The medical marijuana program in Pennsylvania began with a bang. In its first week alone, over 3,800 patients registered their details. According to Governor Tom Wolf, the program is also attracting caregivers, 200 of which have also joined the program, with more to follow suite. The demand, he says, demonstrates a severe “need for this vital medication.”
Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Program
Voters in the state approved medical cannabis at the ballot box last year. It allows qualified patients access to oils, pills, liquid cannabis, even vapor, but not the actual plant itself, such as its flowers or leaves. To qualify, patients need only have one of 17 recognized conditions that science proves treatable with cannabis.
Patients must receive official certification of their illness from a state-licensed physician, as with the program for medical marijuana in California. Patients must apply for a Medical Marijuana Card from their local health department. The list of 17 qualifying conditions include such illnesses as Crohn’s disease, HIV/AIDS, cancer, and autism, as well as some of their symptoms, such as chronic pain.
Concern over Doctor Shortages
On Wednesday, officials claimed that nearly 4,000 people added their names to the state’s medical marijuana patient registry in its first week, suggesting an abundance of interest statewide in the program. There are already some worries, however, specifically the number of doctors signing up to become certified marijuana physicians able to validate patients and recommend weed for them.
The new information on patients registering for the program comes on the heels of an announcement made last week that, of 57,670 doctors with active state licenses, only 109 completed the training necessary to certify whether patients qualify to access the program or not. As with the program for medical marijuana in California, patients cannot get their medicine without a doctor’s letter or a Medical Marijuana Card, which also requires a physician’s authorization.
April Hutcheson, spokesperson for the State Department of Health, said that there are over 300 doctors still going through the approvals process, which when compared to other states at similar stages, actually puts Pennsylvania in front of everyone else. “Response for the most part has been quite positive,” Hutcheson said.
“More than 100 physicians is a good start and we expect that number will continue to grow,” the spokesperson explained. “We know we have enough to get started.” As it stands currently, there is only one pot doctor for every 38 registered patients. Many are now asking if there are going to be enough physicians to meet demand.
Attorney Patrick Nightingale, co-owner of the law firm Cannabis Legal Solutions, said that, “Physicians are the key access point for patients having access to medical marijuana.” On October 20, those curious about the amount of interest in medical marijuana only needed to stroll past the Union Project in Highland Park on North Negley Avenue.
Compassionate Certification Centers, which will soon evaluate patients for eligibility, hosted a health and wellness fair centered on medical marijuana in the community center that afternoon. They expected to attract people from local neighborhoods, but instead, a crowd several hundred wide came from distant places, such as Oil City and others, to learn more about the program.
One of the speakers at the fair, Dr. Bryan Doner, who is also Chief Executive Officer of Compassionate Certification Centers and one of the few doctors certified to validate patients, said of the event, “I sort of felt a bit overwhelmed, to be honest with you. It certainly shows the word is getting out there and people are interested.”
In the Greater Pittsburgh region alone, Dr. Doner says there are 1,000 patients on a waiting list as of last week, all of whom intend coming to its Butler and Downtown locations for certification when they open next month. However, if not enough doctors participate in the program, then there could grow a major backlog of patients requiring their services.
Pennsylvania’s marijuana law, which voters passed in 2016, mimics New York’s regulatory environment in many ways, and in its first two years of legal operations, New York failed to recruit enough doctors to certify patients. In response, the state added doctor’s assistants and nurse practitioners to the list of medical professionals authorized to provide patients with certification.
Jill Montag, spokesperson for the New York State Department of Health, explained the doctor shortage this way, “Practitioners’ main concerns include that marijuana remains illegal under federal law, that medical marijuana products are not yet FDA-approved, and that because of federal law, medical marijuana is not covered by insurance.”
Montag mentioned another issue that doctors face. She said, “Practitioners may be reluctant to recommend a course of treatment that patients may not be able to complete if they cannot afford it.” David Deitrick, gynecologist, obstetrician, and president of the Allegheny County Medical Society, thinks, “there is probably a little bit of a wait-and-see attitude” on the part of his fellow doctors.
The association for doctors in the state, the Pennsylvania Medical Society, voted against legalizing medical marijuana back in 2015. As reason, it cited a lack of indisputable scientific proof of its benefits. “I do think the numbers of participating physicians will improve,” Dr. Deitrick stated, but he also said, “Who wants to be the first to say, ‘I want to be a prescriber of medical marijuana?’”
It is understandable why many doctors would prefer to avoid that association. Mr. Nightingale, who is also the former executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Pittsburgh, or NORML, said, “If a physician has 30 years of medical practice, he or she may not be interested in changing things up or being inundated with calls from patients seeking a cannabis recommendation.”
The consensus is that patients will be the ones who ultimately decide if the state’s medical marijuana program is a success or not, the same way families were the ones to lobby for the legislation to pass during voting last year. Ms. Hutcheson says, “We are encouraging patients to talk to their physicians,” and Dr. Doner advises patients to confront their doctors about participating in the program.
In Dr. Doner’s words, “Ask them why, if they are not involved.” Mr. Nightingale concluded by reiterating the involvement of patients. He said, “If patients are just sitting and waiting for things to come to them, nothing may come to them.” Soon though, those with certified doctors will be able to search the Internet for the best medical marijuana buy online, where there are always bargains and deals aplenty.