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New York's medical marijuana program a work in progress

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act into law last summer, and the state became the 23rd state to legalize medical marijuana. The law and the associated regulations provide strict guidelines for prescribing and dispensing the drug. For example, a physician must complete a training course before the state will authorize him or her to prescribe the drug.

Like other states, New York has identified specific conditions and diseases that are eligible for treatment with medical marijuana. The list includes cancer, AIDS, ALS, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and similar severe, debilitating and life-threatening conditions. To qualify for a prescription, however, these conditions cannot stand alone -- they must be, as the state puts it, "accompanied by an associated or complicating condition." These complicating conditions are essentially debilitating symptoms of the specific diseases: Severe or chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, or severe or persistent muscle spasms may be the most common.

As for doctors' prescription privileges, the state will keep track of doctors -- along with producers, patients and caregivers -- through registration and certification processes. Dosage remains a matter of professional judgment. It is important to note that the state bears the responsibility for providing guidance to practitioners, because the federal government has not put medical marijuana through the Food & Drug Administration's approval process.

The state will also limit the form of the drug that doctors may administer. The proposed regulations name only processed forms of the drug as acceptable: Cannabis extract is the drug, not the plant. Smoking the product is specifically prohibited.

We bring this up now because of a news story about the dangers of adding recreational marijuana to food. People have turned up in emergency rooms complaining of anxiety, dizziness -- in a few cases, the patients died. Granted, medical and recreational marijuana are not the same thing. The stories serve as reminders, though, of how much more the medical community has to learn about appropriate dosages and methods of administration.

Doctors who choose to register and to become certified for New York's medical marijuana program will have to be especially careful in their instructions to patients. They will have to follow the guidance offered by the state when it comes to dosage. They will also have to deal with patients who ask for the drug but who do not qualify under state law.

For as much relief as the drug may offer, the unsettled nature of its proper use leaves physicians open to malpractice claims.

Sources:

New York State, "About the Medical Marijuana Program," accessed March 27, 2015

Medical Daily, "Marijuana Brownies Cause Michigan Dad To Believe He Was Having A Stroke, Highlighting Risks Of Edible Consumption," Anthony Rivas, March 28, 2015

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