The state agency responsible for Michigan's medical marijuana program says it is now in the final stages of assembling a review panel with the power to add new conditions and treatments to a list allowing qualified patients to legally use pot.
Officials from the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) believe the panel could be ready to start its work this fall, but Matthew Abel, a Detroit-based attorney specializing in marijuana law who also headed up a state petition drive to legalize pot earlier this year, wonders why it has taken them so long to put the board together.
In fact, Abel claims the agency is at least two years behind issuing recommendations on requests made to consider adding new conditions to the program.
"It'd be nice to think there is some movement, but we'll believe it when we see it," he said.
The Michigan Medical Marihuana Act of 2008 allows patients suffering from specific ailments such as cancer or Crohn's disease, as well as conditions or treatments that cause issues such as chronic pain, nausea and other designated symptoms, to take marijuana as medicine provided they have legitimate written certification from a doctor. The law also allows for other conditions to be added to the official list, a process that's supposed to be handled by the review board.
Anorexia, Parkinson's disease and post-traumatic stress disorder are three common conditions not specifically mentioned in Michigan's medical marijuana act that are covered by other states with similar programs.
According to a state statute that took effect in April 2009, a review panel is supposed to issue a recommendation to the department of community health within 60 days of a petition being received; the department's director is supposed to approve or deny a petition within 180 days of it being filed with the department.
Why has it taken LARA so long to put the panel together? Celeste Clarkson, who heads up the state's medical marijuana program, told The Huffington Post the agency had to finalize the language for petition forms and do the legwork necessary to assemble a fair and balanced panel. She also noted that for a time, the state lacked a chief medical officer.
Under the rules governing the medical marijuana program, the review panel is supposed to include Michigan's chief medical executive, an advisory committee on pain and symptom management and up to 15 board members. When The Huffington Post contacted the office of Michigan's Interim Chief Medical Executive Dean Sienko, spokeswoman Angela Minicuci said Sienko had no knowledge of the panel. She said he's been in the position over a year.
Rae Ramsdell, director of the Bureau of Health Professions with LARA, later acknowledged he had not yet been contacted.
"I have not approached Dean yet, because we were still trying to put the panel together, to finalize the paperwork [and] contact the people who contacted us," she said. "Since Dean is doing part-time work, I didn't want to burden him with this on top of what he was already doing until we were closer to starting the meetings."
Ramsdell said requests for new medical conditions were not received right away. She says the state's medical marijuana program, which is responsible for issuing registry identification cards to patients, was swamped with requests for cards.
In March of last year the program got bogged down with a substantial backlog after it received over 16,000 applications in one month. The agency had to purchase new equipment to keep up with the influx. As of last week, there was about a 14 to 21 day backlog for new cards and similar numbers for renewals. In total there are now approximately 160,000 registered patients in the state, according to the agency.
"The program grew so exponentially, quicker than we thought it would," said Ramsdell. "We were focused on trying to get the cards out without trying to add more conditions, and people were finding ways to get their cards regardless of what their conditions were."
According to Ramsdell, the agency has contacted those who had previously inquired about including new conditions in the marijuana program and sent them petition forms, but not many have responded. She said the forms would soon be available on LARA's website.
As for the status of the review board, Ramsdell said about 12 of the panel's 15 members have been chosen. She said she couldn't yet release any of their names.
For his part, Abel, the attorney, doesn't understand why the panel can't convene as it stands or why a chief medical executive was not appointed in a more timely manner.
"'We haven't filled the position, so we can't constitute the board,' that sounds like bureaucratic runaround to me," he said. Abel added that he's also had trouble accessing annual reports from the agency. Ramsdell said any information pertaining to annual reports could be obtained through her or LARA's Freedom of Information Act officer.