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COVID-19 is making it harder for new medical marijuana patients to get prescriptions over the next month

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SARASOTA – With nearly 328,000 Floridians officially registered as medical marijuana patients, the coronavirus has forced the state’s hand into declaring cannabis an essential component of health care.

Unless, of course, you’re a new patient in need of a card. In that case, you may be out of luck, for at least through the middle of next month.

Last week, state Surgeon General Scott Rivkees issued an emergency order giving participating doctors permission to conduct recertifications via remote telehealth chats for 30 days. But only with existing patients. And no transfers. That means, between now and April 15, Floridians who aren’t on existing patient rolls will likely have trouble meeting with doctors qualified to write prescriptions.

“(Monday) was our last day of seeing new patients for about a month,” says Brad Weinstock, founder of Cannabis Theory’s in Sarasota. “I see maybe 25 new patients a week, so it’s going to hurt. I’m sure there are doctors out there doing whatever they want to do, but I’m not going to be one of them. I can’t afford to get my doc sick.”

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Physicians like Barry Gordon of Compassionate Care Clinic in Venice, whose patient database is close to 4,000, is complementing his telehealth appointments with a “limited contact” program. Through prior arrangement, patients who may be especially vulnerable to COVID-19, such as cancer survivors, are ushered into side doors to avoid potential waiting-room exposure.

Like so many dispensaries shutting down their brick-and-mortar operations and transitioning to home delivery, Gordon says house calls are probably next on his agenda. The Legislature’s hostility toward medical marijuana during the 2020 session — attempts to cap THC limits at 10 percent, and a refusal to broaden access with bills pertaining to job protections, retirement-home usage, medical reciprocity with other states — hasn’t made weathering the coronavirus crisis any easier.

“Everybody’s kind of driving through the fog with no headlights in trying to make the best decisions for patients to access medicine,” Gordon says.

The bigger question, he says, is how long federal lawmakers will go before removing cannabis from its obsolete status as a Schedule 1 drug with no medicinal value.

For instance, a study coming out of China on 12 patients who’ve recovered from coronavirus indicate two to three of those subjects are experiencing diminished lung function. Is this a long-term or temporary condition? And would medical marijuana patients be better advised to ingest their medicine through noninhalation?

“The great thing about medical cannabis is all the other options that are available, from topical applications to the patches and the tinctures,” says Gordon, a member of the state’s Medical Marijuana Advisory Committee.

“On the other side of this, there may be some degree of anti-inflammatory effect and some clearance of mucous from the inhalation of cannabis,” he says. “We know that the inhalation of cannabis doesn’t equal that of smoking, but we’re in the dark about so much because the research hasn’t been done.”

In Washington, D.C., Justin Strekal of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws says misinformation about what cannabis can and cannot accomplish in this crisis has resulted in a sharp spike in calls to his office from consumers “who are very scared.”

Many of those queries are from the most vulnerable, the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, who also worry about supplies.

“It’s really hard to separate the economic ramifications for the marijuana industry from the broader economy,” says Strekal. “But right now I feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for the industry that’s already unstable because of the discriminatory treatment they face under federal laws.

“So much of the marijuana industry is predicated on investment capital and promises of future returns. Banking remains an issue, and with so many concerns about transmissions of COVID, handling cash is an irresponsible burden that medical patients have to deal with as a result of lack of banking access.

“The Senate could fix this by attaching the banking bill to one of these broader bills that are moving and have already passed in the House. With so much fear and attention being put elsewhere, the failures of prohibition are abundantly clear; if anything, this only strengthens our case that we must change our policies.”

A top priority, Strekal says, should be national quality control standards, particularly over the legal and nonpsychoactive form of cannabis known as CBD. Online fraudsters, he says, are exploiting fears by promoting CBD as a panacea for COVID-19. And those concerns are showing up in Sarasota.

Sam Schneider, owner of CBD retailer Rocketman in Gulf Gate, says walk-in customers frequently ask if CBD can protect the immune system, or if it contains anti-viral agents. He echoes Strekal’s demand to remove cannabis from Schedule 1 in order to expedite desperately needed research.

“Plant medicines like CBD do so many beneficial things that there is no need to stretch the truth or make claims that cannot be backed up by research,” states Schneider. “And I’m not going to put my reputation on the line for witchcraft, man. The research just ain’t there, and I’m not gonna BS people.”

Still, those same fears continue to drive his business.

“Friday was probably our best day since Christmas,” says Schneider. “I’ve got 13 doctors who’ve sent me their patients for anxiety. Typically, I get pain referrals, because CBD will relieve pain and anxiety.”

But some customers aren’t just shopping for themselves anymore.

“The pet CBD is selling like crazy because everybody’s home all the time and their pets are really having anxiety,” he says.

“My own dog, in the evening when she’s normally up and cheerful and we play with her? By time the evening comes, she’s like screw you, give me a couch, leave me alone. They need their space like everybody else.”

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