New York's medical marijuana program is scheduled to roll out this January, with the opening of four dispensaries in the city.
But there's a whole sequence of events that has to happen before patients can buy weed in the form of oils, pills, or tinctures — a sequence marijuana advocates have been concerned that the state Department of Health would never set in motion.
Technically, it begins with doctors: they're obligated to complete a $249 four-hour online course on medical marijuana and register with the New York State Department of Health before they can prescribe pot to patients who have approved medical conditions such as cancer, AIDS and Parkinson's Disease.
Patients can only apply online for the registry identification card they'll need to present at dispensaries after they've received certification from a state-registered physician that demonstrates their medical need and details their prescription.
Countering the widespread belief among the marijuana community that few doctors will be authorized to give certifications come January, a co-founder of the company that runs the online course — which covers such topics as the side effects of marijuana and overdose prevention — told DNAinfo New York that many physicians have been preparing themselves since October.
”I can tell you registration [for the course] is brisk," said Stephen B. Corn, an academic clinician at Harvard Medical School and a founder of The Answer Page, which was tapped by the state to run the mandatory online course for doctors seeking to be registered with the state.
"It’s been brisk for a number of months, since the end of October, when [the course] launched... And many, many doctors have successfully, quickly, effectively completed the course."
Corn declined to share the exact number of doctors who have signed up or completed the course or where in New York they were located, deferring to the Department of Health.
The Health Department did not respond to a request for the number of or a list of doctors registered to certify patients so far.
Corn said he has spoken to doctors who decided to take the four-hour course because their patients, living with cancer or chronic pain, have asked them to. Other doctors specializing in oncology and chronic pain management have enrolled because, he said, "they've had an interest in this all along.
"As a profession...we don’t always have great options in terms of chronic pain controls — we’re always in search of how to limits side effects while maximizing benefits."
According to MarijuanaDoctors.com, there are four medical practices in New York City that currently "provide medical marijuana treatment."
A DOH spokeswoman declined to discuss any outreach the agency may be doing to work with doctors interested in registering.
The agency is encouraging patients to start the coversation by talking with their physician about whether marijuana would help alleviate symptoms, according to an email from the DOH press office to DNAinfo.
The Compassionate Care Act, enacted by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature in July 2014, says patients can only get their certifications from doctors trained to specifically treat their qualifying illness and who have provided "continuing care for the serious condition."
Once they do, they can register with the state Department of Health via an online system launched last week.
In Florida, where doctors can order particular cannabis products to treat patients after they've completed an eight-hour course — some of the education materials for which were provided by The Answer Page — and passed an exam, the health department regularly updates a list of physicians who have taken the class.