For many years I thought my friends with medical marijuana cards were just looking for a legal loophole to get high and goof around—and for the most part I was right. But I had never considered it before. Besides, I was perfectly happy with my stash of relatively low-dose recreational cannabis, which I started taking sometime in 2017 when my lower back pain became untenable.
Then I injured my back (again) during a particularly intense month of contact combat training with fighters twice my size. It had been years since it last happened and I was in a panic. But I’ve been here before: the debilitating pain, the inability to move, and just all-around physical misery. And let me tell you: That kind of excruciating pain is not something anyone would ever want to live through again—or regularly, for that matter.
When I wasn’t hoovering Aleve, CBD gummies and low-dose THC edibles to ease the constant pain, I was seeing a chiropractor, doing physical therapy thrice a week, and slathering myself with CBD topicals. On occasion, I even had to rely on a cane to get around.
Managing this recent bout of pain was also helped by the budtenders I had the pleasure of meeting in Nevada and California: They certainly knew their stuff. But the more I learned about cannabis and how my ailing body responds to it, the more I realized that it was time to see a professional about a medical marijuana card.
But here’s the thing—I wasn’t looking to get high. And I didn’t want a card just so I could shop locally in Manhattan. So I didn’t go to one of those rent-a-New-York-doctor sites, say the right things for ten minutes, and get a card mailed to me. Instead, I did what I always do whenever I hunt for a new doctor: I asked a good friend in the cannabis industry to recommend a reputable doctor. I did my due diligence and took the medical part of medical marijuana seriously. I gathered whatever pain-related medical documents I had that, just in case they’d be handy.
And I would recommend this approach to anyone. Plus, the entire process was fairly painless—and efficient. My doctor was beyond helpful: Thanks to his recommendations and guidance on dosing, I’ve been experiencing lower pain and fewer flareups. And between medical-grade cannabis (which typically has a higher dosage) and regular mobility drills coupled with core strengthening exercises, I’m already on my way to a (mostly) pain-free life.
And you can do it too. Here’s how.
How to Get a Medical Marijuana Card in New York State
STEP 1: DETERMINE YOUR ELIGIBILITY
Cannabis was partly decriminalized in New York State in mid-2019. But that certainly doesn’t mean that anybody can walk around with joints and go all out at the park. (Public consumption is still illegal, FYI.) Also: New York State has one of the most stringent requirements for its residents to acquire a medical marijuana card—meaning, if you’re not suffering from a debilitating disease, chronic pain, opioid abuse, PTSD, cancer, Parkinson’s diseases, or anything that can seriously affect your wellbeing and ability to function on a day-to-day basis, there’s a good chance you’re not going to be granted the right to use medical marijuana legally. So, if you have one of these qualifying conditions and you think cannabis could greatly improve your quality of life, proceed to step number two.
STEP 2: FIND A LICENSED PRACTITIONER WHO PARTICIPATES IN NEW YORK STATE’S MEDICAL MARIJUANA PROGRAM
Decades ago, there was such a stigma surrounding cannabis use. The word “stoner” carried with it visions of unkempt misfits unbothered by ambition, the business of life, the rat race, or “the establishment.” But no longer. These days, more and more people are taking cannabis as a means to improve their health—not to get zonked. After all, the plant is known for its anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties. According to BDSA, an analytics firm that focuses on the cannabis industry, “the worldwide [cannabis] market will more than triple from $14.8 billion in 2019 to $46.8 billion in 2025.” A staggering growth projection. And for New York residents, finding a professional couldn’t be easier: The New York State Medical Marijuana Program lists a robust number of registered participating healthcare professionals in all 62 counties—many of whom are not just doctors, but nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants as well.
STEP 3: SCHEDULE A CONSULTATION WITH A DOCTOR OF YOUR CHOOSING
Choosing a doctor for the purposes of learning how to treat your condition with the help of medical marijuana is very much like picking a therapist: You’ve got to have rapport. And as a patient, you need to feel that you’re in good hands. Once you’ve picked a physician from New York’s list, schedule an appointment and talk about whatever it is that ails you. (In my case, I emailed my doctor my lumbosacral MRI and X-ray results shortly before our appointment to help move things along—and to give him a good idea of what he’s dealing with.) During the consultation be as detailed as possible, especially when answering questions related to your symptoms, medical history, and general lifestyle. This will help the doctor “prescribe” a suitable cannabis product for you. And by “prescribe,” the physician will help determine the starting dose you need, the best delivery method for your body, and the frequency with which you ought to be partaking. The whole process typically doesn’t last an hour if you’re an obvious candidate—and once the appointment is over, your doctor will then prepare your medical marijuana patient certification, which will be emailed to you in PDF form. And of course, this is where you pay your doctor’s professional fee.
STEP 4: WAIT FOR YOUR CANNABIS CERTIFICATE BY WAY OF EMAIL
It won’t take long for the certificate to reach your inbox. (Mine showed up in three days.) As soon as it’s in your hands double check each field on the form—there’s no room for any sort of error, so if you find one, ask your doctor to make the necessary corrections. The certificate should contain important personal information: the medical condition that qualifies you to be part of the state’s medical marijuana program, your patient certification number, your doctor’s DEA registration number and New York State practitioner number, your dosing recommendation, and the expiration date (which is exactly one year from the issue date). I recommend printing at least two copies: One to keep on file and one to have with you at all times, since you need to present your certificate in addition to your medical marijuana card when visiting a dispensary.
STEP 5: SIGN UP FOR A NEW YORK STATE GOVERNMENT ACCOUNT
This bit is very important and I cannot stress this enough. Having an NYS ID will make all the difference when applying for a medical marijuana card. So if you don’t already have one, get yourself a personal New York State government account via the state’s official NY.gov ID site and keep your username and password safe. Remember, this is the exact same login credential that allows you sign up for a multitude of state services across the board: educational programs, health resources, DMV services, tax assistance, and a whole lot more. So if you’ve lived in New York for long enough and have a driver’s license or state ID, there’s a good chance you already have an account. Plus, if you’ve ever applied for unemployment insurance, you certainly have one—because there’s no way you can certify claims without a MY NY account. So double (and triple) check to make sure you don’t sign up twice. Go over your data to validate its accuracy, otherwise it could cause delays or complicate your application and registration. Beyond that, it’s just good idea for every New Yorker to have a singular account you can use to easily access your personal data and process whatever you need to get done on the state level—your my.ny.gov account is not solely meant to authorize cannabis for legal medical use.
STEP 6: REGISTER ONLINE AS A MEDICAL MARIJUANA PATIENT WITH NEW YORK STATE’S MEDICAL MARIJUANA PROGRAM
From here on out, everything is going to be easier than surviving the disaster that was 2020—including the four years we had to endure with our twice-impeached former president. Anyway, enough about that: Now that you have your New York ID, whether it’s a driver’s license or a non-driver ID card, simply visit my.ny.gov and log in. Just make sure you do not use Safari, which is incompatible with New York State’s platform. (I used Chrome.) From there, consult the second section of your NYS Medical Marijuana Program patient certification and follow every single directive accurately on page three. And make sure there are no typos: Your name, date of birth, address, and patient certification number all have to tally up with the information on your doctor-provided paperwork. Errors and falsifications will cause major delays—it could take weeks or it could take a few months, depending on whatever discrepancies there may be. You’ll notice that there’s a section called “Supporting Documentation,” which allows you to upload paperwork. But you can ignore it for as long as you have your NYS identification number: That particular field is meant for individuals who reside in New York but need to show proof of residency, mainly because their state ID is from somewhere else—or they simply do not have the required ID.
So there’s no need to upload any of your medical documents, your patient certification, your license, or even your photograph. (The powers that be will use the existing image it has on file from your ID.) So it’s important to note that you must enter your nine-digit NYS ID without dashes or spaces. And once you’ve done that you’ve essentially completed your registration. NB: If your condition is so severe that you’re not always able to go to the dispensary yourself, you can designate a caregiver after your registration is approved.
STEP 7: SAVE AND PRINT YOUR TEMPORARY MEDICAL MARIJUANA CARD
If all goes well (no typos were made; your nine-digit NYS ID was successfully verified) you’ll have your temporary card almost immediately after registration. A prompt will appear at the very end of the process and it will enable you to download the card, which will be valid for a month. Print a few copies and have one with you at all times (in addition to the medical marijuana certificate with your doctor’s signature), in case you need to visit a dispensary immediately. Again, you need both the card and the certificate to enter a dispensary.
STEP 8: WAIT FOR YOUR MEDICAL MARIJUANA CARD IN THE MAIL
It should take you no time at all to receive your “real” medical marijuana card in the mail. More often than not, it takes less than two weeks. Personally, mine arrived exactly one week after the day I registered. Note that the card only lasts a year and you will a few need periodic follow-ups with your doctor to see how your treatment is going—and whether your dose needs to be calibrated further. To renew it, give your doctor ample time and schedule a renewal appointment at least a month before your medical marijuana card expires.
Step 9: MAKE YOUR FIRST MEDICAL MARIJUANA PURCHASE
There are less than 20 medical marijuana dispensaries in New York City. But there are more in other counties, which you can find here. Do your research and pick one that suits you—in terms of what they carry and what your physician recommended you take. For instance, if you were advised to try sublinguals go to dispensary that carries a number of them so you’re able to enjoy a number of options. Remember: Take both your card and certificate. You will not be able to purchase medical cannabis in New York without both. One good thing to remember is that while your doctor may recommend certain methods of THC delivery via the certificate (such as edibles, sublinguals, or buccal sprays), the dispensary’s “pharmacist” or budtender may (and can) ultimately recommend something completely different. All this is legal. If you’re not comfortable with whatever the dispensary recommends, most doctors will let you call them right there and then—so you don’t end up spending money on something that could be too strong or too weak for you. Cannabis isn’t cheap, so it’s always good to proceed with good advice.
STEP 10: IN THE EVENT OF UNAVOIDABLE TRAVEL, FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH STATE RECIPROCITY LAWS
In some instances, even in the middle of a pandemic, travel may just be unavoidable. And the last thing you need is to be without pain relief in a distant city. Here’s a helpful list that explains where you can purchase medical marijuana with a New York State card—and just what the parameters are. Many will let you make purchases, while others will only allow for you be in possession of what you already have. Each state is obviously different. Hawaii, for instance, will let out-of-state qualified visitors register online up to three months in advance. But whatever you do, make sure to never fly with cannabis on you.