Pennsylvania May Expand List of Qualifying Conditions for Medical Marijuana

Will Pennsylvania expand the list of qualifying conditions beyond the current 21?
Pennsylvania May Expand List of Qualifying Conditions for Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania may soon expand its list of serious medical conditions that qualify a patient to use cannabis medicinally, according to a spokesman from the state Department of Health. The Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Advisory Board approved a process for amending the list of qualifying conditions at a meeting last month, spokesman Nate Wardell told reporters.

Within weeks, the board will begin accepting research-based petitions to add additional conditions to the list, which currently includes cancer, chronic pain, terminal illness, and 18 others. The board has tentative plans to discuss and vote on the initial round of applications at its next meeting on February 1.

Dr. Roxanne Rick treats chronic pain and addiction with cannabis as an alternative to opioids. She said that people in the state have already been self-medicating for other medical issues with cannabis.

“Pennsylvanians have been using marijuana illicitly for years to treat a wide variety of conditions not on the state list,” Rick said.

More Patients Could Benefit from Cannabis

Dr. Elizabeth Spaar treats patients with autism, addiction, and autoimmune diseases. She said her practice consults with patients she believes are good candidates for cannabis therapies but don’t qualify under current regulations.

“We definitely do get people calling us who we know would benefit from the medical marijuana, but they don’t fall into those 21 slots,” said Spaar.

“Anxiety is a common one,” she added. “It’s pretty well-established that marijuana is very helpful for treating anxiety, but it is not a qualifying condition, and so if they don’t have another qualifying condition to go along with it, we can’t offer it to them, which is extremely frustrating. In particular, I would really love to see anxiety, depression, and ADHD added.”

Spaar said that she would also like to see autism added to Pennsylvania’s list of qualifying conditions.

“There are a lot of states where autism parents have been working very hard to get it included on the list and have not been successful, so we are fortunate in that,” Spaar said. “It’s extremely helpful for the aggression and rage that those kids can get, it’s also very helpful for obsessing …They tend to have a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety, and when they’re able to calm a lot of that down, they tend to make progress and develop mentally.”

Spaar is also using cannabis to treat opioid addiction instead of commonly used drugs that are themselves opioids.

“With the opioid dependence patients, we’ve certainly had patients who were on methadone or suboxone who have been able to get off of those and purely have medical marijuana,” Spaar said. “We’ve had others going straight off opiates with the medical marijuana, because it does help with the full gamut of withdrawal symptoms, and they’ve just reported a significant improvement in the quality of life.”

Doctors Want to Decide

Spaar said that she would like to be able to make the decision on which patients might benefit from cannabis, rather than relying on a state-mandated list of qualifying conditions.

“I would love if it if they would recognize the autonomy in medical decision-making of a physician instead of placing restraints on us,” Spaar said.

Dr. John Metcalf, the medical director of cannabis clinic Releaf Specialists, agreed that doctors should be making decisions about medical marijuana, not legislators.

“It makes sense to me that a patient’s personal physician should be able to review the research and the diagnosis with the patient to make the decision of whether it’s a viable treatment option for them or not,” Metcalf said.

But he also welcomed the addition of new qualifying conditions in Pennsylvania.

“As we expand the list, that’s to the benefit of the patient,” said Metcalf.

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