With legalized medical marijuana expected to be available soon, state officials plan to issue new registration cards to qualified patients in the coming weeks to ensure that the cards are usable for the entire term for which they were intended.
The Arkansas Department of Health began issuing the cards to patients and caregivers in February, but the drug wasn't available for purchase. The first medical cannabis dispensary is expected to open next month.
That has left patients with cards, which are valid for a maximum of a year, that couldn't be used for the first several months of the card's validity.
For a person to obtain medical marijuana, a physician must certify that the person has one of 18 conditions that qualify for the use of marijuana as a treatment option.
Marisha DiCarlo, director of the Health Department's Office of Health Communications, said Tuesday that new certificates would be sent to patients and caregivers once the first dispensary opens to ensure that medical marijuana can be purchased for the entire intended term of the certification.
"We want to make sure they have a working card that allows them to access medical marijuana that's legally available for the time frame that they were certified for," DiCarlo said. "It's a little bit of a moving target. Once we know that there is medical marijuana available in the state, this will happen automatically through our system."
Arkansans voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2016, approving Amendment 98 to the Arkansas Constitution. However, the program's implementation has been fraught with delays.
In February, state regulators and industry officials said they expected the drug to debut in April, but last week, the first grower said the company couldn't begin harvesting until this week. An official from Bold Team -- the first licensed cultivator to begin growing cannabis -- said the company expects to have the first product available in the second or third week of May after processing the first harvest.
The other four licensed cultivators are in varying stages of production, ranging from construction to early growth.
The drug must be grown at one of five permitted grow-houses and sold at one of 32 dispensaries. Between two and five dispensaries expect to be open when Bold Team makes the first batch of medical marijuana available.
So far, the Health Department has approved more than 10,500 patients and caregivers.
Rusty Adams, 65, of Bentonville is a registered patient because of neuropathy in his feet. He said the drug helps relieve his symptoms.
"It's like needles in your feet, especially when you lay down," he said.
Adams said he was thrilled that the Health Department planned to extend the time his registry ID card is valid, noting that the costs associated with applying for the certification each year can add up.
"I was glad because I immediately thought it was unfair [to issue the card] months before it [cannabis] is available," Adams said.
It costs $50 to apply for the card, which must be renewed annually. Patient advocate Melissa Fults, director of the Drug Policy Education Group, also noted that many patients must see doctors who aren't their own because some hospitals don't allow their doctors to write medical marijuana recommendations.
Fults said it can cost up to $400 to get certified after paying for registration fees and doctor's appointments. Patients must then buy the drug out of their own pockets because it isn't covered by insurance the way traditional medications sometimes are.
"That's a burden," she said. "Especially when you consider that many of the people who are getting these cards are disabled and on a very fixed income."
DiCarlo emphasized that patients don't need to take any action to have new cards sent to them. A letter and card will be sent automatically to those who received the certification before the drug was available for purchase.
A Section on 04/24/2019