I Went To A NY Medical Cannabis Dispensary, And I Couldn't Get Weed

Alexandra Svokos

I admit I was giggly in the days leading up to my visit to Vireo Health in White Plains, NY -- one of New York state's first medical cannabis dispensaries.

I bragged to my friends I was going and was repeatedly asked if I could bring back some weed.

And, yeah, it was pretty funny to tell my dear, sweet, shocked mother, who made me clarify several times it's just for work.

But in reality, medical marijuana dispensaries -- in New York, anyway -- are no laughing matter.

New York passed a law in 2014 to make medical marijuana legal, under stipulations. Unlike in, say, Los Angeles, the use of marijuana in New York is regulated strictly.

The law was passed in part thanks to Oliver Miller, a then-14-year-old with a brainstem injury that caused hundreds of seizures daily, as Elite Daily reported.

Dispensaries finally opened this month in New York. Business has been slow. Only eight dispensaries opened and, as of last week, just 51 patients were registered in the entire state, according to Times Union.

But for at least one patient, the beginning of legal medical cannabis in New York has been seriously beneficial.

Brittany Barger is a 27-year-old woman with ovarian cancer. She was diagnosed late, chemo wasn't working and the cancer spread too much for surgery. She's believed to be the first medical cannabis patient in New York.

Barger discussed medical marijuana with her doctor. When it was made legal, her doctor filled out the certification for her.

To get medical marijuana in New York, you need a registered doctor to give you a certification, and then you can register for a card.

Alexandra Svokos

Ari Hoffnung, CEO of Vireo Health of New York

You need to have a “specific severe, debilitating or life-threatening condition” (so, no, a little anxiety isn't going to make the cut).

To get inside Vireo Health in White Plains, you need to pass security -- which is run by a former member of the Secret Service. They take it very seriously. You need to show photo ID, proof of residency, your New York medical marijuana card and a doctor's referral if you're a new patient.

Coming in with all those documents, Barger said, "was like having 'the golden ticket.'"

At Vireo Health last week, Barger said she's “tired of taking pills.” She regularly experiences nausea, vomiting and a loss of appetite.

But since using medical cannabis, Barger said:

I've taken less of my breakthrough pain medication, and I felt hunger. I ate. So that made my parents really happy.

She smiled explaining the side effects of medical cannabis -- namely, hunger -- are actually helpful for her.

Seriously, medical marijuana in New York is for medical patients, not stoners.

Dr. Laura Bultman explained most marijuana-seeking patients really don't want to be high -- they're already foggy from other medications and just want some relief.

Barger hopes cannabis can continue to improve her quality of life:

When you have cancer you can't plan when you have good days. But with this, I'm hoping to have more good days and be able to check some more stuff off my bucket list, instead of spending the majority of my time home in bed. I'm looking forward to that… just leaving the house, going for walks, seeing my friends, seeing my family, even just going to a movie; that's huge for me.

Helping patients like Barger is the reason Bultman got into medical marijuana.

Alexandra Svokos

Dr. Laura Bultman, Chief Medical officer of Vireo Health

Bultman, bursting with Minnesota niceness paired with practicality, is the Chief Medical Officer of Vireo Health and is based in Minnesota -- she's one of many women leading the medical marijuana industry.

She worked in emergency medicine with Dr. Kyle Kingsley, who founded Vireo. Kingsley had a horticultural interest while Bultman was into research. When medical marijuana became legal in Minnesota, they started working in it together.

Bultman feels like she is directly helping patients more than she did in an ER. In a single day in Minnesota, for example, she helped a Gulf War veteran who lost a leg, a 5-year-old with cancer, someone with a spinal cord injury, a 30-year-old with metastatic cancer and children with epilepsy -- all with medical cannabis.

I would not have given up a good career had it not been for something more fulfilling.

Dr. Stephen Dahmer, Chief Medical Officer of Vireo Health of New York who wouldn't look out of place reading a book in a Brooklyn coffee shop, was working as a family doctor in New York City and joined Vireo with the legalization. He said:

I saw it as probably the best way to alleviate pain and suffering with my title.

To be clear: Medical marijuana in New York is not weed.

Alexandra Svokos

Different varieties of cannabis

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made it law patients can't smoke the product.

Vireo Health's plants are grown off-site in a facility upstate. Patients don't get nugs of weed, they get cannabis oil.

Patients can use the cannabis oil in three forms: as a drinkable oral solution, with a vaporizer or in capsules. Barger prefers the capsules.

There are five varieties of cannabis ranging from mostly THC to mostly CBD, and patients are advised on which would be best for them. Patients with AIDS will look for more THC, for instance, while those with multiple sclerosis would go mid-range.

Patients are only allowed to get 30-days' worth of cannabis at a time (and that varies by patient).

The price ranges from around $100 to $300 per month, depending on needs. It's out of pocket expenses not paid for by insurance and has to be paid in cash.

Ari Hoffnung, CEO of Vireo Health of New York, said:

Hopefully with federal legislation in the future [insurance coverage] is something that can change.

For their part, medical marijuana providers are working to promote the benefits of the treatment.

Alexandra Svokos

Dr. Stephen Dahmer, Chief Medical Officer of Vireo Health of New York

Bultman said business was slow at the start in Minnesota, too, and it takes a lot of effort to inform doctors this is a viable option.

Most medical schools don't teach about the use of cannabis and doctors are generally conservative -- they don't want to try something new unless its effects have been long-proven.

Providers are giving presentations and teaching doctors about the use of medical cannabis. While there may have only been a handful of patients at Vireo in its first week, the company has been fielding questions from many patients, nurses and doctors.

In time, those behind Vireo hope medical providers and patients will recognize medical cannabis as a regular part of healthcare, getting past the stigma of stoners. As Barger said:

At the end of the day, it's your health. You either want to feel better or you don't.