If you followed the local news in July 2014, you would've seen the photo op: a button-cute 10-year-old girl blushing happily next to Governor Andrew Cuomo as he signed legislation that would bring medical marijuana to the Empire State. That was Amanda Houser, of Suffern, who seems every bit of a normal preteen, if not for the seizures that she endures daily from Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy. Her family hopes that medical marijuana—now legal in our state, though not available until at least early next year—will help reduce the number of seizures that Amanda must hurdle during her life of school and play and Teen Beach movies. It's been over a year since that moment in the spotlight with Cuomo, and her condition has spiraled down. "Lately, it's gone rampant," says her mother, Maryanne Houser. "She's had so many seizures that we don't know what to do." Hearing about other children with epilepsy who've improved with medical cannabis, Amanda and her parents are eager to access the alternative medicine. If all goes as planned, they won't have to wait too much longer.
A Toke for What Ails You
New York State's Department of Health granted the first licenses to five cannabis growers in July of this year after a rigorous application process that weeded out (pun irresistible) 38 other manufacturers that didn't make the cut. It was the first move in a state program that will be very tightly regulated, making marijuana available only to people with certain medical conditions. (The current list includes cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease, ALS, spinal cord injury with spasticity, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathy, and Huntington's disease.) The five growers, who will each operate one manufacturing facility and four dispensaries, for a total of 20 scattered across the state, are expected to have products available by January 2016. Given how fast marijuana grows (about 60 days from seed to harvest), that's not impossible, though in the meantime there are doctors to educate and patients to register. When the program is up and running, the cannabis-eligible will have access to whole-plant products that can help tame everything from nausea to muscle spasms to chronic pain. It's a lot more dignified than buying a dime bag on a dimly lit street corner—up to now one of the only (illegal) options for people seeking sweet, weed-induced relief.
Not that you'll be smelling the telltale scent of a joint in public places, or seeing bongs in locations other than college frat houses. The medical marijuana available in New York won't be smoked—rather, it will take one of five forms, all of them made from cannabis oil extracted from the plant. "We'll have a pill form, a vaporized pen [or vape pen], oral mucosal sprays, aerosols, and tinctures," says Amy Peckham, CEO of Etain, LLC, one of the newly licensed manufacturers of medical marijuana, which will open one of its dispensaries on Route 28 in Kingston. "It's a very controlled product with very defined efficacy. I think what New York is trying to do through heavy regulation is give consumer protection and product warranty, which is a good thing. Ours will be pure, natural, and organic—and made in New York, which is very exciting to say."
Something unique about Etain is that it will offer one product that is pure CBD, or cannabidiol—a component in marijuana that has anti-inflammatory and antispasticity properties, but that doesn't get you high. It's the CBD in the plant—not the psychoactive agent THC (tetrahydrocannabinol)—that some researchers believe to be most useful in treating conditions like epilepsy. Of course, many of New York's medical marijuana products will contain THC as well, because many health conditions benefit from the mood enhancement that THC brings. The goal is to outfit each dispensary with trained pharmacists who can guide customers toward the product that will best serve them. "Someone in a hospice situation will need a different medicine than, say, a child with seizures," says Peckham, whose mother's ordeal with ALS sparked her interest in medical marijuana. "It gives you the ability to reduce the number of medications that many terminally ill people are on, and to reduce the side effects of [conventional] painkillers. Doctors have their prescriptions, and when they work, they work—but when they don't, it's a beautiful thing that people will have this option. It's real alternative care."
High Time for Science
Amanda Houser and her family know all about the downsides of relying on pharmaceuticals. If she has a grand mal seizure, her mother reaches for an emergency medicine that stops it in its tracks, yet that comes with horrendous side effects. "The medications that I give to Amanda to stop her seizures make her wasted—she's totally drunk, can't walk, and says her stomach hurts. If we can avoid even that part, it would be a plus," says Maryanne. "We've heard so many good stories about kids out in Colorado who are using medical marijuana oil. They're going from hundreds of seizures a month to just one a month. I would love that—one a month with nothing in between. Amanda has these little ones that riddle her day."