The mailed application wait times, which typically have been 20 to 30 days, have spiked as a result of January’s debut of the online registry. Pictured: High Level, a medical marijuana shop on Colfax Avenue in Denver. (Vince Chandler, Denver Post file)

Thousands of Colorado medical marijuana patients caught in registry backlog

Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Registry is in the thick of a six- to eight-week backlog for mailed applications for medical cannabis cards, affecting thousands of patients.

As of Thursday, the office was processing applications received by mail on Jan. 31, 2017. More than 6,000 pieces of mail remain in the hopper – including the 4,178 pieces of mail that arrived in February.

As the state switches over to an online application system, what amounts to a heavy workload for the registry’s limited processing crew is causing frustration among some within the state’s medical marijuana community.

“They can’t seem to get their act together in renewing people’s statuses,” said Rob Cagen, 70, of Fort Collins, whose medical marijuana card expired this week. “It seems crazy.”

The mailed application wait times, which typically have been 20 to 30 days, have spiked as a result of January’s debut of the online registry. And patients like Cagen, who was unable to register online, are having to wait as long as two months for their card.

“That’s a massive amount of time to wait for your doctor-recommended medicine,” said Brian Vicente, a partner with Vicente Sederberg, a law firm specializing in cannabis regulations. Vicente also is a director of Sensible Colorado, a medical marijuana patient advocacy group.

A key cardholder complaint: Medical marijuana patients can only complete the online application process if their recommending physician has applied online as well. State officials confirmed this is the case, citing the requirement is a function of the site.

Caregivers who grow plants for patients also are required to be registered online before a patient can list them in their application.

As of this week, 66 physicians were registered online. An estimated 600 physicians in the state recommend medical marijuana, state officials say.

Cagen, whose doctor had difficult accessing the site initially, mailed in his application this week and plans to wait it out.

“I’m in a way better situation than, I’m sure, a lot of other people are,” Cagen said.

The current situation is temporary, said Natalie Riggins, director of the Medical Marijuana Registry.

Two years in the making, the new online site is designed to be more robust, secure and expeditious — patients are receiving cards two to three days after applying online.

As of Tuesday, the registry had 21,176 patients active on the online system, representing roughly 20 percent of the total registry, Riggins said. And during the past weekend, the 500 people who submitted applications online received their cards by Monday.

A significant barrier to clearing the backlog has been wrangling the volume of calls and e-mails in addition to the applications, Riggins said.

The office has some advice for patients: The majority of the phone and e-mail queries are addressed on the registry’s website, Riggins said, adding that it’s highly recommended that people check the “frequently asked questions” page before calling or e-mailing the office.

“Once they get acclimated, that mail volume will drop and this system will allow for a much smoother process and will allow us to be much more efficient with how we process (applications),” she said.

For patients whose cards are up for renewal soon, according to the FAQ, “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.”

In January, the registry office received 11,538 total requests, of which 7,868 were pieces of mail and the remainder were e-mails, online submissions and phone calls requiring resolution beyond what the call center could provide, according to information provided by Mariah LaRue, spokeswoman for the medical marijuana registry.

In February the office received 13,227 requests, of which 4,178 were pieces of mail, LaRue said.

“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,” Riggins said.

The state office that processes those applications has staffed up to input the paper applications into the new system, manage what comes in electronically and answer the surge of queries about the process, Riggins said. The department recently hired five temporary employees, bringing its current processing staff to 12, and has plans to hire more.

The office’s budget, however, is limited.

“The registry is a cash revenue program and the only source of funding is the $15 application processing fee,” LaRue said via e-mail. “We do not receive any legislative funding or tax-based funding. The program is sustained strictly off of the revenue brought in by the $15 application fee.

“Like all fee-based programs in Colorado, we are self-sustaining based on our fee revenue.”

Year-to-date, the registry’s revenue totaled $953,499 for the fiscal year that ends on June 30. Expenditures were just shy of $1.2 million, LaRue said.

Patients will be able to submit paper applications through the end of the year; the registry moves fully online in 2018.

Updated March 16, 2017 at 2:10 p.m. Clarification: Because of an editor’s error, previous versions of this story included information that inaccurately described the Colorado Medical Marijuana Registry’s funding. The $15 patient application fee is the sole source.