Health commissioner discusses increasing access to medical marijuana

BY Briana Vannozzi, Correspondent |

We told you this week of a state Department of Health report that shows a glaring gap between the number of dispensaries selected or licensed to provide medical marijuana and the overwhelming demand for it. Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal sat down with correspondent Briana Vannozzi.

Vannozzi: Let’s start first with this report that the state has to put out. It’s calling for a really big expansion, I mean, we’re talking eight times the number of what we have now. Is there really a need for that many licenses and what we call alternative treatment centers?

Elnahal: Well, as you know, Briana, we released a report as the sixth executive order that the governor has signed tasked us to do as a department. And that report recommended that we increase the number of conditions to those that many other states had offered for a long time for patients with medical marijuana needs. And that included chronic pain of multiple types — it included Tourette’s syndrome, migraines, anxiety — some common conditions. And as a result, we’ve really seen the number of patients increase drastically in the program. And so, even if we did no other reforms, even if the statutory recommendations that we made back in March of last year were not enacted, we would still expect up to 90,000 or even greater patients by the end of this year in the program. So we know that we’re going to need more alternative treatment centers, we know we’re going to need more cultivation capacity to grow the medical marijuana and we know that driving distances are too long for a lot of patients already with the program, even if you were to account for just six new alternative treatment centers. So we looked at that question in multiple ways, and all of the analyses showed that we do need more.

Vannozzi: I asked Senate President Sweeney about this today, and he said, “Listen, we still haven’t rolled out the six new dispensaries with these new licenses. Let’s wait and see if we can meet demand with those before we say that we need to increase.”

Elnahal: Well, I’d say that, you know, broadly the Senate president and our administration are aligned with what we want to accomplish from statutory changes. And so, just to say up front, I think that’s still the goal on both sides is to get the medical bill passed. I do think our analyses did show that even if we were to add just six, it wouldn’t be enough just to even meet the current growth rates of patients. Again, even if we didn’t make any of the reforms that that statute calls for.

Vannozzi: The issue with recreational use being stalled right now in the legislature, it’s tie-barred to expanding medicinal marijuana. What can the department do, what can the state do without the Legislature to get this expansion moving?

Elnahal: Well, we can consider and add new conditions when people petition us to say, “Hey, we think a new condition should be an option for patients,” that’s always within our authority. We can issue more licenses. There is not a limit on the number of licenses per the original statute that we can do. We’re also proposing new rules that should be in the public register in the beginning of May that will allow us to not only issue new licenses, but to do it in a segmented way in the market, meaning cultivators, processors and dispensaries can be separate organizations that each have their own independent license. That not only adds efficiency to the market because you get specialization, lower costs, but it also allows for smaller players to get into the market, folks that are more local, folks that know their community and more diversity in the providers, which is something that we want to achieve as a policy goal.

Vannozzi: But does legislative holdout tie your hands in a way because without them you can’t increase the amount that patients can get from that 2-ounce amount which we’ve heard from parents, from patients, being an issue where they run out midway through the month and they have to turn to opioids and other medications.

Elnahal: So you’re right, that’s an important restriction that would be lifted with the legislation, I would say the most important, that 2-ounce limit per month in particular limits the ability for terminal patients, patients near the end of life experiencing a lot of pain from getting enough medical marijuana to treat that pain, and the most important example of that is Jake Honig, a child who had metastatic cancer, end-stage cancer, whose parents are still very important advocates for saying, “This limit was too restrictive for our son near the end of his life,” and we’re very much for lifting that limit for terminal patients and for everybody else more gradually over time.

Vannozzi: The governor said that there’s a backup plan, he set this tentative May deadline to let the legislature figure their stuff out, whip the votes that need to be whipped, what’s happening right now with this backup plan, is this what you’re alluding to as far as continuing to look at new licenses and other centers to open?

Elnahal: Well, right now we’re still continuing to work with the Legislature, I think, we just want to make that clear that again, it’s still our goal to pass that package of bills which will include the medical marijuana bill and that’s been our focus and will continue to be our focus through this month and next month.