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NY health officials pick 5 to grow, dispense medical marijuana; program begins next year

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ALBANY, New York — The five companies picked to grow and dispense medical marijuana in New York include one run by a Minnesota physician, three with dispensaries in other states and another with a personal connection to those the state's new program aims to help.

The organizations, which were announced as the state's preferred choices on Friday, will each operate one cultivation facility and four dispensaries each. Grow centers are planned for Queens, Orange, Monroe, Fulton and Warren counties. Four dispensaries are planned for New York City, with four more slated for the suburbs and the remaining 12 scattered throughout upstate New York.

The first medical cannabis is expected to be available to patients with qualifying conditions in January.

"We are ready to go," said Hillary Peckham, co-owner of Etain LLC, one of the vendors chosen by the state. The family-run business was created after Peckham's grandmother died from Lou Gehrig's disease. Her physician recommended marijuana but the woman didn't want to break the law.

Peckham said her grandmother's struggle prompted the family's interest in medical pot. "We saw what it was like to watch someone suffer."

The other four companies selected are Bloomfield Industries, which plans a cultivation center in Queens; Columbia Care NY LLC, which operates medical marijuana facilities in four states and Washington D.C.; Empire State Health Solutions, which has experience opening a greenhouse and dispensaries in Minnesota; and PharmaCann, one of the largest operators in Illinois' program.

Kyle Kingsley, a physician and CEO of Empire State Health Solutions, said his company is ready to begin cultivation immediately. "We are grateful," he said of the company's selection by the state, "and are excited to get to work in New York."

Those who had long pushed for New York to join the 22 other states with a medical marijuana program welcomed the selection of vendors, but said they continue to have concerns about the slow implementation of the law, the limited number of dispensaries and restrictions that prohibit smokeable marijuana.

Under a state law passed more than a year ago, the medicine will be required to be in the form of a tincture, oil or other non-smokeable form that can be ingested or vaporized. Qualifying conditions include cancer, AIDS, Parkinson's, ALS and epilepsy.

"While this is an important milestone, the reality is that no patients are going to see medicine until at least January 2016," said Julie Netherland, deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "New York's law is among the most restrictive in the country."

Forty-three applicants submitted bids to the state to run greenhouses and dispensaries. Howard Zucker, a physician and the state's Health Commissioner, said the five were chosen after a "rigorous and comprehensive evaluation process."

Following concerns about the slow implementation of the program, lawmakers passed legislation earlier this year to expedite access to medical marijuana available for patients in dire need. The bill awaits action by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who said he wanted the state to take a cautious and deliberate approach to the new program.

Already there are calls to expand it beyond 20 dispensaries from medical marijuana advocates who note that many residents will still be a long drive away from their nearest dispensary.

One of the law's sponsors, Democratic state Sen. Diane Savino, said the unsuccessful applicants may get another chance to enter the new industry.

"To those who did not make the cut, stick around," she said. "New York is a very big state."

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