Photo: Adobe Stock

Columbia Care, which since January 2016 has operated a medical marijuana dispensary in Riverhead, has begun selling whole flower at its four medical marijuana dispensaries in New York, including the one on East Main Street in Riverhead.

The publicly traded company, one of the largest cultivators, manufacturers and providers of cannabis products in the U.S., began offering whole flower to its customers last week, after State Cannabis Control Board announced the expansion of the medical marijuana program to allow dispensaries to sell whole flower products.

Whole flower products offer patients less expensive options for purchasing cannabis for their medical conditions. 

“Because no part of the medical cannabis program is covered by insurance, it’s really, really important that we have affordable options like flower,” Columbia Care’s Vice President of Public Policy Ngiste Abebe said in an interview. Columbia Care earlier this year purchased a 34-acre Riverhead farm with an existing industrial-scale greenhouse operation. In September, Columbia Care announced it had commenced cultivation at the Riverhead facility and expected its first harvest there by the end of the year.

Courtesy photo: Columbia Care

As opposed to other products dispensaries offer, which are often concentrated with one cannabinoid like THC and CBD, whole flower gives the patient access to a wider variety of cannabinoids, Abebe said. Whole flower is also better to treat certain conditions, she said, because the unaltered plant offers the “entourage effect,” which is the synergy between different cannabinoids that can increase both psychoactive and medicinal outcomes. 

“For some illnesses that is really vital for positive patient outcomes,” Abebe said, mentioning post-traumatic stress disorder as one of those conditions.

Whole flower is less expensive because it requires less processing after flowering than concentrates, Columbia Care said. Columbia Care said they could not supply an average price of whole flower compared to other products at this time.

The company said it will offer several high quality, iconic whole flower strain options, beginning with Sour Kush.

The Cannabis Control Board oversees the Office of Cannabis Management, created by the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which legalized adult-use recreational marijuana in New York and was signed into law in March. The office was tasked with licensing cultivators, processors, distributors and dispensaries to grow and sell cannabis in New York.

The board held its first meeting Oct. 5 and its chairman at that time announced the expansion of the medical marijuana program to allow whole flower sales at that meeting. At its next meeting, on Oct. 21, the board authorized the Office of Cannabis Management to publish proposed regulations regarding home cultivation of medical cannabis. The proposed regulations would allow the cultivation of up to three mature plants and three immature plants per person, with a cap of six mature and six immature plants, within or on the grounds of any private residence. The proposed regulations are subject to a 60-day public comment period before they are final.

Medical marijuana was legalized in New York through the 2014 Compassionate Care Act, which at first was heavily regulated, only allowed for patients with serious conditions and did not allow smokable marijuana. Abebe said other states with medical legalization have had whole flower for years and it was a long time coming. Abebe gave credit to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s appointments to the Cannabis Control Board for expanding access. 

“I think that whole flower is one part of a whole suite of improvements the medical program that this new leadership at OCM has been very responsive and swift to enact,” Abebe said. The Office of Cannabis Management also eliminated the registration fee for the medical cannabis program and are currently working on removing the state’s condition list, which will allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for more conditions.

“Medical providers can keep up with the research faster than regular regulators can,” Abebe said. “And that is another avenue that’s going to dramatically improve patient access.”

New York is one of 36 states to have legalized medical marijuana. There are over 150,000 certified medical marijuana patients in New York. Out of the 32 states who have data on marijuana patients, New York has the ninth lowest population percentage who are medical marijuana users, according to data compiled by the Marijuana Policy Project

“Adding whole flower products to the list of options will be a game-changer for thousands who struggle to find relief,” State Senator Diane Savino, who sponsored the 2014 medical marijuana law, said in a press release “The list of changes to the program negotiated earlier this year in the MRTA, expanding providers, conditions, access to product among others are long overdue.”

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]