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HARRISBURG – The public may soon know for the first time how many patients are using medical marijuana to treat opioid use disorder in Pennsylvania, one of the few states to specifically endorse this treatment option.
Spotlight PA was looking for this information when it reported on Tyler Cordeiro, a Bucks County man who was wrongly denied funding for addiction treatment because of his medical marijuana card. Cordeiro died of an overdose a few weeks later.
After the Department of Health refused to divulge the number – saying the state’s medical marijuana law “protects patient and care information” – the news organization reached out to the independent agency, which is settling disputes over public records with the Wolf administration .
The Office of Open Records ruled in Spotlight PA’s favor this month, instructing the health department to disclose how many patients are certified for cannabis under the state’s 23 qualifying conditions.
In ruling, the office rejected an argument by the Wolf administration that publishing the numbers would violate the confidentiality rules of the state medical marijuana law of 2016. At one point, health department attorneys suggested that disclosure of the information could result in criminal charges against an employee.
However, the director of the Office of Medical Marijuana, John J. Collins, had previously released similar information, including the number of people certified to use marijuana based on an anxiety diagnosis, and never had known consequences. In that case, a department spokesman later said the director responded “appropriately” to a question from a board member.
While Spotlight PA’s appeal was pending, the Office of Open Records ruled in favor of another news organization, CNHI, which requested information on how many medical marijuana patients are living in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.
“To mark the requested aggregate data as confidential would lead to an absurd result,” wrote Kyle Applegate, chief counsel for the office, in a final order dated July 15.
The data showed that more than 50,000 people registered for medical marijuana live in one of 29 rural counties with no medical marijuana dispensary.
Despite the CNHI ruling, the Ministry of Health continued to argue against the disclosure of aggregated data in the case of Spotlight PA’s open records. In a July 30 letter, the department cited a 2019 Commonwealth Court decision in which the court cited the confidentiality rules of the Crime Victims Act.
In this case, the court ruled against a person seeking data for people denied victim compensation. The Office of Open Records declined that settlement, saying that the Crime Victims Act has stricter confidentiality requirements than state medical marijuana law.
Spotlight PA also requested written policies or procedures describing how the agency tracks the use of its medical marijuana program. The health department claimed they didn’t have such information, but the Office of Open Records found the agency couldn’t prove it.
The Department of Health has until October 4th to submit the data breakdown and written guidelines requested by Spotlight PA or to appeal the decision to the Commonwealth Court. If the agency doesn’t either, Spotlight PA could seek an injunction to enforce the office’s final decision.
More than 633,000 patients and caregivers are enrolled in Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis program, according to information the Department of Health presented at the August Medical Marijuana Advisory Board meeting.
In 2018, former Pennsylvania Secretary of Health, Dr. Rachel Levine, an opioid use disorder added to her list of “Serious Disorders” Questioning One for the state’s medical marijuana program. According to state guidelines, cannabis should be used when other treatments have failed or are not advisable, or when other treatments are complementary. Pennsylvania’s approach to treating cannabis and opioid use disorders remains an outlier.
Two of Pennsylvania’s neighbors – New Jersey and New York, which also approved opioid use disorder as a qualifying condition for their medical cannabis programs – provided Spotlight PA with numbers without an open request for records.
In New Jersey, more than 2,200 of the state’s 115,000 registered cannabis patients were admitted for an opioid use disorder in July, a spokesman for the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission said.
In New York, more than 2,100 patients diagnosed with opioid use disorder were certified in its medical marijuana program from July 2018 to July 2021, according to a spokesman for the New York State Department of Health.
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