Michigan patients seeking medical marijuana cards still need to meet in-person with a doctor, despite the threat of transmitting the novel coronavirus.
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted physicians across the globe to switch to telehealth appointments, but Michigan doctors providing medical cannabis certifications cannot legally do so, according to Andrew Brisbo, executive director of the state’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency.
Michigan’s medical marijuana law specifies that a physician must certify a patient for a card allowing the purchase of medical marijuana, and that approval must happen in-person, demonstrating a “bona fide physician-patient relationship.”
To open the door for telehealth certifications, state legislators would need to amend the law or, as Brisbo hinted Thursday during a webinar with cannabis industry professionals, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could issue an executive order to suspend that requirement.
State gives leeway to people with expired cards
Medical marijuana cards expire after two years and renewal also requires an in-person appointment with a doctor, said David Harns, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.
In response to the pandemic, the state has given some leeway by issuing temporary rules that allow dispensaries to give medical cannabis to people whose Michigan Medical Marijuana Program cards expired within the last 60 days.
“The MRA has asked law enforcement to exercise discretion when interacting with someone with an expired registry identification card,” a bulletin from the agency reads.
The temporary accommodations also allow stores to sell medical and recreational marijuana to people with expired driver’s licenses, which are normally used to verify a customer’s age and identity but which may be difficult to renew with Secretary of State offices closed throughout Michigan to help limit spread of the coronavirus.
Okemos clinics provide alternative through car-side certifications
Intessa, a clinic providing medical marijuana certifications in Okemos, is offering car-side appointments because of the pandemic.
Patients call in advance to set up time slots and a provide a description of their vehicles. The doctor and any administrators at the clinic wear personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves, to meet with applicants, Intessa manager Misty Cook said.
The doctor stands in the parking lot and chats with patients through the car window. Clipboards and pens are sanitized and the clinic has tried to cut down on paperwork when possible, Cook said.
Still, there are logistical challenges.
It can be hard to hear when both patient and doctor are wearing masks. Some patients choose to roll down their windows by just a crack.
Each appointment might take between 20 and 25 minutes, Cook said.
Intessa is occasionally allowing people to come inside the clinic building, though Cook said there are signs in the waiting area marking 6 feet of distance.
Curbside pickup and cannabis delivery are allowed
During the pandemic, Michigan’s cannabis retailers are allowed to sell the drug for recreational and medical use. Only delivery and curbside pickup are permitted because customers are currently banned from entering the stores.
Recreational marijuana has been legal in Michigan since 2018. Any adult 21 and older can buy recreational cannabis, but both adults and children can obtain medical marijuana if they have state-issued cards.
Michigan voters legalized medical marijuana in 2008 and state regulators have approved its use among people with a host of conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, chronic pain, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.
To apply for a marijuana card, paperwork – including authorization from a physician – must be sent to the state for ultimate approval from the Marijuana Regulatory Agency, which issues the cards. Paperwork can be sent by mail, although the MRA has been encouraging use of its online application process.
The actual content of legal marijuana is essentially the same in Michigan whether it is regulated as medical or recreational. However, there’s a higher tax on recreational cannabis and retailers must label the drugs differently, often relegating medical versus recreational products to separate areas of their stores.
Not all physicians approve medical marijuana cards
Clinics like Intessa are among a limited number options for people seeking medical marijuana cards.
Cannabis remains illegal at the federal level and, for insurance reasons, many major hospitals do not allow their physicians to sign off on medical marijuana certifications.
Doctors affiliated with McLaren Greater Lansing do not give out the certifications, spokeswoman Linda Toomey confirmed.
John Foren, a spokesman for Sparrow Health System, declined to answer questions about medical marijuana certifications or to say whether Sparrow provides them.
Cook believes demand for certifications at Intessa has dropped by 10 to 15% because people are cash-strapped during the pandemic. The state charges a $40 application fee to get a new card and $40 to renew. Health insurance typically does not cover the Schedule 1 drug.
Still, Cook said staff at Intessa expect to see 80 to 90 patients this week.
“For the majority of our clientele, this is medicine,” Cook said.
Contact reporter Sarah Lehr at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGLehr.
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