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Doctors and dispensaries may not advertise participation in PA’s medical marijuana program but they can educate the public.

Despite some serious concerns caused by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to abandon the Cole Memo guidelines for how the Department of Justice would treat state medical and recreational marijuana programs, the legal state programs are continuing to move forward. There is simple too much demand, interest, and money involved in the marijuana industry to put the genie back in the bottle.

Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program is set to begin in full this year. To date, the Pennsylvania Department of Health has approved 10 grower/processors to begin operations and three dispensaries. The demand and interest is evident and hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Program. Given the substantial investment in the program, you would think it would be a high priority to notify and educate interested patients on how to participate in the program. However, Pennsylvania law prohibits growers/processors and dispensaries from advertising or promoting themselves.

Moreover, certified doctors are prohibited from advertising their services to write cannabis recommendations. As marijuana is still illegal under federal law, doctors cannot prescribe medical marijuana but may write recommendations under state law. There are over 14,000 patients who have registered but only 2,300 have been certified by doctors. Additionally, physicians continued to register to participate in the program with over 625 registered, of which 326 have been certified by the state.

Given the level of interest and investment, one would think it would be a priority to notify patients on how they can participate in the program, to identify doctors who can recommend medical marijuana and to list where it can legally be purchased. Certified doctors and dispensaries are listed on the Department of Health’s website but the Department of Health has no budget for advertising the program. The Pennsylvania Department of Health believes that all the information a patient will need is on the state’s website.

Dispensaries and doctors must get creative. Under the law, there is no prohibition against educating the public about the medical marijuana program. Dispensaries and doctors can post educational blogs, youtube videos, and/or devote sections of their websites to informing people of the program. Use social media to promote the program itself but do not advertise. So long as there is no direct advertisement or publication of their participation in the medical marijuana program, participants in the program should not run afoul of the law. Instead, they may direct any prospective patients to the Department of Health’s website where the certified doctors and approved dispensaries are legally listed. Certified doctors and approved dispensaries will have to thread the needle until the law changes.

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Pennsylvania’s Department of Health sets up a Physician’s Work Group to aid in the implementation of the Medical Marijuana Program.

On Tuesday, July 19, 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Health took another step forward in the implementation of the state’s Medical Marijuana Act by establishing a Physician’s Work Group.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health, Dr. Karen Murphy, in an announcement from the DOH, said, “We have started working closely with physician groups to disseminate important information, and have formed a physician workgroup to ensure continued communication and feedback on the program and its implementation. Physicians and their medical expertise are crucial to the success of Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program, and we will continue to engage them throughout the process to ensure their medical expertise is heard on behalf of patients.”

It is important for the implementation of Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Act to assist physicians and/or practitioners in the process. Under Section 401 of the Act, in order for a physician to issue certifications to patients for the use of medical marijuana, the physician must apply for registration, be determined by the DOH to be qualified to treat the defined 17 “serious medical conditions”, and complete the four hour training course under section 301(a)(6). Once the application is approved, the physician and/or practitioner will be placed in the registry and subject to annual review. The physician will also be required to adhere to the regulations established by the DOH for physicians and/or practitioners listed on the registry. Obviously, it is crucial to the implementation of Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program to have a sufficient number physicians to certify patients.

Some states with medical marijuana programs have had difficulties finding enough physicians who are willing to prescribe medical marijuana. I previously wrote in my blog, Will Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Act Get Doc Blocked, about the reluctance of physicians in Minnesota to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program. For various reasons more fully discussed in my blog, Minnesota physicians were not eager to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program. Because there was initially too few physicians in Minnesota who were willing to participate, it was difficult for patients to be certified.

Secretary Murphy states that the DOH is being very thoughtful and thorough in its approach to developing and implementing the states medical marijuana program. It also helps to be able to learn from other state’s medical programs to avoid any pitfalls experienced in the initial start up these programs.

The first Medical Marijuana Physician Workgroup will be convened within the next few weeks. Participants will include:

Allegheny Health Network
Geisinger Health System
Penn State Health
Port Allegany Health Center
Temple University Health Systems
The Lehigh Valley Health Network
Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals
University of Pennsylvania – Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine
University of Pittsburgh Medical Center
The Commonwealth Medical College
Pennsylvania Academy of Family Physicians
Pennsylvania Chapter – American Academy of Pediatrics
Pennsylvania Medical Society

The DOH will also release a survey to help in the development of temporary regulations for physicians. Additional information can be obtained at the DOH’s website.

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