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Few medical marijuana patients expected Thursday

The two medical marijuana dispensaries in Erie County will open for business on Thursday, but likely with few patients to serve.

The state has set up a highly regulated process for patients to follow before they can walk into a dispensary and buy medical marijuana, and for doctors to follow to prescribe the drug. And New York’s law already set strict limits on the number of outlets where the drug could be sold, the form in which it can be consumed and the eligible conditions it can be used to treat.

“My guess tomorrow is we’re going to see very few patients,” said Julie Netherland, director of the office of academic engagement for the Drug Policy Alliance.

But state Department of Health officials, and an executive with one of the two companies that will be dispensing the drug in Amherst, say New York has taken reasonable steps to set up its medical marijuana program.

“We’re all working together to get this program up and running safely and effectively,” said Colette Bellefleur, chief operating officer of Bloomfield Industries, which is opening a dispensary in the former Stereo Advantage building at 52 S. Union Road, near Main Street in Williamsville.

Patients seeking to obtain the drug first will have to follow a strict registration and certification process, as set out on the department’s website.

Only those with a qualifying severe or life-threatening condition, such as AIDS or multiple sclerosis, are eligible to receive medical marijuana. Then, they must receive a certification from their physician, who must be registered with the state.

Just 150 doctors in New York have registered to participate in the medical marijuana program, and it’s not clear how many of them are in Western New York. The Health Department did not immediately respond to a request for information, though Netherland said the department plans to disclose the list of registered doctors.

Edward Bednarczyk, pharmacy practice chair in the University at Buffalo’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, who lectures on medical marijuana, said he expects ultimately a very small number of physicians will prescribe the drug, as is the case in Colorado and other states.

“That’s not a bad thing. You want physicians who know what they’re doing,” he said.

Certified patients then must apply online to register with the Health Department, which will issue by mail a registry ID card after the application is approved. Only after that can the patients go to a dispensary to purchase the drug.

Given all of that, it’s unclear how many patients will be able to purchase medical marijuana here and across the state when the program launches.

Netherland, whose group is in touch with scores of patients, said she doesn’t know of any patients who have successfully registered.

The Health Department in late July approved two companies to open medical marijuana dispensaries in Erie County.

PharmaCannis LLC of Illinois is opening a dispensary in the Northpointe Commerce Park, near the intersection of Sweet Home and North French roads, in northern Amherst. The company did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Bloomfield Industries is opening its dispensary in the building on South Union Road that Iskalo Development Corp. has turned into medical and professional offices.

Bellefleur said the dispensary will open Thursday with two employees, plus a security detail. Its first product will be a version of the drug in syrup form, similar to cough syrup, sold in a bottle with a dispensing cup, she said.

She expects the dispensary will be able to meet demand, whatever that demand is, but she encourages prospective patients to call ahead to make an appointment before stopping by.

Bellefleur said Thursday is a “soft opening” for the dispensary, which eventually will employ 20 workers and offer more forms of the drug, as more supplies come in and the program gets up and running. Patients also must contact dispensary companies to find out about pricing for the drug, according to the Health Department website.

Netherland said she continues to have concerns about access to the drug, for people who can’t afford to pay for it and for people who will have to travel significant distances to get to the few dispensaries approved by the state.

The Erie County dispensaries are the only ones approved for the eight counties of Western New York. In all, the medical marijuana law allows for 20 dispensaries across the state that will be served by five medical marijuana manufacturers, far too few, according to advocates.

Only eight of the 20 dispensaries will be ready to open by Thursday, the Health Department announced late Tuesday. The additional sites will open on a rolling basis throughout January.

“Governor Cuomo gave us an extremely ambitious timeline to get the medical marijuana program up and running, and I am pleased that we have met his goals,” Dr. Howard Zucker, the state’s health commissioner, said in a statement. “Our program ensures the availability of pharmaceutical-grade medical marijuana products for certified patients and establishes strict regulatory controls to protect public health and safety.”