SALT LAKE CITY — After Utah's Department of Health missed a deadline to expand the state's medical cannabis program, one of the groups that brought the issue before voters is calling on lawmakers to abolish patient caps physicians are put under.
FOX 13 reported last week that UDOH said it was not able to meet a deadline to expand the ability for more health care providers to recommend medical cannabis to qualifying patients. The agency said it was because of software and staffing issues that it wasn't able to have the program expanded by Sept. 1.
On Utah's Capitol Hill, patient advocates were frustrated. Lawmakers were fuming because they didn't find out about it until mid-November.
Christine Stenquist, the head of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE), was not surprised.
"We’ve seen this before. We’ve seen it happen again," she said Monday in an interview with FOX 13.
Stenquist, who was an original backer of Proposition 2, which legalized medical cannabis in Utah, has criticized the state's program as not being robust enough, not focused enough on patients and quality of product. She said the current system of only having state-qualified physicians able to recommend cannabis for up to 275 patients (or more with UDOH approval) should be abolished.
"We have patients who are dealing with multiple renewals on cards and a patient cap which is a breeding ground for predatory practices in this space. We have to be very mindful about that," Stenquist said.
Some patient advocates have long complained about specialized "pot doctors" that have popped up, who go through the state's qualified medical provider certification, then turn around and charge hundreds of dollars to patients so they can be legal in the state's eyes. The Utah Patients Coalition said it knows of many patients who prefer to take their chances purchasing cannabis illegally on the black market or outside the state.
Lawmakers originally passed a bill to allow any physician, nurse practitioner or specialist to recommend medical cannabis in a limited capacity — up to 15 patients without having to become a "qualified medical provider."
"A quicker remedy to lowering patients' financial burden and predatory practices within the industry is to remove the extra QMP program, the patient caps, and excessive card renewals. These practices create paper mills and barriers to access and require extra steps of 'busy work' that serve no purpose other than making access more difficult and costly," Stenquist said.
"We need to address the problems patients contend with within the program, like —reasonable access to clean, affordable, quality cannabis thats tested and correctly labeled. The fuse over allowing just 15 patients for doctors who are already identified as qualified medical providers seems a bit of a red herring given the other more profound concerns with the program."
Stenquist said TRUCE is calling for the Utah State Legislature to abolish patient caps and qualified medical providers entirely, allowing any health care provider to see if a patient meets the legally qualifying conditions — then sending them to a dispensary for cannabis.
"Just level the playing field a little bit and say 'Docs, all we need you to do is verify that your patient has MS, or epilepsy, or Parkinson's, or migraines or chronic pain,'" she said. "That’s all we need you to do. That’s what you went to school for and we trust you in that matter. The rest of it can be handled in the dispensary."
TRUCE has also taken patient complaints of predatory practices to lawmakers as an example of why they want the system changed. While lawmakers are demanding more be done to get more health care providers to recommend cannabis, three lawmakers who have been working on cannabis legislation seemed somewhat reluctant to scrap the entire system.
"We remain dedicated to the Legislature’s continued efforts to collaborate with patients, UDOH, providers, and other key stakeholders on improving the state’s medical cannabis program. The primary goals of SB 170 were to improve access to medical cannabis and to protect patients—a safe, structured process with the inclusion of limited medical providers (LMPs) and qualified medical providers (QMPs) gets us closer to the quality care deserved by Utahns," Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City; Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City; and Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, said in a joint statement to FOX 13.
"While we consider modifications, we believe Utah’s medical cannabis system maintains safety and an orderly patient-focused process. Implementation should happen with urgency and with an emphasis on education for both patients and providers."