MMJ businesses in the state will fare, as any growth in the market may be offset by increased competition.
Eli McVey can be reached at [email protected]