Two new studies published by the journal JAMA Internal Medicine link legal marijuana with fewer opioid prescriptions. (Thinkstock / Getty Images)

Colorado lawmakers urge governor to step in on medical marijuana registry backlog

Three Colorado legislators are calling on Gov. John Hickenlooper to intervene in the state’s medical marijuana registry backlog, an issue that one lawmaker says is a matter of “life and death.”

In the letter sent to the governor Friday, Democratic representatives Jovan Melton, Adrienne Benavidez and Steve Lebsock expressed their disappointment with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, saying “there is no excuse” for the Medical Marijuana Registry’s six- to eight-week backlog for mailed applications for medical cannabis cards.

“Without medical marijuana cards, our Colorado patients are unable to get the medicine they need,” the legislators wrote. “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.”

The letter was carbon copied to Dr. Larry Wolk, CDPHE executive director.

The mailed application wait times, which typically hover around 35 days, spiked as a result of the state’s Jan. 1 implementation of a new online registry. Additionally, the Medical Marijuana Registry’s staff was swamped with calls and e-mails about the transition that compounded the delays, registry program manager Natalie Riggins told The Cannabist last week.

Registry officials are encouraging patients to register online, where they can receive their card in two to three business days after correctly submitting required documentation. As of this week, 23,000 medical marijuana patients, more than 20 percent of registry patients, are using the online system, according to CDPHE.

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

One issue that cardholders have had with the new online system is that in order to complete the process electronically, their recommending physician needs to be registered online as well. State officials said the requirement is a function of the site.

Lebsock, D-Thornton, received some calls about the backlog from constituents earlier this month, but didn’t know the extent of the delays until reading The Cannabist’s report.

“That just kind of put my feet to the fire and think, ‘We really do need to contact the governor,'” he said Friday. “It’s just not right for patients to literally wait for months to get their medicine.”

Lebsock said he would want the governor to pick up the phone, call Wolk and instruct him to have CDPHE prioritize this issue. From there, Lebsock asks CDPHE to identify the hangups and solve the problems.

As of Friday, the registry office was processing mailed applications received on Feb. 9, 2017.

Riggins told The Cannabist last week that she expected the registry to return to the 35-day turnaround for mailed applications by the mid-April, if not by the end of this month.

CDPHE officials, in an announcement made Monday, said that goal would be met by March 31.

When reached by The Cannabist on Friday, CDPHE spokesman Mark Salley referenced Monday’s announcement and a March 3 statement about the hiring of temporary staff.

“It is unfortunate there has been a processing backlog, and frustrating for patients in the registry or those applying for the registry,” Salley said via e-mail. “I personally received about 15 phone calls, so I know of the patients’ frustration. I have been assured by a week from today the backlog should be cleared.”

Hickenlooper was traveling and unavailable Friday for comment. Officials at the governor’s office referred queries to CDPHE.

Lebsock said getting back to a 35-day waiting period doesn’t go far enough. Medical marijuana patients should be able to receive their recommended medicine within days — not weeks and months.

“This is literally life and death for some people,” he said.