Medical marijuana: 3,200 patient applications in limbo, may be tossed due to technicalities

Update 2 by Michael Roberts below: Today, the state board of health approved decreasing marijuana registry fees from $90 to $35, as anticipated -- and tweaks in language involving indigent patients and physician conditions and restrictions sailed through as well. But more intriguing was word that approximately 3,200 MMJ applications are currently being delayed -- and while officials didn't offer details about why, there are some theories.

Lower fees are expected to go into effect either later this year or early next year; we've placed a call to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment spokesman Mark Salley in the hope of getting a firm date, and when he responds, we'll post another update.

Meanwhile, William Breathes, who attended the meeting, reports that Ron Hyman, the Office of Vital Statistics and Medical Marijuana Registry's registrar and director, announced that "there are 3,200 applications currently on hold for some sort of restriction on the physician." Hyman added that patients whose applications are on hold won't be able to get answers about their status until after December 1.

What's the reason for the delay? Betty Aldworth, community relations director for Colorado Dispensary Services, another meeting attendee, says, "Our best guess is that there is some problem with the signature on the application or other information on the application."

For instance, she goes on, "I know of patients who have applied to the registry, and whose application is clearly among the 3,200 -- and a physicians assistant, rather than the physician, signed the paperwork."

Whether or not this particular technicality spurred the delay, the large number of applications in limbo likely explains why we've been getting reports about processing delays far longer than the 35 days or fewer the CDPHE has claimed in recent weeks. Aldworth says patients whose applications have the proper doctor signature and so on are indeed being turned around in a month or so. But thousands of other applications have lingered for two or three months -- some for even longer. And in her view, that's a major problem.

"We are particularly concerned that patients are being left out in the cold right now," she says. "There's a strong likelihood these applications will be denied and patients will either have to revisit the same physician or another physician in order to apply to the registry and start all over again. And in the meantime, they're not being given the opportunity to visit centers and purchase the medical marijuana they need."

Update 2, 2:46 p.m. November 16: Just heard from CDPHE spokesman Mark Salley. He confirms that the $35 fee will go into effect on January 1, 2012. Regarding the reason for a delay in the processing of approximately 3,200 patient applications, he says, "We are attempting to establish the validity of the physician signatures on the forms." This explanation would correspond with the theory voiced by Colorado Dispensary Service's Betty Aldworth -- that physicians assistants, rather than the doctors themselves, may have signed some documents. But a whole range of other possibilities could fit as well.

Look below for our initial coverage.

Original item by William Breathes, 6:59 a.m. November 16: Back in July, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment asked patients to write in and give their thoughts on dropping medical marijuana registry fees from $90 to $35. After roughly three months of no doubt pouring over the thousands of letters that resulted, Board of Health members will be making a pricing decision this morning at their monthly meeting.

Because of an increase in red-card holders over the last few years, CDPHE reps said more people are sharing the estimated $3.36 million cost of running the registry. However, officials estimated that the number would hold steady at about 120,000 patients, with roughly 20 percent of them having fees waived due to indigent status. When you do the math, about $35 apiece from the remaining 80 percent would cover the costs.

Does recent data showing patient registry totals dropping to around 102,500 in September change that? No -- or at least not yet.

CDPHE spokesman Mark Salley says the fee is evaluated every year and is based on the number of applications over the past year. If the patient registry ends up holding steady where it is or dropping off more, the Board of Health would make a change reflecting that a year from now.

The meeting starts at 10 a.m. in the Sabin-Cleere Room in the CDPHE offices at 4300, S. Cherry Creek Dr. According to the schedule, public comment on matters not on the agenda are first on the agenda; the actual rulemaking hearing for the change starts at 10:30 a.m. The Board will also debate changes that would clarify who qualifies for indigent status in the state as well as language concerning conditioned and restricted physicians licenses. In both cases, the tweaks are considered relatively minor clarifications of terms or vague language. You can view the proposals on the CDPHE website.

It is unclear if any more public testimony will be heard on the fee change at the meeting today, although Denver medical marijuana patients have been known to let their opinions be heard at CDPHE meetings whether there's a scheduled opportunity to do so or not.

Check back, as we'll update this post later today after the board has reached its decision.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Med. marijuana patient red card wait: 60 days & counting even though check cashed a month ago;" "Marijuana advocate on dubbing of Denver Police Chief Robert White as Captain Cannabis."

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William Breathes
Contact: William Breathes