By Dr. Mary Frances Koester
It has been a year since COVID shut down much of the United States, but it in Pennsylvania it opened the door to medical marijuana for almost 100,000 new patients. In 2016, Governor Tom Wolf, signed Senate Bill 3 into law giving physicians the approval to certify patients for a medical marijuana card who meet any of the 23 qualifying conditions. And in 2018, medical marijuana dispensaries in Pennsylvania opened their doors to sell medicinal marijuana to patients. The movement was led in large part by mothers of children with hard-to-control seizures, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients with cancer. Furthermore, the effort was not funded or backed by any major special interest.
There was one big problem however: access to care. Prior to COVID finding a medical marijuana physician was difficult and the price of an appointment was cost prohibitive for many people. A certification could cost up to $500 per visit for both initial certifications as well as renewals. Furthermore, there was a paucity of registered physician which left many areas of Pennsylvania underserved or not served at all. Some medical marijuana physicians would travel around the state in faire like fashion advertising certification events and renting a room for a couple of days to see patients in these areas. While traveling medical marijuana physicians provided access to medical cards, the next year patients had to start the search for a physician all over. Emily Wright has suffered with Crohn’s disease for over a decade. “I had a hard time finding a doctor, they were all very expensive, and I just didn’t know if marijuana could help me.”
When COVID started there were about 100,000 certified patients in the Pennsylvania medical marijuana registry. Then came COVID and with it relaxed regulations. In March of 2020, the state’s Proclamation of Disaster Emergency permitted physicians registered with the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Program to certify new patients and renews certifications via video conferencing. This changed the game. It allowed telehealth only practices like mine, Cannabis Care Consultants, to come into being. Telemedicine for medical marijuana opened the door for doctors to see patients all over the state. Physicians did not need an office or have to travel. Even better, patients even in remote areas now have access to a medical marijuana physician. Moreover, those limited by their medical condition could receive quality care from the comfort and safety of home. Today there are almost 300,000 certified patients.
Patients are not only benefiting from easier access to registered medical marijuana physicians, but also from decreased doctor consultation costs. Increased competition amongst doctors has brought the cost of a physician consultation to under $200. These changes prompted Ms. Wright to get her medical marijuana card. “I am so thankful that I was able to get my medical card. Medical marijuana has been life changing. I haven’t needed prescription medication. My pain is so much better controlled. My quality of life is just better.” She states that the ease of scheduling an appointment online and the more affordable cost as key factors in her decision to try medical marijuana.
We need access to medical marijuana now more than ever. A Nation Health Interview Survey in 2019 reported 8.2% of adults surveyed reported symptoms of anxiety disorder. These number are on the rise, likely spurred by COVID. The CDC reported a comparable survey by the National Center for Health Statics found nearly 32% reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder in mid-2020. And while anxiety has increase so to has medical marijuana usage. The Pennsylvania State Department reported within six months of the relaxed regulations sales of medical marijuana doubled total sales from its inception two years prior. But it is not helping just those suffering from anxiety. Cancer patients, those suffering chronic pain, neuropathies, PTSD, HIV/AIDS, sickle cell disease and multiple sclerosis now have access to a safe and natural alternative to treat their conditions and in many cases more effectively than with traditional medications.
About the Author
Mary Frances Koester, MD graduated from Franklin and Marshall College and received her MD/MBA from Temple University School of Medical and Fox School of Business. She went on to complete her residency in Emergency Medicine. After seeing so many patients suffering from opioid and benzodiazepine addictions as well many suffering from untreated chronic pain or anxiety, she began her education in marijuana medicine. She believes in the benefits of medical marijuana and advocates its use as a safe and effective alternative to traditional medications. Her mission is to create a true medical practice that strives to provide ongoing and meaningful care for her patients.