Delaware’s medical marijuana law continues to be a work in progress. A recent change mandating a real-time patient registry under the Division of Public Health, means patients will be allowed to purchase medicine at any state-licensed compassion center when Sussex and Kent dispensaries open in 2017.
“That’s the American way,” said Debra Nau, executive director for a medical marijuana advocacy group called the Delaware Patient Network and a medical marijuana patient from New Castle County. “Not everybody is happy shopping in the same place. As the new ones open up, I might find I like the [compassion center] in Kent County more.”
Up until now, it didn’t matter in which of Delaware’s three counties a medical marijuana patient lived, because Wilmington-based First State Compassion Center was the only option. That is going to change. Dispensaries in Sussex and Kent counties mean patients from those counties will soon be spared the hassle of driving to Wilmington for their medicine.
The real-time registry, whose requirement went into effect Nov. 29, means patients from Sussex County who happen to be in Wilmington can buy their medicine there should they choose to.
Nau said competition is desperately needed in Delaware to help control costs. It will give patients some diversity, she said.
“It will keep First State on their toes,” she said.
Delaware’s medical marijuana law allows patients to purchase up to three ounces of marijuana in a 14-day period. As originally crafted, the law placed responsibility for tracking patient purchases squarely on the shoulders of dispensaries – easy enough when there’s one company running one compassion center.
That changes with three locations and two companies. In September, New York-based Columbia Care, which has dispensaries in California, Arizona, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., was announced as the winning bidder to open Kent County's first medical marijuana dispensary. Then in October, the state announced First State as the winner of the contract for a dispensary in Sussex County. First State opened its Wilmington-based dispensary and growing operation in June 2015.
Tracking purchases is an issue raised nearly a year ago by Joel Allcock, vice president of cultivation for First State Compassion Center, during a mandatory pre-bid meeting for companies interested in bidding for the future Kent and Sussex dispensaries.
During that meeting, Dawn Brubaker, a medical marijuana program administrator, said one possibility was restricting patients to the dispensary in the county where they live. Ultimately, however, that never materialized.
Before any issue with patient choice arose, the law was changed with the July 1 passage of House Bill 400, which mandates the Department of Health and Social Services institute a real-time statewide patient registry to track purchases. Gov. Jack Markell signed the bill in August, and it went into effect 90 days later.
In addition to the real-time registry, the bill addressed a number of issues in the state’s medical marijuana law. It adds terminal illness in adults as a qualifying condition, and it expands Senate Bill 90, known as Rylie’s Law, by classifying pain, anxiety, or depression, if related to a terminal illness, as qualifying conditions in patients under age 18, who are currently restricted to using marijuana-based oils.
Those in charge of the compassion centers say they’re on board with the registry.
Mark Lally, First State Compassion Center president, said he is in favor of the registry.
“The ability for patients to purchase at any state–licensed facility is good for the patients of Delaware,” he said in a prepared statement Nov. 30.
Columbia Care CEO Nicholas Vita said he supported the change.
“Providing patient access by allowing more choices and flexibility on where to make their purchases should be everyone’s priority," he said in a prepared statement Dec. 1.
The Division of Public Health runs the medical marijuana program for the state and, said Andrea Wojcik, division spokeswoman, it issued a request for proposals to administer the registry in May. The deadline to respond was July 14, and the division received five bids, she said.
Wojcik said contract negotiations are ongoing with the selected vendor. She said officials hope to complete negotiations by year’s end.
That time frame doesn’t leave much wiggle room for software installation and training for First State, slated to open the first of the two new compassion centers in January. Columbia Care isn’t expected to open their Kent County facility until the second half of 2017.
The state has taken this into account. Because First State is opening first, said Wojcik, the computer systems are already linked and residents of Kent will be able to choose which compassion center to purchase from.
In the end, the change is about providing patients with the best options, Nau said, and she’s looking forward to exercising her right to choose.
“[The state] knows patients aren’t necessarily happy with the option they have now,” she said. “I can’t wait for Columbia Care to open their doors.”