Sometimes it takes some personal experience to recognize a policy problem. My experience securing a medical marijuana card has convinced me that the system we’ve set up in Pennsylvania is bad public policy. It is in many ways hypocritical; it is biased against those with low incomes and, most likely, people of color; and it fails as a way to undermine the illegal distribution of marijuana. It’s time to move to full legalization of recreational marijuana. And it is also time to follow President Biden’s lead and pardon all people convicted of simple marijuana possession.
I’ve suffered from spine problems for much of my life and just recently had my fourth spinal surgery and third in the cervical spine. Prior to this last surgery, my doctor suggested that I try medical marijuana, which has ingredients that are known to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
So I went online to figure out how to get a medical marijuana card. There is plenty of information about that, however, most of the online links take you to a website for one of the medical marijuana dispensaries, all of which appear to be part of multi-state chains.
Those websites lead one through the process of registering with the state, finding a doctor who is an “approved practitioner” to obtain the necessary certification, and then submitting the certification and paying a fee to the state.
It’s when one seeks approval from a doctor that the nature of the system becomes clear. The first oddity is that appointments for a phone call with one of the approved practitioners are often early in the morning or late at night. Why? Because the doctors who do this work appear to be mostly moonlighting—that is doing some off-hours work to pick up additional income.
And the second oddity is that when one actually gets on a call with one of these doctors, all one needs to do is report some medical condition that is sometimes treated by cannabis or one of its derivatives. There is no need to submit any doctor or hospital reports or notes that substantiate that one has any medical condition at all.
In my case, the doctor asked me no questions at all designed to substantiate my claim. The entire process took less than five minutes.
It is conceivable that I didn’t get any questions because I am an older white man who is familiar with medical language and described my medical condition as a “cervical radiculopathy.” It occurred to me that a younger Black man who talked about “pain in his shoulder and arm” might have been asked a few more questions.
We have not yet secured any data about how often requests for medical approval for a marijuana card are denied and whether there are any racial and economic distinctions in approval rates.
Even without such data, however, it is quite clear that the medical certification process is essentially a farce. Most likely, almost anyone who seeks approval can secure it. All one has to do to get a card is pay the required $75 or $99. (And, if some people are denied, I’d bet that rates of approval vary with age and race, which is discriminatory.)
And that raises the question of why we have this process at all, considering there are obviously a few things wrong with it.
First, the process of applying for a medical marijuana card creates an economic barrier for those with low incomes, both because of the cost of securing medical certification and the $50 fee to the state.
Second, the necessity of having a state and doctor-approved medical marijuana card almost certainly increases the cost of medical marijuana dispensaries that have to institute a fairly rigorous check-in process. And this no doubt increases the costs of medical marijuana and leads to many people procuring marijuana for medical uses from the black market.
Third, the medical marijuana process creates privacy issues. Why should the state of Pennsylvania need to have a record of who uses marijuana? Medical records are, in general, private. Why should this one be any different?
(Another problem that I separate because we can’t solve it with any change in state policies is that the medical marijuana process creates issues for people who seek to own a gun. The use of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania remains a violation of federal law. And under federal law, a user of marijuana is not permitted to purchase or acquire firearms or a license to carry them.)
Our clunky, unfair, and intrusive medical marijuana system was a step forward for our state. But now that we see it in action, it’s time to move past it and make recreational cannabis a legal reality in Pennsylvania. As we pointed out in a policy paper last year, the legalization of recreational marijuana would create jobs and raise substantial revenues—an estimated $581 million a year in Pennsylvania. If done properly—and again we recommend using state liquor stores to dispense it—it would at the same time undercut illegal marijuana sales and reduce wasteful spending on policing and the courts.
And it would set the stage for pardoning all the people in our state and local prisons who should never have been imprisoned for the possession of marijuana.