New Online Application System Causes Major Backlog for Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Users

Written by: Margot Carmichael

Colorado is typically considered one of the best states for medical marijuana patients. Both medical and recreational marijuana are legal, access to the drug is considered plentiful, there are dispensaries on just about every block, and patients facing financial hardship can enjoy discounted prices on their medical marijuana. But lately, medical marijuana users in Colorado are experiencing frustration, rather than elation, when it comes to registering for their medical marijuana cards.

As the state switches over to an online application system for obtaining a medical marijuana card, thousands of patients are experiencing excessively long wait times. Natalie Riggins, director of the Medical Marijuana Registry, assures patients that the “current situation is temporary.” But with no specific end date in sight for when this issue with be resolved, the Medical Marijuana Registry’s backlog is such a disaster Colorado legislators are calling on the Governor for help.

They recently wrote in a letter to Governor John Hickenlooper, “Without medical marijuana cards, our Colorado patients are unable to get the medicine they need. Emphysema patients, cancer patients, children with epilepsy and many others have been adversely (affected) by the department’s neglectful disregard for patients. We urge you to get personally involved to correct this injustice.”

Registration Basics

The process of registering for a medical marijuana card in Colorado is fairly straightforward – at least, it used to be. When a patient is prescribed medical marijuana by their doctor, they must register with the state of Colorado to receive a card identifying them as a medical marijuana patient.

In addition to registering for a card, their prescription must also specify the number of plants that are required to serve each patient’s dosage needs. All this information is then documented with the state and remains in effect for one year. After the year is up, patients are required to re-register if they need to continue their medical marijuana treatment.

For medical marijuana growers and transporters, referred to as Caregivers, the process is similar. Caregivers must also register with the state in order to receive a medical marijuana card that identifies them as a grower or transporter.

Until recently, the only way to apply for a medical marijuana card was by sending an application through the mail. Patients who did so could generally expect a turnaround time of about 20 to 30 days. Unfortunately, with the current backlog in the Medical Marijuana Registry’s office, patients who mail mailing in applications today might expect to wait anywhere from six to eight weeks. Even for those who are simply trying to renew their medical marijuana cards are experiencing the same frustrating delays.

Over 94,000 medical marijuana users currently registered in Colorado. For patients using medical marijuana to treat things like chronic pain, lack of appetite, MS, or epilepsy, two months of waiting for relief can feel like a very long time.

Brian Vicente, a partner with Vicente Sederberg, a law firm specializing in cannabis regulations, says “That’s a massive amount of time to wait for your doctor-recommended medicine.”

As of now, the Medical Marijuana Registry is processing applications that they received in January 2017, meaning that the 4,178 applications received in February 2017 are not likely to be processed anytime soon.

All of this prompts the question, why exactly is this happening and is there any hope for a solution in the near future?

Understanding the Backlog

It’s not hard to understand why the Medical Marijuana Registry decided to shift from a mail-in application process to a fully online system. After all, the world we live in today is largely based in technology, and just about everything can be done more easily online.

Designed to be faster and more secure, the new online application system will be a major improvement to the mail-in application process – once the backlog of mail-in applications is resolved, of course.

So, what’s causing this massive hold-up?

Officials from the Medical Marijuana Registry explain that the backlog in applications is a result of each individual mailed-in application having to be manually entered into the new online system. And with a current processing staff of only 12 people, entering thousands of applications takes time.

In addition to processing thousands of mailed-in applications, the Medical Marijuana Registry is struggling to manage the high volume of phone calls and emails that they are receiving about the new website.

In an effort to help reduce the number of calls and emails the office receives, they have advised patients to check the ‘frequently asked questions’ page on the site before calling or emailing.

The office also recommends that patients who have mailed-in their applications but are tired of the waiting game, try going online and registering again, regardless of their mailed-in application. If they’re approved, patients can expect to have their medical marijuana card in as little as three days.

But that’s a big ‘if’.

This is because medical marijuana users can only complete the online application process if their prescribing doctor has applied online as well.

And with only 66 physicians registered online and over 600 physicians prescribing medical marijuana in the state, many patients are being forced to wait for their mailed-in applications to go through.

For those lucky enough to have doctors registered online, the online system has truly expedited the entire process. Just last weekend, 500 applicants applied online and were pleased to receive their medical marijuana cards by Monday.

And some advice for those patients whose registration is coming due, the Medical Marijuana Registry’s recommendation is to register online, but to wait until 30 days before the old card expires.

Since the Medical Marijuana Registry will only accept mail-in application through the end of 2017, eventually everyone will be able to enjoy the speediness of the new online system.

Understanding the New System

With new systems and processes, often come new rules and regulations. In this instances, the changes mostly apply to caregivers and transporters.

Gone are the days when caregivers or transporters could easily get away with faking patient registration data. Caregivers who grow medical marijuana must now register the location of their cultivation operation with the state, and they must document the registration numbers of the patients that they grow for. Similarly, transporting caregivers will need to list the registration numbers for each of the patients they transport for as well as listing the total number of plants prescribed and the total number of ounces that the caregiver is authorized to transport for each patient.

Aside from the new rules and regulations for caregivers, online applicant’s will face a slightly different registration process. For example, online applicants will need to attach their doctor’s certification document to their application but the doctor must enter this information before it will be available for the patient to view.

As far as any other questions or concerns that new users may have, the FAQ section of the Colorado state government website offers a comprehensive overview of the entire registration process. There is even a short instructional video that walks patient’s through every field that must be filled out on the application.

The FAQ section also addresses concerns for those looking to renew their medical marijuana cards but are unsure how to go about it in the most efficient way, “Existing patients should wait to register in the new system until it is time to renew their annual medical marijuana card up to 30 days prior to your card expiring.”

Between the FAQ section on the website and the user-friendly application, medical marijuana patients can look forward to a much easier process in the future of applying for or renewing their medical marijuana cards. Moreover, the online system is expected to be a more secure and patient-friendly system, overall. The real issue is having enough patience to get there.

A Positive Outlook

Though the backlog of applications and extreme wait times that medical marijuana users are currently experiencing is undoubtedly frustrating, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Natalie Riggins, director of the Medical Marijuana Registry, says, “Looking at our upcoming mail volume, we’re pretty confident that by next month at this time, if not by the end of this month, we will be back to a 35-day turnaround by mail.”

Once the backlog of applications is under control, it should be smooth sailing for medical marijuana users in the future. As more people begin using the online system, most applications will be processed automatically and patients can look forward to a more secure and significantly faster process when it comes to registering for or renewing their medical marijuana cards.

Plus, the new online system will provide more clarity about how the medical marijuana cultivation ecosystem is working in the state which will be useful for predicting shortages or proactively encouraging an enhanced cultivation system.

It’s safe to say that the shift to a new online system for medical marijuana users has not been without bumps but most are confident that it will all be worth it when users start to receive their medical marijuana cards faster and more securely than ever before.

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