Jose Gonzalez was working at Rikers Island as an electrician in 2008 when a transformer exploded.
Gonzalez was badly burned and suffered nerve damage. In the years since, he had endured constant, excruciating pain.
That changed after his pain doctor prescribed medical marijuana in November.
Gonzalez, who lives in rural Barryville in western Sullivan County, has since made two long drives to Ulster County, to the only dispensary in the region that can sell the drug.
And now, instead of taking addictive painkillers that still left him in agony, Gonzalez takes occasional puffs from a vaping device and feels better than ever.
No longer shut away in his bedroom, he can interact again with his wife and daughters and even felt well enough to go Christmas shopping last month.
“It changes your quality of life,” Gonzalez said.
Two years after New York’s first medical-marijuana dispensaries opened, the number of patients certified to take the pain reliever under the state’s tight rules has grown to 41,000, a 60 percent jump since August.
The state Department of Health approved five more medical-marijuana businesses last year, doubling the number of licensed operators.
With that planned expansion, Orange and Ulster counties are set to have four sites at which marijuana is grown and turned into medicine, and three dispensaries where patients can buy it.
The proliferation of states that have legalized marijuana as medicine or for recreation got a burst of news coverage this month after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded prior guidelines for federal prosecutors on pursuing marijuana cases, prompting fears of a crackdown on those states.
Though it’s unclear if that could ever affect New York’s strictly regulated medical market, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker responded by praising the relief that medical marijuana has brought suffering patients, and vowing to protect them and doctors who prescribe the drug.
“These patients need help, and we cannot turn our backs on them,” Zucker said in a statement.
Jeremy Unruh, general counsel for PharmaCann, the company that has been producing medical marijuana in Hamptonburgh since 2016, points out that a federal budget amendment in place since 2014 – and first proposed by the late Rep. Maurice Hinchey of Ulster County in 2001 – prohibits using federal resources to interfere with medical cannabis sales.
Unruh contends the only practical effect Sessions’ order might have on marijuana businesses is to make some investors, banks and third-party vendors skittish – a problem he said that PharmaCann has not had.
Unruh said that despite the increase in patients and participating doctors, New York lags far behind other states with medical-marijuana programs and needs to make the drug more accessible.
He suggests the state encourage telehealth platforms, so that patients in a state as large as New York can talk to a doctor online to get a prescription.
He also advocated eliminating the list of qualifying conditions for use of the drug and leaving it to doctors’ discretion, just as they have with other medicines.
Neal Dunkelman, a Town of Wallkill doctor specializing in pain management and rehabilitation, was skeptical at first when medical marijuana became available.
But he decided to take the state’s online training course to prescribe the drug last year, and now has 70 patients taking medical cannabis.
He said the drug has proved an effective alternative to opioid painkillers, and has had positive results for about 90 percent of his patients who have taken it.
“It’s ranged mostly from mild pain relief to dramatic pain relief,” he said.
Joseph Feerick, a Town of Mamakating resident and patient of Dunkelman’s, badly injured his back and tailbone in a fall from a ladder in 1996 and took painkillers like Percocet and oxycodone for years to relieve his pain, fighting off addiction to them at times.
Then he got a medical marijuana prescription last year and has seen a vast improvement – “a whole different outlook on life.”
He says he is happier, lost 20 pounds and no longer has high blood pressure.
“It keeps you focused on what you’re doing instead of the pain coming in 24/7,” Feerick said. “It’s so much of a better medicine than to be addicted to a pill every four hours.”
Jennifer Nelson, a mother of four who lives in Pine Bush and also is Dunkelman’s patient, suffers chronic pain caused by fibromyalgia, and also has arthritis, neuropathy and other health problems.
She praised Dunkelman and the medical marijuana he prescribed. After years of suffering, a few oil drops of cannabis under her tongue when she is in pain has restored her quality of life, she said.
“I couldn’t believe I was playing with my children and cleaning my house and walking without a cane,” Nelson said.
“It changed my life. I can’t believe that something that is natural can so dramatically change my life.”
One problem she and other patients shared was that their worker’s compensation or private insurance refused to pay for the drug.
For Nelson, that has meant $90 a week for a two-week supply. For Gonazalez, who is appealing the coverage denial by worker’s compensation, it has meant $1,500 out of pocket.
Expansion on the way
Three new medical-marijuana production sites are expected in the Town of Wallkill, Warwick and at an unspecified location in Ulster County, and two dispensaries are planned for Orange County.
PharmaCann and other businesses licensed in 2015 sued last year to challenge the expansion, arguing it would violate the state’s limit and worsen the supply glut in a struggling industry.
A judge dismissed the case last month, and Unruh said the plaintiffs haven’t decided yet whether to appeal.