The state Department of Health has asked five companies that previously sought medical marijuana licenses to submit updated application materials by March 1 in order to be considered for entrance to the tightly regulated state-run program.

The DOH said Thursday it expects to issue five additional licenses before July.

DOH’s outreach, though not a shock given the department’s public comments that it would seek further program expansion, is a concrete move toward expanding the program’s footprint. Currently, five “registered organizations” grow and produce non-smokeable marijuana products for sale at 20 dispensaries statewide.

Should five more companies enter the program under the same rules, the number of dispensaries would eventually double to 40.

The new timeline also gives a better sense of how quickly the department wants to license more companies after it has swiftly implemented other program expansions aimed at improving patient access.

DOH has confirmed on its website that it has contacted companies that finished sixth through 10th at the end of the initial application process in 2015. They are New York Canna, Inc.; Fiorello Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Valley Agriceuticals, LLC; Citiva Medical LLC; and PalliaTech NY, LLC.

No other companies (43 total applied initially) are under consideration, according to DOH. On its website, the department states it is taking “a phased-in approach to ensure their smooth integration into the industry,” which includes verifying the companies’ financial stability and ensuring they still are suitable to participate in the program.

DOH is seeking updated ownership and operating materials, including financial statements, according to a spokeswoman.

“Ensuring patients are able to get the relief they need is our top priority,” DOH spokeswoman Jill Montag said in a statement.

Currently licensed companies, DOH and patient advocates are in general agreement that the program needs to be expanded to reach more patients. There are just over 14,000 patients registered to buy.

But there are sharply differing opinions on the best methods to go about it.

The state has moved to allow more medical professionals (nurse practitioners and physician assistants) to certify patients to take part in the program and to expand the short list of ailments medical marijuana products can be used to treat to include chronic pain. Home delivery of products is now an option as well.

But while those steps have been seen as positives, the current crop of registered organizations have been fiercely opposed to allowing new businesses to enter the marketplace.

Those companies have initially struggled to flourish since the program went live in January 2016. In response, some have instituted discount programs in an attempt to attract repeat buyers. Data shows that only roughly half of the patient base returns to buy more products.

PharmaCann General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer Jeremy Unruh told the Times Union Thursday that his company has an acre of empty greenhouse space after scaling back its grow operation. The company has a metric ton of cannabis locked up in a vault that has not yet been processed into state-sanctioned finished products, he said.

Another company, Bloomfield Industries, has languished more than others and has been acquired by a California firm, Politico New York reported last month.

“While perhaps well-intentioned, the state’s plan to double manufacturing capacity when significant excess capacity exists will do nothing to address the true patient access barriers like the extraordinarily low numbers of physicians registered with the medical marijuana program,” Vireo Health of New York CEO Ari Hoffnung said in a statement.

“It doesn’t matter how many new licenses the States issues — so long that qualifying New Yorkers can’t find a doctor to recommend medical marijuana, patient access to New York’s program will be minimal and we will continue to lag behind other states,” Hoffnung said.

At a joint legislative budget hearing last week, state Sen. Diane Savino, a champion of the Compassionate Care Act that established the program in 2014, similarly cautioned state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker against expanding the number of registered organizations.

“Right now we have five registered organizations who are struggling financially because the entire burden is upon them, and we would not want to see them go under,” the Staten Island Democrat said. “The reality is they have excess product; we don’t have excess patients.”

Savino suggested the creation of limited licenses that would allow for only dispensary expansion.

Unruh said it would be “a great step forward” if more registered organizations were licensed to open dispensaries only. He pointed to the medical marijuana program in Illinois — where PharmaCann also operates — that allows cultivators to sell wholesale to unaffiliated retailers.

Still, for companies next up on the list, an opportunity to jump into the marketplace with the same capabilities as the first five registered organizations is tantalizing.

“Notwithstanding the assertions of the current medical cannabis licensees, the New York market currently is far from saturated,” Valley Agriceuticals Director of Patient Services Eileen Konieczny wrote in the Poughkeepsie Journal last week. “In fact, the ratio of medical cannabis dispensaries to New York residents is about one per million. DOH has it right: the way to strengthen care and lower costs for New Yorkers is to expand access to helpful medicines and medicine providers, not to limit access from a small number of providers.”

Original Article via TimesUnion