Green Medicine

Local healthcare providers may not agree on whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s medical marijuana initiative is a positive thing, but most agree that more research into the matter is needed.

“I think this needs to be investigated further,” Dr. Maruthi Sunkara, a pediatrician at Nathan Littauer Hospital, said. “Definitely going by the medical reports, marijuana seems to have some advantages, but more research is needed into this. Of course, we have to keep in mind the abuse potential also.”

Cuomo outlined a limited initiative Jan. 8 to authorize medical marijuana for patients at 20 hospitals, calling it an opportunity to relieve pain and suffering for New Yorkers with cancer and other serious illnesses.

In his State of the State speech, Cuomo officially unveiled his plan to establish the test program under state Department of Health regulations, using his administrative powers rather than pushing for legislation.

In an accompanying briefing book, the Cuomo administration described who would be eligible: patients with cancer, glaucoma and other specific diseases listed by the Health Department and “who are in a life-threatening or sense-threatening situation.” Both conditions would be certified by a doctor and the program would be subject to stringent research protocols, the book said.

This limited program may not reach healthcare facilities in Fulton or Montgomery counties immediately. A spokesperson from St. Mary’s Healthcare in Johnstown could not be reached for comment. Littauer will not be one of the 20 hospitals involved in the initiative, according to a news release from the hospital.

“Officials at Nathan Littauer Hospital & Nursing Home have stated they feel their facility … would not be a good match as a dispensary under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to legalize the use of medical marijuana,” the release said. “Although the plan’s execution is still preliminary, NLH does not see its place among the much larger hospitals and medical networks who according to the New York State Department of Health have expressed interest.”

However, nearby Albany Medical Center in Albany is in talks to be one of those hospitals.

“Albany Med has an obligation to our patients to consider all safe and effective therapeutic options to cure illness or relieve symptoms,” President and CEO of Albany Medical Center James J. Barba said in an emailed statement. “As such, we will explore further the potential benefits to patients of New York’s controlled substance therapeutic program for medical marijuana and look forward to further discussions with the state Health Department.”

“We have responded to the Health Department saying we are interested in discussing further the potential,” said Jeffrey Gordon, a spokesman for the hospital.

Sunkara, who has been a pediatrician with Littauer since 2007 and also has background in internal medicine, said that overall he believes Cuomo’s announcement is a step in the right direction, although he personally does not have any patients who he feels would benefit from medical marijuana.

“Right now I don’t have any patients,” Sunkara said, “but again, generally speaking, of course there are some patients with intractable epilepsy not responding to any kinds of treatment, or some cancer patients that have nausea and vomiting that might benefit from this.”

New York Oncology Hematology, which has an office in Amsterdam, supports use of medical marijuana, according to President Dr. Nini Wu.

“For our team of 36 physicians, medical marijuana would be just one more tool in our tool box to help patients feel better,” Wu said in an emailed statement. “There are alternatives, including several medications that I routinely prescribe that are effective in treating symptoms like nausea and pain. New York Oncology Hematology is the largest provider of community-based cancer care in the region, but we treat each patient individually. So, this may be helpful in some cases. It could expand our menu of options.”

Not all local doctors are enthusiastic. Dr. John R. Kearney, eye doctor, surgeon and founder of the Cataract Care Center, which has offices in Johnstown, Amsterdam, Schenectady and Utica, said that any medical use for marijuana is “probably very limited until more research is done.” He said he does not have any patients who would benefit from medical marijuana, nor would he prescribe it if it became widely available in the state.

“As far as ophthalmology goes, it does have some effect on interocular pressure – those would be people with glaucoma that we’re concerned with,” Kearney said via telephone from his Utica office. “But the amount [of marijuana] that you would have to take to control it … you would have to be perpetually stoned. You couldn’t function.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration agrees with Kearney. Marijuana is still listed in schedule 1 alongside drugs such as heroin because it “has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and has a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision,” said a press release from the FDA issued in April 2006. Despite this fact, 20 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana.

“If it helps, why not try it and see what happens?” Sunkara said. “It’s much better than not doing anything.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.