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Patients get turned away as Utah's medical cannabis program faces backlog of applicants

Dragonfly Wellness
Posted at 2:10 PM, Mar 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-04 20:34:56-05

SALT LAKE CITY — On the first day that it opened, Dragonfly Wellness served 16 qualified medical cannabis patients. On the second day, it served one.

Dragonfly has turned away hundreds who sought to get in the door because they have not been qualified by Utah's Department of Health as medical cannabis cardholders. They are cancer patients, people with glaucoma and other ailments that qualify them to get medical cannabis, said Hoang Nguyen, a manging partner at the medical cannabis pharmacy.

"We have plenty of product. We are not going to run out of product," Nguyen said in an interview Wednesday with FOX 13. "It’s just, we don’t have patients right now. It’s so heartbreaking to have to turn away these patients who come to our door and have the letter thinking they can come in and they can’t. We just can’t."

Dragonfly is also having to fight rumors spreading on Facebook that it is already closing. It is not. The cannabis dispensary's owners are frustrated with those rumors and the state moving slowly to approve qualifying medical cannabis patients.

"Why is it taking so long to get patients through?" Nguyen said Wednesday.

Utah's Department of Health provided FOX 13 with the latest numbers: 1,200 applications have been submitted through a state-run site. Of those, only 66 have been approved for medical cannabis cards. Approximately 850 are awaiting physicians to approve a step, while 320 are awaiting patients to complete a process.

The agency has also said it has had problems with physicians signing up for the program and patients have complained about website issues for them.

The state imposed a March 1 deadline to have a working medical cannabis program up and running. Utah's Department of Agriculture and Food licensed cannabis grow facilities. Utah's Department of Health licensed pharmacy sites. Dragonfly was the only dispensary to open in time.

"There was success in the sense that the system became operational when we said it should," said Connor Boyack with the Libertas Institute, which has been pushing medical cannabis bills in the legislature.

Boyack said they are addressing issues as they pop up.

"Patients need to be patient. This is an entirely new industry," he said. "It’s going to take a little while. We’re working our butts off to make sure it happens really well."

In response to the problems that have already emerged, the legislature is planning to run another bill to make modifications. Republicans are taking Democratic Salt Lake City Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost's medical cannabis card bill and amending it with fixes.

"It really is a matter of having the right bill open at the right time," she told FOX 13. "And it gives me an opportunity to get some things done that I wanted to do with medical cannabis policy."

Republicans plan to insert a provision allowing qualifying patients to use their current affirmative defense letters to purchase cannabis at a dispensary in Utah, as they go through the state's cannabis card program.

"We’re building a bridge so people that have their letter can take that to the pharmacy. The pharmacy then confirms with the provider it’s legitimate, it’s not forged and also makes sure they can’t pharmacy shop," Rep. Dailey-Provost said. "But it allows them to access product in state using their letter until we get to the point where everybody’s got their card."

In exchange, Rep. Dailey-Provost also advances a plan to allow qualifying card holders to not have to make repeat visits to a doctor, unless it's necessary.

Boyack said the agreement will get patients their product faster.

"While they’re waiting in the weeks and months ahead for the bureaucratic process to unfold? It’s just going to help a lot of people and help us more easily transition into fully launching the program," he told FOX 13.

Nguyen has been on Capitol Hill to push for changes as her medical cannabis pharmacy gets off the ground. The bill is expected to hit the House floor on Thursday and speed through the legislature. Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, is co-sponsoring Rep. Dailey-Provost's bill.

Voters approved Proposition 2 in 2018, which legalized medical cannabis. The legislature overrode it with their own bill (crafted as a result of a compromise between Prop. 2 supporters and opponents) that set more regulations on the program. Since then, lawmakers have been working to make tweaks to address problems as they pop up.

"For better or worse, we do things the Utah way and this was a mechanism the legislature decided was a good process," Rep. Dailey-Provost said. "We knew there would be problems. I hoped they wouldn’t be as significant as they are. But we will do our very best the next couple of days to address the very real problems that are creating access barriers, access for people."