New Report Evaluates Medical Marijuana Programs Nation-wide

State lawmakers now have the tools they need to improve medical cannabis programs to truly meet the needs of the patients they are meant to serve.
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Patient Advocates Hope Report will Help State Legislators “Make the Grade” in 2016

With the recent release of the Americans for Safe Access (ASA) report “Medical Marijuana Access in the US: A Patient-Focused Analysis of the Patchwork of State Laws,” state lawmakers now have the tools they need to improve medical cannabis programs to truly meet the needs of the patients they are meant to serve.

The report evaluates the array of differing laws across the country from a patient's perspective by using a point system to grade each medical marijuana law on: 1) patients' rights and protection from discrimination, 2) access to medicine, 3) ease of navigation, 4) functionality, and 5) product safety protocols. The report concludes that while many states have important elements helpful to patients, no state has yet established an ideal, comprehensive program.

Letter-grades for all 23 state laws and Washington, D.C.: Alaska (D-), Arizona (B-), California (B+), Colorado (B), Connecticut (C+), Delaware (C), Hawaii (B), Illinois (B+), Maine (B-), Maryland (B), Massachusetts (B), Michigan (D+), Minnesota (C), Montana (D-), Nevada (B), New Hampshire (C), New Jersey (C), New Mexico (B+), New York (C), Oregon (B), Rhode Island (C-), Vermont (D+), Washington (B), and the District of Columbia (C).

Generally speaking, the legal landscape for medical cannabis patients at the state level continues to improve. Twenty three states and the District of Columbia have now legalized medical cannabis, and seventeen other states have some limited form of medical cannabis laws. More states are adopting some level of legal protections, there have been tremendous advancements in product safety regulations, and state program administrators have demonstrated a commitment to making their medical cannabis programs work best for their states.

One example is California, which passed several new bills in 2015 to enhance the medical cannabis program. One such bill is a potentially life saving measure introduced by Assemblymember Marc Levine which protects medical cannabis patients from being excluded from the organ transplant waiting list. Without this protection, the consequences are likely to be devastating - even fatal -for patients like Tamra Howard. The fifty-one year old mother and grandmother suffers from renal kidney failure. She says, “Medical cannabis gives me an appetite and keeps me from being depressed.” As a transplant candidate, Tamra was relieved when her advocacy efforts paid off and in July, 2015, Governor Brown approved the measure. Tamra is currently on the transplant list, and able to use her medicine without fear of losing her spot on the list.

The biggest news in medical cannabis trends is the emergence of comprehensive product safety regulations. A number states -- including Illinois, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Washington -- have adopted the best practice regulations and standards set forth by the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA). In addition to the AHPA Recommendations for Regulators, states are also incorporating the laboratory testing standards set forth in the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia Cannabis Inflorescence Monograph. These authoritative, expert standards mean states no longer a need to omit these protocols or “reinvent the wheel” for medical cannabis product safety regulations. This trend is a positive and necessary evolution of a maturing industry.

This is good news for patients, who are often medically fragile and require access to consistently safe medicine. Maryland’s comprehensive safety standards mean that Maryland resident Emily Mcardle can look forward to the highest quality medical marijuana for her identical twins Caitlyn and Riley once that program starts. Caitlyn and Riley were both diagnosed with autism at the age of three. Now five, Riley is still non-verbal, has sensory issues, and is unable to attend school. While Caitlyn is in school, she is semi-verbal and also suffers from ADHD and hyperactivity. Both girls have been on numerous medications that have helped with some of their issues, but Emily worries about the lack of long-term testing on these pharmaceuticals, particularly on pediatric patients. With the Natalie M. LaPrade Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission’s adoption of new stringent safety regulations, Emily said she is, “Extremely interested and excited to try medical cannabis with her girls to see if it can help with sensory issues, sleep and other issues associated with autism and ADHD.”

2015 was the first year since the first medical cannabis states were passed that states could move forward with the implementation of their medical cannabis laws without the fear of federal interference thanks to the passage of the Rohrabacher-Farr Medical Marijuana Amendment in December 2014. The report shows that not only are the state programs working more effectively for patients, but are also governed by robust regulations that meet the enforcement guidelines set by many federal agencies including Department of Justice (DOJ). This a great signal for federal lawmakers who are considering supporting legislation like the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act (CARERS) of 2015 (S.683) introduced by Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NJ), and Rand Paul (R-KY) and the House companion bill, CARERS Act of 2015 (H.R. 1538) introduced in by Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Don Young (R-AK). Passing the CARERS Act would allow states to continue meeting the needs of the millions of Americans who are helped by medical cannabis and would ensure that programs would not be interrupted by the next administration.

The possibility of losing access, or fearing federal prosecution for taking a medicine your state has given you the right to take, is frightening to patients who are already often dealing with debilitating illnesses. Patients like Jeanne Sauro who has fought hard for her right to take medical cannabis in her home state of Massachusetts. Jeanne, a now medical cannabis activist, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2013. She completed treatment in 2014, and although she survived cancer, the medicines they used to treat her left her with chronic and excruciating bone pain. She began taking cannabis and according to her, “The result was miraculous, and the pain disappeared.” Thanks to Governor Charlie Baker who pushed to get dispensaries open more quickly in the state in 2015, there are now four dispensaries operating in the state, and Jeanne no longer has to travel to Maine to purchase her medicine illegally. Unfortunately, patients like Jeanne and state programs could lose the gains they have made if protections, like the CARERS Act are not put into place at the federal level.

ASA hopes that state legislators and regulators will use the report to identify what is working and pinpoint the gaps in service and protections that are important from a patient's standpoint. In addition, the report should drive home for federal lawmakers, like Sen. Chuck Grassley, that state program administrators have demonstrated a commitment to protecting medical cannabis patients, and making their medical cannabis programs work safely and efficiently in accordance with many federal guidelines and regulations. Senator Grassley’s support for CARERS is particularly important right now, because the bill must get a hearing in his Senate Judiciary Committee before being adopted by the full body.

If you are interested in moving the CARERS Act forward, please contact Sen. Chuck Grassley’s office (202) 224-3744), and ask him to please give the CARERS Act a hearing. Sign and share the petition here.

If you’d like to learn more about the report from ASA Executive Director, Steph Sherer and Director of Government Affairs, Mike Liszewski and hear some patient stories, join our Google Hangout: Thursday, February 4th at 6:00 pm EST.

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