This year saw the opening of the first medical marijuana dispensaries in New York State, with Riverhead hosting Suffolk County’s only dispensary.
Fears voiced by community members and local officials alike about the impacts of the dispensary on public safety and community character have not materialized.
There haven been no incidents requiring police presence at or near the dispensary’s East Main Street location, Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hegermiller said in an interview.
When first proposed — for the vacant Route 58 storefront once occupied by Blockbuster Video — town officials objected and reacted with a plan for a moratorium. They cited traffic concerns as well as the location’s proximity to Riverhead High School, though the site met the regulations’ requirements for distance from a school.
The New York City-based Columbia Care, which won one of five licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana in New York, pursuant to a law passed by the state in 2014, offered the East Main Street location as an alternative. The Riverhead Town Board went ahead with a hearing on a proposed moratorium — and heard both opposition and support during an emotional public hearing in September 2015. The proposed moratorium did not garner majority support on the board.
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, who opposed the facility, maintains his opposition to the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
“I believe it is an incremental step to the legalization of marijuana as a recreational drug,” he said.
Opponents who worry about medical marijuana fostering the drugs acceptance for recreational use include drug and alchohol abuse prevention groups like the Riverhead Community Awareness Program. Riverhead CAP works in local schools to counsel children and teens about the dangers of alcohol and drug use and its executive director sees the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes and normalizing it and helping to make it seem benign to kids.
“Medical marijuana legalization typically provides the foundation for recreational legalization in most states. No matter where a person stands on this issue, I think everyone can agree that our youth should not be using marijuana,” said Riverhead CAP executive director Felicia Scocozza.
“Generally, trends show us that as marijuana use becomes more normalized in states, marijuana use increases among youth,” Scocozza said. “This is correlated with a decrease in youth perception of risk. It will be interesting to examine this trend data and youth attitudes as the Compassionate Care Act becomes more broad and more facilities open up in New York,” she said.
New York is in the process of changing its regulations to allow physician assistants and nurse practitioners to certify patients for medical marijuana use — as long as they are working for a supervising physician who is registered to certify patients.
Currently there are only 10 qualifying conditions for patient certification: cancer, HIV infection or AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathies, and Huntington’s disease.
The state is in the process of adding chronic pain to the list.
As the list of approved uses is expanded, opponents worry that New York has begun to descend down the slippery slope toward legalization for recreational use.
Marijuana ‘made a big difference’
The availability of marijuana has changed the life of a severely disabled local boy who suffers from seizures.
Marijuana has brought under control previously numerous and often violent seizures affecting Jared Behr, age 12, of Cutchogue.
His prior anti-seizure medications “had him all drugged up” and left him “all hunched over in his wheelchair,” said his grandmother and caregiver June Behr.
Her daughter, Heidi, an EMT with Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps was killed in an ambulance accident in 2005, when Jared was just a baby. Behr and her husband John devote themselves to their grandson’s care.
“This has made a big difference,” Behr said. “He’s more cognizant, more aware of what’s going on and it’s allowed him to participate in life,” she said.
“As soon as we started him on it, he went down to maybe one or two seizures a day — and small ones,” Behr said. He had been having 20 to 25 seizures a day, she said.
The marijuana they administer to their grandson is an oil that comes in a tiny syringe. They put it under his tongue every four hours. The oil is low in THC, the component of the drug that makes people high. Marijuana is legal in New York only in non-smokable forms.
Behr had to actively advocate to get the new drug prescribed for her grandson. When it was legalized, she said, “I just had a hunch it would help.” But Jared’s neurologist was “not a big fan of medical marijuana.
“I sat down at the computer and just started searching for marijuana doctors,” she said. That’s how she found Dr. Lynda Varlotta in Stony Brook.
“It was such a process to get the card to go to the dispensary. It took over a month,” even after the doctor certified Jared as a patient, Behr said.
“I was shocked by how expensive it was,” she said. The drug costs $600 per month.
The dispensary in Riverhead has been wonderful to deal with, Behr said.
“They are excellent,” she said. The first time there, “a guy came out to greet us,” she said. “He greeted us by name. They are all very nice and it was very efficient. They are very patient with you, even if you have a million questions — which we did,” she said.
“They really understand the value of what it is to the person that needs it.”
Columbia Care cofounder Nicholas Vita said in an interview last month the experience in New York and the opening of the Riverhead dispensary have been consistent with what his company anticipated.
“It’s been a modest rollout,” Vita said. According to the state health department, 705 physicians were registered for the state’s medical marijuana program as of October and slightly more than 8,400 patients had been certified.
“Things have gone well in Riverhead,” Vita said. “Nothing we’ve seen would suggest there have been any problems. It’s a good complement to the oncology group” the dispensary is located next to, he said.
Columbia Care grows marijuana plants and manufactures the forms of the drug approved for medicinal sale in New York at a 204,000-square-foot agricultural facility in Rochester. Columbia Care operates three other dispensaries in N.Y. and locations in five other states as well as Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.
The company is planning to institute a delivery service in the coming year, which Vita said will alleviate concerns about community saturation.
“Everyone had their concerns up front,” Vita said. “I hope we’ve been operaing the way they wanted.”