More and more residents on the East End are saying no to heavy painkillers and prescription medications and, instead, opting for organically grown cannabis to relieve everything from chronic pain and anxiety to the side effects of brain cancer and epilepsy.
Experts say that medical marijuana, although it still comes with a bit of a stigma, is saving lives across the state and the county. With more than 62,000 New Yorkers approved for medical marijuana as of early July, the State Department of Health just last month recommended the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in New York.
“Everybody’s 90- to 100-percent better—and that’s not just my patients, that’s everywhere. So if you’re not at least 90-percent better on medical marijuana, you’re not on the right dose,” said Elizabeth Cramer-Ernst, a nurse practitioner and the founder of Hamptons Medi Spa, a tele-medicine facility based in Hampton Bays that certifies eligible patients for medical marijuana treatments.
The large majority of her 3,000 patients across the state suffer from chronic pain, a condition that she says encompasses a wide range of diseases and medical abnormalities. Her patients, hundreds of whom live on the East End, range from infants to seniors, and include Holocaust survivors, veterans, burn victims, cancer patients, car accident survivors, 9/11 responders, rape victims, people who suffer from seizures, and patients with orphan diseases, conditions that are rare and hard to treat.
According to Ms. Cramer-Ernst, who began certifying patients for cannabis treatments in 2016, all of her patients have had positive results, and many of them have stopped taking prescription-grade painkillers, steroids, and stomach, mood, sleep and anti-inflammatory medications.
With new talk at the state level of legalizing marijuana for recreational use, said she expects the market to continue growing within the coming months and years.
“It’s about to be a very robust market in New York,” said Ms. Cramer-Ernst, who previously worked at East End Pediatrics in East Hampton for 20 years. “The state has approved four more dispensaries on Long Island, so we really expect to see the prices come down significantly over the next few weeks and months because of the competition.”
Columbia Care, in Riverhead, is currently the only Suffolk County-based dispensary, or pharmacy, where a certified patient can buy cannabis products.
Patients currently pay anywhere from $30 to $50 each time they refill a prescription, which is typically every two weeks. Prices can be higher or lower depending on the specific product, according to Nicholas Vita, the vice chairman and chief executive officer of Columbia Care, the first and largest medical marijuana health care company to operate dispensaries across the United States.
Medical marijuana is not yet covered by insurance companies, so all expenses are paid out of pocket, in cash, though the Riverhead dispensary does offer payment plans for those in need.
Mr. Vita pointed to federal regulations and a lack of information, as, he said, not enough studies have been on the use of cannabis for medicine, as reasons for the gap in health care coverage.
“Up until New York’s program, no one really mandated high-quality, pharmaceutical grade cannabis products,” Mr. Vita explained.
New York’s medical marijuana program first launched in 2016. Since then, it has grown to include a number of chronic conditions—including cancer, AIDS, chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy and more—that make a patient eligible for cannabis products. Just a few weeks ago, the State Health Department also approved the use of medical marijuana for any condition in which an opioid could be prescribed.
The marijuana used in the products includes liquids and oils for vaporization, oral capsules, topicals, ointments, patches, lozenges and ground plant material. It is organically grown and tested for impurities like bacteria and mold.
Unlike other states, New York, one of 30 states with legal medical marijuana programs, mandates that certified practitioners or pharmacists specifically dose their patients, meaning that the exact amount of cannabinoids, or compounds of the marijuana plant, going into the cannabis products needs to be specifically noted.
Products are “precisely manufactured,” allowing doctors to dose patients, “taking into consideration age, race and demographic,” Mr. Vita explained.
Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and Cannabidiol, or CBD, are two of the main cannabinoids used to medicate patients. CDB, which is also found in hemp, is calming and anti-inflammatory, while THC is uplifting and pain-relieving.
“What we have found is that different combinations of cannabinoids are better suited for different illnesses,” Mr. Vita said. “CBD is the primary ingredient used to treat epilepsy, while THC has a number of pain management attributes and helps to increase appetite, so it’s used to treat cancer patients who are in an enormous amount of pain.”
According to Ms. Cramer-Ernst, the THC in the products includes a mix of strains found in indica and sativa, two types of cannabis plants, to help keep patients in a neutral state of mind, as indica typically makes people mellow, while sativa is normally stimulating.
She noted that recreational users typically inhale upward of 300 mg of THC when smoking marijuana, but patients on medical marijuana usually receive less than 5 mg per dose, which is the usual amount necessary to reduce pain.
The THC and CBD help reduce pain, regulate mood, improve mobility and even shrink tumors, by targeting the receptors in the brain, spinal column, neurological system and intestines.
“As far as I’m concerned, it should be in the water,” Ms. Cramer-Ernst said. “I mean, it just helps so many people with such a variety of things. But, truly, you have to get the dosing correct.”
Certified practitioners, who go through a state-mandated certification course, are required by the state to note the specific brand and form of cannabis, the administration method and any limitations regarding use when certifying a patient for medical marijuana. On the South Fork, there are about a dozen certified practitioners registered on the State Department of Health website.
After being certified by one of the eligible practitioners, patients receive a state medical marijuana card, which allows them to visit dispensaries and pick up their prescriptions. Each card expires after one year, but can be renewed if necessary.
Mr. Cramer-Ernst noted that patients with treatable conditions may medicate with cannabis products for only a few months, or until they’re feeling better, but patients with more permanent conditions could stay on medical marijuana for the rest of their lives.
“The interest among patients of all types in these products is staggering, and for the right reasons,” Mr. Vita said. “There are so many unmet medical needs where the standard of care needs a complement or needs to be improved.”
Mr. Vita also added that many people who use recreational marijuana are often self-medicating.
“A lot of people who use cannabis are using it for medical purposes,” he explained. “It’s a mistake to try to segregate medical use from adult use.”