Utah cannabis patients may be able to use physician letters at pot pharmacies

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file) Dragonfly Wellness becomes the first of Utah's 14 medical cannabis pharmacies to open for business in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 2, 2020.

Utah patients could use their cannabis recommendation letters to buy from marijuana pharmacies through the year’s end, under an anticipated legislative proposal meant to alleviate problems that have surfaced in the state’s new pot program.

While the state celebrated the grand opening of its first cannabis pharmacy in Salt Lake City earlier this week, the new business has had one major challenge — a dearth of customers. Connor Boyack, a cannabis advocate, said that’s due in part to glitches with the online portal that’s supposed to help patients sign up for medical marijuana cards.

“This is an entirely new industry launching in Utah,” Boyack said Wednesday. “And the second thing is, this is a brand new software. ... So patients need to be patient. And it’s to be expected that we would have kinks.”

The proposed solution, he said, is to make physician recommendation letters — which have granted temporary legal protection to cannabis patients while the state has been building its full program — to suffice at marijuana pharmacies for the rest of 2020. That way, patients have months to apply for their more permanent cannabis cards, and the state has time to work out the bugs in its system, he says.

If the Legislature approves the idea in coming days, patients will be able to bring their letters into cannabis pharmacies and buy the plant-based treatment, after an employee calls the listed doctor to validate the recommendation.

Boyack, founder of the libertarian Libertas Institute, said he met this morning with representatives of Dragonfly Wellness, the new cannabis pharmacy, and some physicians involved in the program to discuss the proposed changes.

“This, at least, gives a lot more flexibility and an easier transition,” Boyack said.

The state has issued 66 cannabis cards to patients so far, according to the Utah Department of Health. However, a number of patients have reportedly encountered challenges in navigating the online application process, said Desiree Hennessy, director of the Utah Patients Coalition.

Hennessy said about 200 patients poured into Dragonfly Wellness on Tuesday, and the pharmacy had to turn away all but one of them. The other 199 or so presented letters of recommendation from their medical providers, incorrectly thinking that would suffice, Hennessy said.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Lien Nguyen stocks the shelves as Dragonfly Wellness becomes the first of Utah's 14 medical cannabis pharmacies to open for business in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 2, 2020.

Pharmacy representatives say they were frustrated at having to turn away patient after patient seeking relief for severe medical conditions.

“We have plenty of product. We are not going to run out of product,” Hoang Nguyen, managing partner at Dragonfly, said in an interview Wednesday with FOX 13. “It’s just, we don’t have patients right now. It’s so heartbreaking to have to turn away these patients who come to our door and have the letter thinking they can come in and they can’t. We just can’t.”

Dragonfly Wellness has already cut back its operating hours since Monday, when representatives said the pharmacy would be open seven days a week. The business’ website now states it will be closed Sunday and Monday and open from noon to 8 p.m. the rest of the week.

Chokepoints have popped up at several points along the process of applying for a cannabis patient card, Hennessy said. For one thing, some have found it difficult to go back to previous pages and correct any mistakes, she said.

The physician signoff can also take time, she added, with some doctors reporting it took them 30 or 40 minutes to approve a single patient’s request. Then, after the patient completes the application, state health officials have up to 15 days to review it.

“The patients are here, they’re knocking at the door to get in,” Hennessy said. “We have industry ready to let them in. And the Department of Health is actively trying to figure out every spot that they can fix to make this more fluid.”

Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, confirmed that she’ll amend one of her existing bills, HB425, to enable patients to use their cannabis recommendation letters to purchase from marijuana pharmacies. The legislation would also make a number of other changes to the state’s cannabis law, such as allowing patients to renew their marijuana cards for up to a year at a time at their physician’s directive.

With the proposed change, Hennessy said patients would only be able to use their letters at one pharmacy. It’ll also be important for patients not to get too comfortable with their letters, since they’ll stop providing admittance to a pharmacy at the end of the year.

“Don’t just count this as your card,” she said. “We’re using this just to give doctors, providers and patients time to get on the system.”