(Photo: Susan Montgomery/Shutterstock.com)

ALBANY – New York’s fledgling medical marijuana program might soon be able to offer patients marijuana-infused lotions, patches and chewables under new regulations proposed by the state’s Department of Health.

Chewable and effervescent medical marijuana tablets, along with lozenges and certain “non-smokable forms of ground plant material,” could soon be eligible to residents with severe illnesses, such as cancer, HIV, AIDS, ALS or Parkinson’s disease. Currently, eligible patients are able to ingest medical marijuana through capsules and liquids or oils for vaporizing. The proposed regulations are slated to be published in the State Register on Aug. 23, where they’ll be subject to a 30-day comment period before being adopted by the Department of Health.

The announcement comes less than two weeks after the state announced five additional companies to manufacture and dispense medical marijuana (NYLJ, Aug. 1), effectively doubling the program.In a statement, health Commissioner Howard Zucker said that the regulations would “continue to improve the program in several ways, including making new forms of medical marijuana available and improving the dispensing facility experience.”

The state’s medical marijuana program, billed as the most restrictive in the nation by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has floundered since its inception. As of March 30, the state collected just $585,000 in tax revenue from the sale of medical marijuana in the state, far less than the $4 million in revenue from a 7 percent excise tax on medical marijuana the Cuomo administration had projected when the program began last year.

In December 2016, the Cuomo administration began interviewing additional medical marijuana growers in the hopes of expanding the program, reaching out to the bidders who ranked sixth through 10th that initially applied to grow and sell the medical marijuana in June 2015. The Cuomo administration also added chronic pain as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana and allowed home delivery of the drug in an effort to increase access. The state also allowed nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants to certify eligible patients for the drug, made the list of registered practitioners publicly available and allowed for home delivery.

Under the proposed rule, prospective patients and health providers will be allowed to enter a medical marijuana retailer to discuss products with staff, even if they have not yet been certified to participate in the program. Under the current law, medical marijuana dispensaries are only open to medical practitioners who have taken the required online certification course and to patients who are deemed eligible to participate. The proposed rule would allow for shortened practitioner course from four hours to two hours and allow the registered medical marijuana organizations the ability to advertise.

While the state moved to increase accessibility and added additional companies to the program, the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group composed of the five initial medical marijuana companies, sought to stymie the additional growers. The industry group, represented by Harris Beach, a national law firm and Albany-based business firm Couch White, filed a lawsuit against the state in May, New York Medical Cannabis v. NYS Dept of Health in Albany County Supreme Court before Justice Richard Platkin, arguing that allowing more companies to dispense marijuana will cannibalize the industry, which is struggling in the state.

The New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association in late May signed a lobbying agreement with one of Albany’s most notable firms, Bolton-St. Johns, where the father of the secretary to the governor is a senior partner. According to the lobbying disclosure filed with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the industry group will not compensate Bolton-St. Johns for any lobbying activity. Individually, medical marijuana companies have employed a small army of lobbyists on their behalf. This past legislative session, several medical marijuana companies, health care associations, veterans groups and pro-marijuana organizations have lobbied on a bill that would add post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana.

Three former Polsinelli partners expanded their medical marijuana company PharmaCan, a member of the association, to New York in 2016.According to disclosures with the state’s lobbying panel, the Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers of New York State retained the lobbying firm Brown & Weinraub to lobby on the bill. The New York State Psychiatric Association and the New York State Health Facilities Association/New York State Center for Assisted Living are also listed as lobbying on the bill. Calls made to the organizations to find out what their position on the legislation is were not immediately returned.