Jen McTamaney isn’t counting steps anymore.

Her pain was once so unbearable that she knew how many excruciating steps it took to reach the bathroom and kitchen in her Plattekill home. These days, she dares to think of the day when she can ride her Harley again.

McTamaney is one of 7,627 New Yorkers enrolled by mid-September in the state Department of Health’s tightly controlled medical marijuana program, an effort largely shunned by the medical establishment. People like McTamaney, though, say their use of medicinal cannabis has allowed them to drastically reduce other medications that had unpleasant side effects, while improving their overall quality of life.

She said she owes a newfound life to medical marijuana, a drug she has taken since March.

“Daily living was very, very challenging,” said McTamaney, 55. She said her conditions, including a weakened immune system and neurological problems, forced her to leave her job as a teacher after more than 20 years.

“Now I can walk without my leg braces. I called them my Captain Dans,” she said with a smile last week. “I can take a shower standing up. … What it (medical marijuana) gave me was the ability to regain my daily living skills.”

A doctor in Newburgh

McTamaney was referred to a medical marijuana dispensary in Kingston by Dr. Glen Kay, who has operated OMNI Medical Care in the Town of Newburgh for almost 20 years. Kay was one of just 692 physicians, as of mid-September, to have registered with the state Department of Health to refer patients for medical marijuana therapies. There are 74,792 practicing physicians in New York, according to the state Department of Education.

Doctors cannot prescribe medical marijuana because the federal Drug Enforcement Administration classifies it as a dangerous drug, the same designation it gives heroin. Doctors can only certify a patient has one of the qualifying medical conditions. Patients take that documentation, along with their state-issued identification, to a state-sanctioned dispensary. The dispensaries are operated by the five companies allowed by the state to grow marijuana in New York.

Kay has referred 74 patients for medical marijuana therapy since mid-January, about two weeks after the first dispensaries opened. He believes that many doctors are reluctant to get involved because of marijuana’s “dangerous drug” classification.

“The large (medical) groups are telling them they can’t. They don’t want to take the risk,” Kay said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. There is no risk. … The things it does for patients are tremendous. It’s so much better than putting patients on long-term narcotics.”

The Medical Society of the State of New York has not taken a position on medical marijuana or on the state’s program. The DEA announced plans in September to encourage an increased understanding of the potential medical benefits of marijuana by allowing more researchers to grow it. It kept marijuana, though, in the same classification of drugs as heroin.

At the same time, evidence mounts that frequently prescribed drugs fully approved by the U.S. government can be deadly. There were 18,893 overdose deaths in the United States in 2014 related to prescription pain relievers, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

And between 1999 and 2014, more than 165,000 people died in the U.S. from overdoses related to prescription opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The amount of prescription opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, sold in the U.S. quadrupled during that time.

Many patients, too few doctors

The scarcity of doctors registered with the medical marijuana program is reflected by the people knocking on Kay’s door.

“We have them from all over,” said Cindy Krol, who manages the program at Kay’s office. “Buffalo, Glens Falls, Syracuse, Sullivan County, Dutchess County, Orange County, Greene County, Westchester … and we don’t advertise. People find us by word of mouth and on Facebook.”

The distance that patients travel to Kay’s office illustrates a number of deficits in the state’s program. Broad swaths of the state, 20 counties in all, have no physicians participating. Patients don’t have access to the state’s online list of participating physicians. Only other doctors can see the list. That can be problematic when a patient’s doctor shuns involvement with medical marijuana.

Jennifer Livesey of Middletown said none of the several physicians treating her 16-year-old daughter, Carson, was participating. And she said it was difficult to get her pediatrician to even sign a document certifying her illnesses – they include epilepsy and spastic cerebral palsy – that qualify her for medical marijuana. Kay needed that document before he, in turn, could complete paperwork qualifying her to get the drug at a dispensary.

Livesey said she learned about Kay from a social media posting.

The obstacle course doesn’t make sense to Kay.

“The issues are that there aren’t enough doctors, and it’s too hard to get,” he said. “It just should be legal. … People should be able to get a prescription and go to the dispensary like any other medicine.”

Maria Maglio of Fishkill learned about Kay from a friend of a friend. She said she never used marijuana in any form before turning to the medicinal version in February. Other medications for pain, she said, led to digestive problems that only compounded the pain from neurological impairments she suffered after an auto accident when she was 16.

“I couldn’t sleep. I was irritable and always in pain,” Maglio, 48, recalled. “It’s like putting a potato in the microwave and watching it explode. That’s how I felt. … And I never had so much sleep before I started the program. I get a solid six hours. It definitely helps.”

Maglio and McTamaney said they don’t drive while taking their medical marijuana. Maglio uses the vape form while McTamaney uses a vape and a tincture. It’s not so much a high they say they feel, as it is a lessening of their pain.

“I just get very relaxed,” Maglio said. “That pain I feel all the time eases up. I feel a lot better. I don’t feel like I’m in that microwave ready to pop.”

Livesey, the Middletown mother, said medical marijuana has tamed many of Carson’s medical conditions and reduced her use of other drugs.

She was able to attend an epilepsy camp over the summer and eat without pain and vomiting. Livesey said her daughter has reached a normal weight of 120 pounds, up from less than 80.

“She had ulcers all through her system from all of the medication she was taking,” Livesey said. “Now she’s finally able to eat, and her muscle control has increased. … She’s a person again. Not just a sickness.”