Updated on January 25, 2019.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Over the last several years, marijuana’s stigma has begun to erode, and it has increased in popularity amongst state lawmakers who are now adopting broad legislation regarding recreational and medicinal use — 29 states and the District of Columbia now have laws regarding marijuana usage.
In early 2016, Pennsylvania became one of the states to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana. Approval in Pennsylvania stemmed from studies showing medical marijuana can assist patients suffering from illness and alleviate their pain, improving their overall quality of life.
Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program went live on November 1, 2017, and more than 3,800 patients and 200 caregivers signed up during the first week. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and the state’s Department of Health has been registering about three people per minute, on average.
In early 2018, patients will begin receiving their state-issued ID cards that allow them to purchase weed from dispensaries.
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS): Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is a neurodegenerative condition that reduces the brain’s ability to control muscle movement by attacking nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain. Cannabis may reduce the effects of ALS, and patients have reported weed has reduced their symptoms, increased their appetite and alleviated their depression and pain.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Pennsylvania is the first state to include autism as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis. Autism Spectrum Disorder is developed within the first three years of a person’s life and typically affects communication and social skills. Anecdotal accounts state weed can help regulate moods, reduce aggression and help with sleep.
Cancer: Weed’s active agents, cannabinoids, help to stimulate the user’s appetite and minimize nausea and vomiting, which are common symptoms cancer patients experience due to their treatments.
HIV/AIDS: Like cancer, cannabis can reduce nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite caused by the HIV/AIDS and its treatment.
Crohn’s Disease/Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): There is currently no cure for Crohn’s disease, but studies show patients have improved after the use of marijuana.
Epilepsy and Seizures: Many researchers have discovered weed usage reduces the frequency and severity of seizures in patients.
Glaucoma: Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness in the United States. Patients found weed can reduce pressure, relieve pain and slow the progression of the disease.
Multiple Sclerosis, or Damage to the Nervous Tissue of the Spinal Cord: Clinical trials revealed patients using the plant or extract saw a reduction in muscle stiffness, pain and spasticity.
Parkinson’s Disease: Patients who used marijuana reported less severe symptoms such as rigidity, tremors and pain.
Severe Pain and Neuropathies: Prescription medications and other treatments may relieve some discomfort, but other types of pain can be resistant. By using different forms of weed, some patients have reported experiencing less pain.
Sickle Cell Anemia: Sickle cells are irregularly shaped blood cells that block flow, causing pain and fatigue in patients. Like other diseases that cause pain, medical marijuana can curb those side effects.
Terminal Illness: After enduring the pain and fatigue from treatments, weed products can provide terminal patients with an increased quality of life by alleviating pain, wasting and sleep problems.
How Patients Receive Medical Marijuana
If you’re in Pennsylvania and would like to join the medical marijuana program, follow these steps:
Identify that you have one of the 17 qualifying medical conditions
Register for the Medical Marijuana Program at http://www.marijuana.pa.com
Visit your physician to become certified for the program
Complete your registration by paying for a medical marijuana card
Find a Pennsylvania medical marijuana dispensary near you
Products available at your local dispensary include vape cartridges, oils, tinctures and lotions. Smokeable forms of marijuana are not protected under Pennsylvania state law and can’t be sold in dispensaries.
While patient interest in Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program is relatively high, a growing concern for those involved is that physician interest is still quite low. Of the 57,670 registered physicians in the state, only about 200 are part of the program to recommend medical cannabis, making the ratio of patients to physicians 38:1.
For the state’s medical marijuana program to be successful, more physicians will have to complete the four-hour training course. Without physicians to recommend cannabis cards, patients can’t get access to dispensaries. In the past, other states with similar initiatives have had slow starts, due in part to low marketing efforts.
Current Prescriber Concerns
However, if patients are so enthusiastic about obtaining medical marijuana, then why is physician participation still so low state-wide?
Practitioners’ concerns stem from several factors, including:
The federal government still considers marijuana illegal
Because the drug enforcement administration still views all marijuana products as Schedule I substances, doctors can’t use their prescription pads to prescribe weed. CBD, the non-psychoactive substance derived from marijuana that helps treat seizures and anxiety, is even included in the Schedule I substance category.
A similar shortage of prescribers was an issue for the state of New York, which has a medical marijuana program similar to Pennsylvania’s. After two years, the state still couldn’t raise physician participation enough. To combat the sparse numbers, New York expanded its definition of a medical marijuana prescriber to include nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Perhaps Pennsylvania will have to implement a similar strategy to ensure prescribers can meet the patient demand.
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