State hopes to clear up medical marijuana card backlog by early October

Monitor staff
Published: 9/28/2016 1:44:08 AM

A few months after all of New Hampshire’s therapeutic cannabis dispensaries opened, some patients are waiting 40 days or more before they receive authorization to use them.

A backlog of applications at the Department of Health and Human Services means more than 100 identification cards have been approved but haven’t been issued to patients.

“We are chipping away at it,” said John Martin, chief of the HHS Bureau of Licensing and Certification. “We are doing our very best to reduce and eliminate that backlog.”

At a Therapeutic Use of Cannabis Advisory Council meeting last week, Martin admitted the bureau is not yet complying with the statute that says approved patients will receive their cards within 20 days of applying.

“It is at least twice that, however, I think that’s going to get better,” he said.

Martin said he expects to eliminate the wait by early October.

With more applications coming in every day, Martin said a group of seven staffers has come together one day each week to focus exclusively on shipping out cards.

He said the group met last Wednesday, “and all we did was get cards out.” At the end of the day, it had sent out more than 100 cards.

“That cut the backlog by almost half,” Martin said. “With the additional resources, I think by early October we’ll eliminate the backlog and it will be easier to stay caught up.”

It has been almost a year since the state’s therapeutic cannabis program began accepting applications. The program started issuing cards in late December; since then, it has sent out cards to 1,339 qualifying patients and approved 65 caregivers.

The program has also expanded its list of qualifying conditions to 18, adding ulcerative colitis to the list this summer. New qualifying conditions have to be approved by the Legislature.

Martin and Michael Holt, HHS administrative rules coordinator, said they are contacted by many patients whose doctors won’t sign off on a cannabis card. Changes in the rules, however, mean doctors from states bordering New Hampshire can also certify their patients in the Granite State.

Martin said his department was flooded with applications after dispensaries started opening their doors, with as many as 35 applications per day coming at the busiest time.

That has gradually dwindled to about 20, Martin added. He estimated the state is now getting about 100 applications per week.

Applications are being processed by two full-time department employees. In addition, the department is planning to switch to a new system that would allow New Hampshire residents to apply for cards online.

The program has been dogged by funding and staffing issues. When the state Legislature passed the law creating a medical marijuana program, officials tasked with starting it had to add the duty to their full-time jobs.

As a result, some parts of the program have been slow to get off the ground, including the database.

“As everyone knows, this was a self-funded program, the access database is a result of not having start-up funds for the program,” Holt said.

On Friday, Martin said dispensaries in the state have offered to lend staff and resources to help get cards out faster. Though he called the offers “incredibly generous,” Martin said he declined them.

“I haven’t felt comfortable with that because what I see is a conflict of interest, since we’re the agency that regulates alternative treatment centers,” he said.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)

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